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Monday, June 18, 2007

The Ethics of Spousal Hiring

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In the good old days, when most women weren't in the academic job market, at least not for tenure-tracks, hiring was simple. Today, couples on the market have become standard. In government jobs, the hiring of a spouse or a significant other is often considered prohibited nepotism and dealing with a spouse as a government contractor may present conflicts of interests. In the academy, things have evolved dramatically. Here in Israel, where everything is relatively close by geographically, there are still restrictions in most universities, prohibiting the hiring of married couples for the same department. In the United States, hiring chairs have realized that without couple hiring strategies they are likely to loose many attractive candidates. In every law faculty today couples, married or not, are hired as a some sort of package deal. What are the ethics of couple hiring? How are decisions about a duo made in various law schools? I once heard one committee chair describe a precise formula -- you add the talents of each of the candidates together, divide the sum by two, and if the "score" is above the threshold you were aiming for, you hire both. Another committee chair has expressed the fear that couple hiring is problematic from a feminist perspective, as it is often assumed that the wife was hired thanks to her husband's talents. Others support the practice of couple hiring as a necessary development, but recognize the challenges it presents at the various stages of hiring and employment. For example, it is generally illegal to inquire into marital status during the employment interview. And when there are multiple couples in the same faculty, some fear that the voting strategies and decision making patterns can be affected by family relationships. Yet others have mentioned intimately that breakups are inevitable and divorcees in the same workplace present uncomfortable choices for their colleagues. Thoughts?

Posted by Orly Lobel on June 18, 2007 at 03:17 AM | Permalink

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Comments

One issue that seems to be lost in this discussion is that hiring a spouse who would not be hired on his or her own constitutes a kind of class discrimination against better-qualified candidates who were effectively not allowed to apply. Most of the arguments in favor of spousal hiring cite the "reality of couples in the market" but this seems specious to me; many historical and current forms of discrimination and even corruption have been justified by saying "this is reality." The very term implies that "I know this is not ideal--translate "wrong"--but circumstances require this approach. To focus on the "rights" or "needs" of the candidate couple is to deny the true right of other, often better-qualified candidates who do not happen to have an attractive spouse to have a shot at that job.

Posted by: Robert Gifford | Jun 13, 2008 4:02:02 PM

We welcome couples at the University of Miami School of Law and encourage them to apply. It's a bit tough, as the faculty only goes forward if it genuinely likes both members of the couple independently but that does make it easier once you are here.

I am half of what was then the fourth couple in the school's history -- which also means we didn't have to worry about setting precedents, people were used to the idea.

Any couples thinking they might like to come here -- whether entry level or more senior -- are welcome to contact me privately if they wish.

-Michael Froomkin

Posted by: Michael Froomkin | Jun 18, 2007 2:37:44 PM

I agree with the hiring chair Orly quoted as saying, "add the talents of each of the candidates together, divide the sum by two...." In one such context, I said I think you have to look at it that way, and the response I got from one faculty member was, "I don't like to look at it that way." Well, I don't like to think that I'll get fat if I keep up my preferred nothing-but-the-carbs eating habits, but it's reality.

If a school cites a "nepotism" principle to turn down a couple who would be a better pair of faculty members than two others, then that school is turning away good talent in favor of inferior talent.

This is to say that anti-nepotism rules can be viewed as a form of discrimination, too: turning away married academic couples based on some vague moralistic/ethical principle.

Posted by: Scott Moss | Jun 18, 2007 12:01:35 PM

But what do you think about changing "nefesh yehudi" to "nefesh Yisraeli" in the "HaTikvah"?

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Jun 18, 2007 11:27:01 AM

This is a very interesting issue. On the flip side of what Orly says, some studies suggest that anti-nepotism rules (in general, not particularly in academia) tend to hurt women, at least in part because women -- for various reasons -- often make less money than their spouses. So, if only one member of a couple can get a job in institution X. . . .

In academia, a worry can come up when hiring a couple who don't both have tenure. Obviously, it would be pretty difficult to grant tenure to one member of a couple and not the other. That's not a sufficient reason not to hire a couple, but it's a legitimate concern.

Finally, I think Orly overstates the law a bit in saying that "it is generally illegal to inquire into marital status during the employment interview." The point of anti-discrimination law in this context is to prevent discrimination on the basis of sex. It would violate the law if, say, male and female candidates were asked about their marital status, both said, "I'm married," and the decision-makers treated the women candidates more negatively than male candidates because of that answer. State laws can vary, and in many situations it's not good practice to ask about marital status, but I wouldn't say flatly that it's "generally illegal."

None of this actually answers Orly's question. I'll just say that here at Toledo, we don't have any specific policies on hiring couples. We did hire a couple a few years back (excellent folks, both), which prompted some discussion of the issues, but no official policies came out of it.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jun 18, 2007 10:44:54 AM

Another committee chair has expressed the fear that couple hiring is problematic from a feminist perspective, as it is often assumed that the wife was hired thanks to her husband's talents.

This isn't always true.

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Jun 18, 2007 10:11:03 AM

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