Monday, August 6, 2012

Late PFOs: Business as Usual

A little while ago, I got a nice but impersonal PFO letter from the HR department of the school that interviewed me at the APA. They wrote to let me know that I didn't get an on-campus interview, that they hired somebody else, and to encourage me to apply for other positions at their institution that might interest me. Of course, I already knew I didn't get the job when I didn't get the on-campus, and I knew I didn't get the on-campus when the wiki said other people were invited to campus and I didn't hear from them. Also, when the hire was announced on the Leiter jobs thread, that was a clue, too.

The thing that made this one stand out is that, at the interview, the lead interviewer specifically said that I would hear from them either way by a certain date. They made a point of saying that this wasn't going to be one of those things where they drop off the face of the earth. I didn't bring it up; they did. They went out of their way to emphasize it. This struck me as unusual. And then they dropped off the face of the earth, and then six or seven months later I got a form letter from their HR department.

I find this really galling, but maybe that's the wrong attitude. Maybe I should lighten up about this. It happens all the time, after all. But that's exactly what's so galling about it. This disregard for job applicants is such a normal thing that if you mention it whenever it happens then you end up mentioning it all the time—so much that you're the one who's annoying. And I don't want to be someone who doesn't find that galling.

But that doesn't mean I don't realize that I'm somewhat of a broken record about this. I realize that I write about it all the time and have been for years. You're probably sick and tired of reading my complaining, whiny posts about it. I feel the same way, frankly. I'm tired of this. I set this post aside several times as I was writing it. Not only have I said this a billion times before, but I can't imagine I'll ever say it better than I did here. What's the point?

Nevertheless, it seems to me that how search committees treat job candidates is a basic issue of some importance. So allow me to just reiterate. If you conducted a search this past season, you really ought to contact the people you interviewed but didn't hire to let them know you appreciate that they took the time to meet with you and to wish them well. You should especially do this if they spent their own money to travel to the interview. You should especially especially do this if you told them you would. You should definitely do this if the interview involved a trip to your campus. If you haven't done this already, you should do it now. If you are only doing it just now, you should probably also apologize for having taken so long to get around to it. And if you're not sure whether you've done it, you should make sure. It's only the decent thing to do.

--Mr. Zero

40 comments:

Anonymous said...

Here's the story I tell myself to keep from getting mad at interviewers who do this to me:

I assume they feel the exact same way. I assume that their school doesn't do a lot of searches, or those particular interviewers have never run a search before. I assume they start out feeling very strongly about treating me (and everyone else they ultimately want to PFO) with respect. And they go into the interview with that attitude. And they promise me, "We'll get back to you, either way, within two weeks" with absolutely every intention of keeping that promise. But then they find out that the HR department has really strict rules about how interviewees can be treated. They made a mistake making the promise, they realize, because some strange policies at their institution explicitly forbid them to tell me I wasn't chosen until the search is entirely finalized. And they are furthermore forbidden from sending me a personalized letter or giving me any feedback other than the standard PFO letter that the HR department writes for them. They have no way to let me know that they made an error. This of course also means that they cannot write me to let me know about their error--they are stuck, forced to break their promise and also forced never to apologize or explain to me that they recognize they broke their promise.

I'm never going to try to figure out if this is actually true or not for any particular school. I just like to tell myself it's true, so I don't get so angry at the interviewers who do it.

CTS said...

I concur with 12:35's speculation. AN additional point: even old hands may discover that their HR office has just decided on new rules (but, somehow, never told us).

Xenophon said...

So one piece of advice for people getting ready to conduct interviews this year is: talk to HR before you interview people, and get them to give you in writing the rules they'll expect you to follow. That way you don't promise anything you can't deliver.

Although I'll point out that, if you're tenured, there probably isn't anything HR can do to you if you violate some of their idiotic rules. So I wish faculty would have more balls than they seem to demonstrate in cases like this.

Related complaint: this year I got a rejection from HR weeks before I got it from the department. So uncool.

I don't see any reason why search chairs, if HR says they can't send out letters, or must send out offensive form letters, can't email candidates and say "HR is making us do xyz. It sucks, but what can we do? Anyway, they'll send out letters around this date: ___ . We just wanted you to hear from us first, out of respect for you, even though they're censoring us like the Chinese government only wishes it could do." Or something to that effect.

Anonymous said...

As a faculty member who has been the chair of a search committee, I have never heard of an HR department with the policy in question. I have heard of departments deciding not to send rejections to interviewed people until the position was filled (just in case!) - but in such cases, the decision was made at the departmental level, and not by HR. And I have heard of (and have had experience with) many departments that as a matter of course communicate immediately with candidates as soon as they are out of the running. In fact, my department is such a department.

Perhaps I'm wrong, but I strongly suspect that the problem here lies not with HR departments, but with overworked and all-too-human search chairs who simply put off unpleasant tasks (such as rejecting people) until the last possible moment.

Anonymous said...

My institution just reorganized its HR and now (as CTS says) it controls a lot of things departments did in the past. And one is sending PFOs. I don't know if SC/Chairs are even informed about how or when that happens. (I've served on 2 SCs since the change, and I certainly never heard anything.)

One de-humanizing effect of the business model for higher ed is trashing old fashioned methods deemed inefficient--such as taking time for courteous letters from the department. Any PFO is bad enough--an impersonal one so badly late is unforgiveable.

Mr. Zero said...

If you didn't send out personal PFOs because HR told you not to, here's my $0.02: 1. How would they know; and 2. who cares what they think?

Anonymous said...

Honestly, as someone having to come to grips with the harsh reality of 2012-13 without a full-time teaching job, the etiquette of PFOs is a relatively minor issue. If you do happen to have full time teaching next year, and you really are upset over this kind of rude and unprofessional academic communication, my advice is to think of that the next time you are tempted to blow off an email from one of your students.

Mr. Zero said...

If you do happen to have full time teaching next year, and you really are upset over this kind of rude and unprofessional academic communication, my advice is to think of that the next time you are tempted to blow off an email from one of your students.

I think that's fair.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Z--I'm 3:04.

I went through "training" for our new HR scheme (I'm part of a very large state university system recently overhauled by newly-elected Tea Party-friendly majorities). All the stated concerns stem from fears about litigation; departments were specifically instructed not to send out PFOs so that mixed messages would then be avoided. Could we do otherwise? In this harsh political climate the idiots seem to have the upper hand. Again, I am sorry that such things might have been operative in your case; perhaps that might be some solace beside the alternative that the department you were dealing with was staffed with a-holes.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps SC's could state in their JFP ads something to the effect of "Sorry, you didn't get the job." That way they only have to apologize to the one person who did land the job.

Anonymous said...

Compared to last year, I got a lot fewer PFO letters this year. This is an improvement in my view - I'd rather get no letter than an offensively bad letter. Nothing might even be better than an acceptable letter. But for the places where I did get interviews this year, I got very nice PFO letters. This is also better than last year - the two places that interviewed me last year completely blew me off after the interview. In sum, I'd rather not get a letter from places that don't interview me; But if you interview me, please do me the courtesy of telling me to FO in a minimally decent and personal way.

Anonymous said...

"If you didn't send out personal PFOs because HR told you not to, here's my $0.02: 1. How would they know; and 2. who cares what they think?"

These are pretty naive questions. They would know because some embittered candidate who wants to stir up trouble complains that he/she already got a PFO. And SC's care about this because (at my school, anyway) an HR person can invalidate the whole search process if there has been any appearance of impropriety.

Anonymous said...

To Xenophone and others:

here is what the HR people can do to you: they can shut down your search!

Anonymous said...

Sorry to distract from the current conversation, but has anyone figured out when the first job ads of the season will be posted by the APA (whether in the official JFP or in the online ads)? The APA is transitioning to an online-only operation this year, I believe, and I can't quite decipher what the website says re: the schedule.

Anonymous said...

"The thing that made this one stand out is that, at the interview, the lead interviewer specifically said that I would hear from them either way by a certain date."

The problem here is the vagueness. When I serve on searches, I am more explicit. I tell applicants what our timeline is for decisions, and that if they are invited to campus for an interview, they will hear by a certain date. I am not in control over when I can tell applicants they have been rejected (HR makes those rules). I can only tell applicants when they will hear good news.

Similarly, after the on-campus interviews, I tell applicants when they can expect to hear from us *if they are offered the job.*

Now, this doesn't mean that hearing nothing by those dates mean you won't get the job. In the first case, it means you were not in our top 3 for campus interviews. Similarly, in the second case, it only means we made the offer to someone else first. In both cases, circumstances may change and you may be contacted again with good news.

CTS said...

"They would know because some embittered candidate who wants to stir up trouble complains that he/she already got a PFO. And SC's care about this because (at my school, anyway) an HR person can invalidate the whole search process if there has been any appearance of impropriety." (anon 6:49)

In our case, it was not an angry candidate who tried to make trouble but a nice one who sent HR an email saying something about the very nice phone call from me that he had received about a month prior. I got called into the Prez's office and dressed down. When I pointed out that we had no idea of any new rules, I was told that the rule had been implemented (was 'in place') but not yet disseminated via the Chairs meeting because there had not been one since the implementation. Mea culpa.

Anonymous said...

I did not know it was possible to reject a rejection letter.

http://school.failblog.org/2012/02/04/homework-class-test-rejection-rejection-university/

Anonymous said...

While I honestly don't care about PFOs, the one thing that pisses me off is the sheer hypocrisy of academia concerning them.

I have NEVER applied to any position in the evil capitalist private sector that did not have the common courtesy of sending a PFO. Yet, when it comes to good progressive academia, such a courtesy is upheld by...what...1 in 3 schools? Less in my experience. Hell I've had interviews that apparently never happened!

I guess when you have 300+ applicants for a position, you don't feel a need to treat them with respect

Xenophon said...

To 8:38 and CTS: you may be right that HR calls the shots at your institutions. But it seems to me that if you want the administration to treat faculty with respect, you need to start by treating potential faculty with respect. You remember what it was like in grad school, right? Schools that wanted you would fly you out and make you feel wanted, then once you arrived you were at the bottom of the pile all of a sudden. If an institution disrespects people they're trying to recruit, you can't expect them to be any better to the people they hire.

So again, my 2 cents is: have some balls and at least make your displeasure with the rules clear rather than doing what so many faculty do: trying to avoid trouble because, hey, you've got a job, and you don't want to create any trouble for yourself.

Also, learn what the rules are before you start the search and communicate these clearly to potential hires.

As for CTS' comment: I assume when you said "mea culpa," it was in the voice of the president, right? After he called you in and dressed you down for a rule they hadn't disseminated, I hope he felt like shit, right?

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but I just don't get it. Who cares? Are people really that desperate to get the professional equivalent of an "it's not you, it's me" break-up note. What's next, calling the departments months later after more than a few drinks and asking them what went wrong? Move on already...

Anonymous said...

"What's next, calling the departments months later after more than a few drinks and asking them what went wrong?"

Actually, this has already started happening. A friend at another institution told me that last year, a rejected applicant called to ask what he could do to improve his chances at getting hired next year.

Personally, I would like to see that rejected applicants get letters (we do send them out to all applicants, though likely not as quickly as applicants would like), and I'd even like those letters to be (somewhat) personalized. To everyone we reject immediately for being unqualified, I'd like that reflected in their rejection letter. To all who were qualified, but were not strong enough to be interviewed, ditto. And I'd like all who have been interviewed to be told why they didn't, in the end, get the job. I think it would help people on the market, in a variety of ways. (Some people should be told, "no, you are in no way qualified for this position." Others should be told, "you interview poorly, and are inept at expressing yourself in a clear and capable manner." Etc. But given how much time that would take, it will never happen.)

CTS said...

@Xenophon:

"As for CTS' comment: I assume when you said "mea culpa," it was in the voice of the president, right? After he called you in and dressed you down for a rule they hadn't disseminated, I hope he felt like shit, right?"

Hahaha. :-}

In our case, it was a shift from depts being in charge to an [unannounced] takeover by HR. NOW, of course, if we were to do a search, we would run our little selves over there and make sure of both the extant rules and any possible changes in the wind.

I certainly agree with all who say that there should be a timely response for all applicants.

We usually have sent 'no thank you/no interview letters out as soon as we had our interviewee list (we tend to go big so as not to have to return to someone we did not initially include). Then, we would go to letters to people about having a slate of on-sites. Once someone has been to campus, I perfer a phone call to tell them if they did not get the position.

The Faculty did manage to push back on calling people who came to campus. but not on the first round and conference interviewee letters. It has pissed off most of us (except those so lazy as to be glad to be free of this terrible burden.) It is, however, one of the many efforts towards 'professionaliztion' in our Board approved Strategic Plan. Gack.

CTS said...

@11:13:

Aside from the time problem in sending out somewhat personalized letters to everyone, I think there are some other difficulties. "You are not qualified" is probably too vague, and spirit crushing, to be useful to anyone.

Personally - though I may be a coward - I would not want to write post-interview letters stating such things as 'We found you really odd," "You could not explain your thesis so even our specialist could make heads or tales of it," or "Your incredible arrogance put us off," even if they are true.

yoda said...

10pm is wrong: It is exceedingly common in many non-academic fields to never be notified that the position has been filled -- even after being explicitly told that you'll be notified. (I'm guessing that 10pm, like most academics, comes from an upper-middle-class background?)

Given the relative frequency of this sort of thing in other settings, this complaint strikes me as a bit naive. (Though, Mr. Zero, I do understand the need to vent about stuff when times are tuff.)

Anonymous said...

@5:41

You guessed wrong.

Perhaps my own experience is not entirely indicative, but it certainly made an impression on me. I was shocked my first year out on the market.

As I said, I don't really care about PFOs personally, but neither do I take the "Move on already" line. They are a courtesy and a very minimal sign of respect given to an applicant by acknowledging his or her existence.

In this age of essentially free email, the only reason for not sending out PFOs is not wishing to convey that small modicum of respect.

I find that reprehensible.

Anonymous said...

@1:50.

It is possible to give people helpful, informative reasons they were rejected without revealing everything or being offensive. "We found you odd" = "Your credentials were impressive, but we found that other impressive candidates would fit better in the life of our department."

"You could not explain your thesis..." = "Your presentation -- though impressively rigorous -- could have come across more clearly to our specialists, though I cannot be sure how much difference that made."

"Your incredible arrogance put us off" = "Your incredible arrogance put us off."

And so on.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Zero. Keep complaining. You're right to do so.

But I don't think anything will be done about the offending departments have something to fear from being jerks.

We should have a site that ranks and shames them, which will also collect complaints and publicize them only when two or more react to the same departments (this way we protect the complainer).

Thoughts?

Anonymous said...

12:05 PM here.

Wahhhhhhhh!

(Previous post: "Sorry to distract from the current conversation, but has anyone figured out when the first job ads of the season will be posted by the APA (whether in the official JFP or in the online ads)? The APA is transitioning to an online-only operation this year, I believe, and I can't quite decipher what the website says re: the schedule.")

Anonymous said...

@11:13
Details should never be given to failed applicants. First of all, departmental meetings at which candidates are discussed are often confidential. Even if they weren't confidential, you will risk having some applicants arguing back about their qualifications and some perhaps even suing the university for discrimination if they think the reasons given for their rejection are suspicious. I was once a rejected internal candidate in a department where I had some colleagues who really wanted to hire me. Even though I personally spoke with those colleagues about the reasons the department vote went against me, no one could tell me anything. I understood that, although it was frustrating.

Anonymous said...

Two additional reasons that SCs may not be able to give rejected candidates insight about why they weren't chosen are (1) the SC may have split on their view of a candidate who for that reason just couldn't muster enough votes even though some SC members thought the candidate was the best; (2) the reason may actually not be a good one at all (e.g., the old lecherous profs wanted to hire a pretty face; the dept. chair insisted we hire someone from her alma mater, etc.).

Anonymous said...

This is amusing. It seems that people very much want timely PFO letters, but they want them to be vague and unhelpful. Academics are a funny bunch.

Xenophon said...

I'd be happy to receive Soup Nazi PFOs: "Dear Candidate, no job for you."

They'd be quick and easy to send out. Why can't departments at least do that?

Anonymous said...

@Anon 2:31

I disagree. I was recently passed over for a job at school where I have some personal connection to the professor directing the SC. I thought it would be prudent to ask for advice on what, if anything I could do to strengthen my dossier for future applications. I received excellent advice as a result that I would not have gotten otherwise. In doing so of course I learned why i was passed over. Of course, I didn't take the opportunity to argue the SC decision. I cannot imagine anyone doing that. And the professor did not have to give me ANY specifics about the decision process or selection criteria.


What's wrong with this picture? Am I missing something? I don't see a downside.

Anonymous said...

@10:08
2:31 here. Sure, there's probably no harm in asking if you have a personal connection. You might get useful info or you might not. My point was that it's almost always imprudent to share with a candidate the reasons for the candidate's rejection, unless those reasons are obvious and entirely justifiable (e.g., you don't have a Ph.D., you're not in Philosophy, distant AOS etc.). The thing is there's no upside to sharing that information with candidates, unless (as in your case) there is a personal connection. Unless I did know the candidate personally, I'd be annoyed to get requests for reasons why a candidate was rejected. The smarter approach for the candidate is to wait until you can find out who they hired and figure out why that person might have appealed to them. I've actually learned a lot that way.

Anonymous said...

@10:08

Legal liability is the downside. That's also why PFOs either don't get sent out, or are utterly generic.

Anonymous said...

On asking why you weren't hired:

This point has been made in passing above, but I want to emphasize that members of a search committee often do not agree about candidates. In the end they have to speak with one voice, but that speech act often reflects political compromises that have nothing to do with the candidates.

So even if some committee member wanted to explain to you why you were not hired, the real explanation often may not make sense to you, or may be at best fundamentally misleading, or may embarrass the department (as the committee member can easily see). If you ask for this 'information,' your request will often amount to an invitation to bullshit.

I was myself this naive while on the job market, so I don't mean to cast aspersions. But asking a search committee member why you weren't hired manifests a fundamental cluelessness about academic life.

(By contrast, I don't think there's anything wrong with asking a friend who has seen your file if it has any "red flags" etc. That's different: the friend, qua friend, won't be speaking for the hiring department.)

Anonymous said...

Also,

The Search Committee is the *first* decision-making step in hiring; they do not have the last word.

In some departments, the SC presents its recommendation to the department, and the department votes on that recommendation. (My department works this way.) Then the dean, provost, and (sometimes) the university president can weigh in. Any of those administrative levels can reject a candidate that a SC (or department) decides on. (It's actually amazing how many candidates meet with administration and forget that they have academic backgrounds, and some of them still maintain an active research agenda.

Point: sometimes, the SC doesn't have the answer as to why you didn't get hired (except to say, "administration vetoed our decision).

zombie said...

Mr Zero is not suggesting that PFOs should necessarily be sent to everyone who applies for a position. Given the large numbers these days, anything more than a cursory, generic, mass email PFO would be implausible. Some schools still fight the good fight and send out actual snail mail PFOs to all applicants, but this is rare.

No, I think Mr Zero is saying that depts that have actually interviewed candidates owe those candidates a minimally decent PFO in a timely manner. And that as the candidate progresses through the interview process, and as promises are made about notifications, the obligation to send that minimally decent PFO increases. That's realistically a couple dozen people at most.

The only consolation I ever got out of a generic mass PFO was finding out just how many people I was competing against. It's somehow better to know there were 500 of us (I am legion!), and worse to get a first-round interview and lose out to a dozen (so close!), and even worse to get the on-campus and come up short against three other people (I'm good! But not good enough.). I guess that has something to do with getting one's hopes up only to have them crushed under the pitiless bootheel of rejection.

Anonymous said...

Relevant to this thread, the worst PFOs are like the one I just got today from Case Western Reserve. The header included the names and email addresses of all the rejected applicants. This was the fault of the administrative assistant, who was listed as sender, not the dept. chair. at Case. At least I can rejoice that I don't have to spend the winter in Cleveland.

Frank O'File said...

12.56 : ─░deally, the subject-line in the email should be something like 'failures' or 'rejects' (as once happened to me)