Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Yes, and so do your employees!

My earlier post got me to thinking, which I had plenty of time to indulge while I had new tires and new brake rotors installed on my trusty steed, about something that occurred to a colleague of my wife. Our friend had been doing the post-doc scramble for her next job, which was going to be an academic, i.e. vice a post-doctoral position. As anyone who's familiar with this situation is aware, there are zero guarantees that you'll find a job when you venture out into the world looking for a "real" position. If you're focusing on getting a job in academia the uncertainty associated with this is even more acute, and this was the case with our friend.

As things unfolded, after a number of interviews and some angst over where things were going to go, our friend was finally offered a job in a small college where they were interested in starting a program that she specialized in. This was not what you'd term an ideal position inasmuch as the preference would be to go to a school where there's already an established and well-regarded program, but on the whole this would be considered the next best thing. Things were settled with her and plans were being made to make the move this summer and start in this new position.

About a month later, our friend very unexpectedly receives a call from a much larger school, one with an established and a reputable program in her field, and the school is located very near to her and her husband's hometown. Moreover the location would make it that much easier for her husband to find a job, something that was a matter of concern with the accepted position. This university wants to interview her for a position that they have, would she be willing to come in for an interview? Now here's where I had a problem with where this went. She told the person calling that she couldn't do the interview because she had accepted a job (indeed, she even had a contract which she'd signed) with another institution, ergo she didn't feel it was appropriate to come out for an interview. It was apparent she was conflicted about her response given her discussions with colleagues in the lab after the call. Her belief at that point was that she'd made a deal to come work for college X, therefore she was not in a position to come work for university Y. Very ethical, very high-minded, and very out of touch with reality as far as I was concerned.

Here's my thinking on this: Yes, college X has a contract with her, but it's not for indentured servitude, she's not locked into working for them come hell or high water. Telling college X that she can't take the job after telling them she would certainly would present an inconvenience for the college, and it likely would upset people there, but let's be real here, they'd have months to find a replacement as the position doesn't officially start until September. Whose interests should she be looking out for, her own and her family's, or college X's? Moreover, going for an interview didn't mean that she would automatically be leaving college X at the altar --- she wasn't a shoo-in for the job at University Y so the interview would very likely have been nothing more than an exercise in experience, which is a perfectly valid thing for a young scientist, or young anyone for that matter, to do. So from an ethical perspective looking out for her own interests and obtaining the experience even if nothing else happened more in my mind more than trumped any consideration for college X. Interestingly enough someone else in the lab felt that our friend's response was the correct one.

My thinking when all this happened was that college X has its interests and she has her own, and it's great if they happen to intersect but her interests and those of her family should always trump the interests of the employer. Why? Because the employer cannot be counted on for loyalty. United, as I laid out in my earlier post today, certainly has proven this, though I'm sure the issue with United isn't quite that clear cut. But really, the bottom line comes down tot his: If jobs have to be cut and yours happens to be an eminently losable job, it's more often than not lost regardless of however many hours you may have invested in the institution you work for, however many great deeds you've done for that institution, or however much you may be otherwise liked by those you worked with. The bottom line defines your life in the mind of the institution or company, and this is now more so than it has ever been before, and it's important that people have that same perspective in mind when they look at their future with regard to the current or perspective employer.

Our friend called back and said she'd re-thought her situation and asked to in fact come in for the interview. It's likely not unreasonable to feel that given the reason she gave for not initially taking the interview that their thinking would be why should they bother? Well, regardless, they did ask her to come in for the interview and paid her way out there for it, and at this point she's still waiting for their verdict on where things will go. Maybe in the end this will all work out, surely stranger things have happened.

It's a shame that our professional existences are more and more inclined to our having to be mercenary in our perspectives as it certainly did seem to be better when there was a sense of mutual loyalty out there which fostered something more than a standard employee-employer relationship. Maybe that "something more" thing was actually a fiction, and today the realities are just more harshly portrayed and easily conveyed through the multitude of information mediums we're bombarded with. It's sobering, and it makes me long for something better.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My take on it is this: At the end of the day, all you really have is your own personal integrity. Beliefs such as "my word is my bond," are what carry you through when everything around you is falling to crap. Its what separates the gentlemen from the barbarian, the scholars from the trash. If she signed a contract, than she is honour bound to fulfill the terms. If the shoe was on the other foot, and she was informed that the University had found a more qualified candidate after making an agreement with her, than would that be OK? She is free not to renew, and to catch the next opportunity at the more convenient location.
This is what I don't understand, almost everyone stands up before God and their relatives, and PLEDGES their trou, and form a life partnership. Then as soon as it isn't fun, they quit and start looking for someone better, to whom they can make their false promises.
I say, do what you say, or don't say anything.

8:28 PM  
Blogger James said...

I think you're right, there are times when you have to rely on the word of the person you're doing business with, but then you have a reasonable expectation of the same sort of loyalty from the person you're doing business with. An employment contract merely says you agree to come to work for someone, and in this case the contract was not for a position leading to tenure so it has professional limitations associated with it. I believe this person has an interest for herself and her family that exceeds what she owes to an employer. Today employers more and more demonstrate to thier employees that loyalty downwards is not at all reciprocal, or at times even much of a consideration.

Your example of the university finding someone else more capable is an apt one, but what's the difference between that and the university telling her that she's not going to be renewed for the following year? One is surely not as capricious as the other, but the end result is still the same.

Some commitments are different, but how that line is drawn I'm honestly not sure. I don't think you're entitled to bail out on your spouse simply because it's not fun anymore --- but that vow was a reciprocal vow, intended for life, and intrinsically has more meaning to it and should be given more consideration and effort than what you owe an employer who is more and more apt to let you go at the slightest hint of your being an expenditure more than they can or are otherwise willing to make. Marriage vows, and certain other matters of one's word, mean more than other commitments which are made as the best choice of the moment, but possibly not the best choice in the long term for those you have responsibilities to, and it's the latter consideration that I think takes more precedence.

9:15 PM  

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