An Ethical Dilemma in Hiring

I found this really curious dilemma at Thoreau’s blog and decided to borrow part of it.

The dilemma is as follows. You have two candidates applying for the same position. Are you more likely to choose one of them based on the information provided below?

  • Applicant 1 indicates in her research plan that because of unique equipment needs she will require a very large start-up package, more than twice what would be normal for your field and your type of institution, in order to successfully carry out her research program.  However, it is likely that this research program could involve more students than most other applicants.
  • Applicant 2 indicates in her research plan that she would require a normal-sized start-up package.  However, during the interview, she informs you, of her own accord, that she cannot accept the job unless you also hire her husband into a similar position.  The cost of hiring Applicant 2 and her husband would be about the same as the cost of hiring Applicant 1.  The number of students involved in their programs combined might be slightly large than the number who could work in Applicant 1’s lab.

I would have no interest whatsoever in hiring Applicant 2, to be honest. This is a person who thinks that her place of employment exists to solve her non-work-related issues. This is never a good sign. She supports nepotism, which is bound to manifest itself in a variety of other aspects of her work.

It is not acceptable for an employer to pry into a candidate’s personal life. Questions like, “Are you married? Are you planning to? Are you planning to get pregnant within the next five years? Is your partner male or female?” are completely off-limits to an employer, which is just as it should be.

However, this should go both ways. If an employer isn’t entitled to bring the applicant’s personal life into the equation, I think the applicant should also abstain from making their private issues part of the discussion.

All of these reasons would make me lose interest in candidate 2 very fast.

What do you think?

33 thoughts on “An Ethical Dilemma in Hiring”

  1. “The cost of hiring Applicant 2 and her husband would be about the same as the cost of hiring Applicant 1.”

    I know this may be a hypothetical example, but still, the cost of equipment and lab stuff is mostly a one-time cost, but the cost of hiring the husband will continue in perpetuity. In any case, applicant 1 and it’s not even close.


  2. Universities that are willing to hire the spouse of a desired faculty member simply in order to make the initial hire are unlikely to rise in the ranks. The decision demonstrates a disregard for academic quality and a contempt for the students who will suffer under incompetent instruction. Such willingness such deter the better qualified spouse from accepting the position, if that person prefers academic excellence to a convenient domestic arrangement. Universities are not meant to be social centers, but institutions of learning and teaching.


  3. I was asked at every single interview if I was married (presumably because I wear a wedding ring) and what my husband does. Employers are not supposed to ask that, yet they do. Most of the time it was an introduction to telling me that the department is family-friendly and the city is a nice place to raise children.

    The employer helping with spousal placement is part of the package. If you are partnered and your partner cannot find work close to where yours is, you may leave soon, and that factors into the risk assessment performed by the university. My husband is not a professor, he has a staff position with the university, but without the university making sure he got this job it would be very hard for him to find another job in the area and I would likely not have taken this position. The promise of spousal placement was a major attractor when I was contemplating between different offers. Industry routinely helps with spousal job placement.

    Often, solving a couple’s “two-body problem” (I know you hate this term, but it’s a physics term denoting the dynamics of two interacting bodies and it simply stuck…), i.e. finding jobs for a dual-career couple at the same place is actually an excellent way for lesser schools to attract quality talent. Once you got them both it’s very hard for them to leave.

    People who are vehemently against spousal hiring (assuming both hires are faculty positions) erroneously assume that the “trailing spouse” is always bad. That is very rarely true, especially if they are both assistant professors. Usually, one spouse will be “trailing” at some places, the other at others. In my experience, the spouse is only ever hired if s/he is really good too; I have seen a number of situations where the department says “the spouse is no good, it’s not worth it, we won’t hire them.” So once the dual hire is made, typically they are both very good.


    1. Nice points. I, too, made the assumption that ‘trailing’ spouse is always of an inferior quality. In the light of your comment I’d have to revise my vote from Candidate 1 to ‘It Depends’.


  4. I knew a couple who got offers from two different decent universities and then confronted both universities with the two-body problem. As far as I know, both universities were willing to hire both of them, so the couple even got to choose where to go…


  5. I agree with GMP. I think we are all assuming that the husband was not qualified to do that job. As we don’t know, candidate #1 would be my choice for fear of making a mistake hiring an unqualified person for the field. However, if the spouse is qualified candidate #2 is the one I would hire. However, even though they are exceptions, mostly in R1 institutions, universities won’t normally hire unqualified spouses. (Yes, I also know cases of unqualified spouses hiring, don’t you guys worry! , but I also know of highly qualified spousal hiring)
    My last thought is that if someone is in academia and will split his or her marriage for a slightly better position at a prestigious university, or for a slightly better paid job, I believe that person should consider divorce as a wise option right away. It will come sooner or later.


  6. As a small business owner I think it should be required to tell your employer whether or not you are pregnant or are planning to get pregnant in the immediate future. A comparison can be made in regards to athletes that hide an injury. This would definately impede there performance at some point(sooner than later). Why shouldnt an employer be privy to such important information that would cost them financial and time resources?


    1. Ah, here we go with pregnancy as disability agenda. 🙂

      A colleague of mine just gave birth while pulling a greater teaching load than all of us, finishing her dissertation, doing a lot of service, and being more energetic, productive and active in her 10th month of pregnancy than I am without ever being pregnant.

      I also remember my sister being the top earner for her entire team the week before her delivery date.


      1. Not all jobs are like teaching. In fact, if you look at the analogy I used I cant see very many pregnant individuals competing in a high end athletic career in their final trimester. 😉
        Its not a disability but a genuine limitation that will cost the employer on two fronts. 1. they have to train said individual to be part of the team and. 2. they have to now train the replacement. How in any scenario is that fair for the employer?


    2. I almost agree with you. If someone is pregnant, that may be a determining factor. But planning on getting pregnant? That could take 15 yrs to come to fruition! Would you really throw away a great candidate because of something that might happen? That doesn’t seem like a sound business decision.

      As for those that are pregnant – it’s really a short window in an otherwise potentially long career path. Leaving six months later to have a baby is probably better than leaving 8 months later for a better job/more money/different location. . . . the reasons people leave an employ are nearly infinite. Pregnancy is just one of many – and many come back more committed!


    1. It’s about being able to make fair decisions based on the merits of the person being hired. I admit, it’s not an easy solution – I would be reluctant to hire a pregnant woman exactly for the reasons you state – the learning curve may mean that they won’t be useful to the organization until after their off on maternity. But would you ask a man the same question? Therein lies the inequity. Some jurisdictions (Canada, being one) have maternity and paternity leave. The father is just as capable to be off for 4-5 months as the mother will be. Would you ever ask a male applicant if his wife/girlfriend (both) are pregnant? As far as I’m aware, paternity leave in Canada isn’t limited to married couples – as long as your a father, you can go. And what about adoption? Do you ever ask if an applicant is planning on adopting? I’ve known people in the system for a decade before they adopt. Like I said, there are many things which will throw a monkey wrench into your business plans – being able to punish a woman because she’s visibly pregnant, whereas the other issues are not so visually apparent, is a fundamental wrong.


  7. You are right, Patrick has some good points. Unfortunately(here in Canada) there are individuals who take advantage of this. I have several clients who time their pregnancies without the employer knowing and they are always left with the costs. I guess its ok if its unfair to employer but not to the pregnant women, right? By the way, the pregnancy in itself is where the limitation comes in to play for certain jobs, not all. I think in these instances the employer should be given the benefit of being able to weigh out their possible expenses so as to make healthy and wise economic decisions for their business.


    1. You have a point about the costs falling upon the employer, but for me that isn’t an argument in favour of allowing employers to discriminate against pregnant and potentially pregnant women, it’s an argument in favour of government mandated and sponsored maternity/paternity leave.


      1. Im not sure how you see it as discrimination. I see it more like, in several months this person wont be able to do the job, on what level does it make any sense for me to hire them? Would you not agree that would be a prudent business decision?


        1. “I see it more like, in several months this person wont be able to do the job”

          – But what makes you think that, exactly? I;m giving you one example after another of top earners and superproductive employees who are not deterred from working by pregnancy.


      2. Clarissa

        I acknowledge your position in regards to certain types of jobs but not all jobs would be possible in the third trimester or even the second trimester for that matter. Think about it, working in the oil fields, picking tobacco, moving furniture………etc. To deny the employers the option in certain cases, in my mind, is unconscionable. Unlike a physical disability, where denying a job would be dicrimination, pregnancy is a choice. A choice that potentially puts the future employer at risk for financial loss.


        1. The thing is that I completely support the right of private business owners to hire whomever they please for whatever reason they please if and only if we are talking about an actual private business. That is, a place that gets no governmental handouts, grants, bailouts, special tax breaks, etc. All I’m talking about is the fact that an employer might lose out if s/he relies on weird stereotypes of pregnancy as an illness. But I don’t dispute the business owner’s right to hire as s/he pleases, of course.


  8. Much as I hate nepotism, I like the idea of job sharing and would like to see it catch on. Although this looks more like package dealing than job sharing.


      1. Job sharing is, just as an example, where a role that would normally be fulltime, 40hours per week, is given to two people doing 20 hours pw. Or 10/30. Or 25/15.
        They have shared responsibility for delivering the results required from the role, so it differs from having two part-timers, who would each individually only be responsible for their own position’s responsibilities.


        1. We are talking about academic positions where this is obviously not a possibility.

          In any case, I am completely opposed to casualization and promotion of contingency as a regular practice.


  9. There really isn’t any ethical dilemma at all. Applicant 2 is a straight out nepotist and we shouldn’t allow it; there is no internal debate to be had. Anyone of principle will hire Applicant 1.


  10. Do people actually try this? Trying to force an employer to also hire their spouse, I mean. I have no idea since I have no experience with the “real world,” as they call it.


    1. I witnessed it happen too many times. And in really fancy schools, too. I have also seen a department that became the dumping ground for all these spouses, children, friends, etc. That, of course, destroyed the department very soon.


  11. Stringer Bell :

    Nice points. I, too, made the assumption that ‘trailing’ spouse is always of an inferior quality. In the light of your comment I’d have to revise my vote from Candidate 1 to ‘It Depends’.

    This isn’t about the quality of the spouse as a scholar. This is about hiring somebody who doesn’t distinguish between the personal and the professional. Tomorrow, they will split up and it will be “don’t dare give tenure to this jerk, or I will leave” or “my niece wants to be accepted into our graduate program, so we need to do it for my sake” or “my best friend is unemployed and we have that adjunct position”, etc.

    I have seen a really good department become transformed into this extended family where everybody was somehow related and was constantly in each other’s business because the family environment was carried from home to work and back.

    Is anybody willing to venture a guess where this department is today? Right you are, it doesn’t exist any more.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.