Imagine sitting at a table with six fellow members of a search committee and feeling relieved that after a fair amount of debate and voting, the group has finally settled on the top three finalists — or so you think. “I really hate to do this,” says your colleague to the left, “and I thought maybe the process would play itself out so I wouldn’t have to, but I feel obligated.”
“Obligated to do what?,” you ask.
“Obligated to tell you that Susan tends to sleep with her grad students,” your colleague replies. “It’s been a serious problem in her current department, so I’m sure that’s why she is looking to make a move.”
This, of course, prompts half of the group to call for Susan’s candidacy to be tossed out and the other half to question whether the grad students are in her lab, which would be very, very bad, or just grad students in the department, which seems possibly okay in a creepy kind of way.
After a few minutes of spirited conversation, you, being ever so practical, inquire, “What’s the source of your information?”
The response? Wait for it … wait for it … “I’m sorry,” your colleague replies. “I was sworn to secrecy.”
What’s a search committee to do? It is entirely possible that the allegation was made to sabotage Susan’s candidacy, so immediately eliminating her from the finalist list would be a bad decision. But what if the claim is actually true and Susan continues her bad behavior once she gets to your campus? What if you could have prevented this with a little due diligence and didn’t?
For the most part, facts tend to be verifiable, so I’d urge the committee to develop a strategy to uncover the truth that does not involve asking Susan about her relationship history — a line of inquiry almost guaranteed to cause even bigger problems. These kinds of situations surface all the time, so a conversation with your human-resources or legal department, or the office that handles sexual-harassment claims can be helpful.
Have you ever served on a search committee in which a member provided “off the record” information? Or, have you ever called a reference only to be given scandalous information that was accompanied by, “and you should know I will deny this conversation if you give anyone my name”? How did you handle it?