Academic recruitment procedures in Sweden are a mess. There are at least four strong contradictory forces that impact them.

  • Meritocracy. As Head of Department you are legally obliged to find and employ the most qualified person on the job market, even if it’s just for six months. This is after all the public sector.
  • Labour laws. As Head of Department you are legally obliged to give a steady job to anyone who has worked at your uni for a total of four semesters in the past five years, regardless of their qualifications.
  • Funding. As Head of Department you cannot give anyone a steady job unless you know how to pay them long-term. Else you will have to fire someone soon, which will get you into big trouble both with the Dean and with the labour union.
  • Nepotism. As Head of Department you want to employ your buddy Bengt. He can be a recent home-grown PhD whom you want to give a break. Or he can be an old stalwart that you’d be ashamed to meet in the departmental coffee room if you didn’t help him.

This is coming to a head in a big way. Five years ago it became mandatory to advertise even the shortest academic jobs, the ones that were typically quietly given to Bengt before. At least one Swedish university largely ignored this and has now endured official censure and much bad press. Academic leaders currently don’t seem to know what’s best practice. I’ve asked around with just one of the questions involved, and nobody in charge seems to know quite what the answer is.

Remember, as Head of Department, because of funding constraints you generally cannot allow anyone to pass the labour law’s four-semesters-in-five-years threshold and get automatic steady employment. But when you advertise a short contract, chances are high that the most qualified applicant will be so near the limit that the short contract would effectively mean automatic steady employment. How do you deal with this situation, even ignoring any impact of nepotism?

So far I’ve never seen any department say plainly that “We realise that Berit has by far the strongest qualifications, but because of the labour laws we will instead employ Nisse, despite his weak CV”. I have however seen a case where the department suddenly discovered and described many flaws in Berit that made her an unattractive candidate, despite the fact that they had happily employed her on a series of short contracts up until the day when the labour law’s limit came into sight.

Comments

  1. #1 John Massey
    June 27, 2017

    Oh yes, I am all too familiar with that game – you decide not to employ (or promote) the most deserving candidate for whatever reason, and then concoct perceived flaws in that candidate to defend yourself with, in the event that your decision is questioned, challenged or appealed against.

    If you are really clever (or have read Sun Tzu), you foresee the situation arising well ahead of time, and ‘manufacture’ the imaginary flaws in the candidate that you do not wish to employ/promote. Then when challenged, you can present the past record that supports what you are saying in defence of your decision.

  2. #2 Eric Lund
    June 27, 2017

    I don’t know how often this happens in Sweden, but one way to get around the public advertisement requirement is to write the job qualifications so narrowly that only your preferred candidate meets the qualifications. This happens often enough in the US that job seekers learn to detect such scams, and avoid applying for such positions.

  3. #3 Phillip Helbig
    Tyskland
    June 27, 2017

    This isn’t a problem only in Sweden. I have seen job ads which included “Mit der Bewerbung von Institutsangehörigen ist zu rechnen”, i.e. “Note that members of the institute will probably apply”, which means that it is already clear who will get the job. Often, the funding agency requires the name of the person who will be funded, but the institute requires that the position be advertized. Such a statement highlights the silliness, and saves everyone involved some time, but does also indicate that the person who gets the position didn’t get it in any type of fair competition.

  4. #4 Phillip Helbig
    Tyskland
    June 27, 2017

    Obviously, employing someone without funding can’t work. The labour laws are also good. The solution is to do away with the myth that academic research is done via projects staffed as needed by a pool of researchers waiting in the wings. All funding should go to permanently employed people. Have open and fair competition for permanent jobs and employ the people after they get their doctorate.

  5. #5 Martin R
    June 27, 2017

    Eric, we call that “shoe-size ads”. These days we react to them by reporting the department to the authorities.

    Phillip, staffing a research project offers its own conundrums. In the blog entry I’m referring to the department’s basic teaching positions.

  6. #6 JustaTech
    June 27, 2017

    Eric, the other trick with those ads, often used if you want to employ someone from outside the country, is to advertise the job in the most unlikely place, often the classifieds in the back of a small town weekly paper.

    It’s not dissimilar to the bit from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where “publicly posted” meant “behind door with sign declaring ‘beware of leopard’!”

  7. #7 Klavs Hansen
    Tianjin, P.R. China
    June 28, 2017

    There is yet another motivating factor in hiring a certain person: If you can form a strategic alliance with A and not B in the office politics world, A is your choice. Similar to but distinctly different from nepotism. And of course, it produces the same race-to-the-bottom spiral as nepotism.

  8. #8 Martin R
    June 28, 2017

    Yeah, nepotism may not be quite the right word for what we see in Swedish academia. It’s rare to see someone literally hire their nephew. Bengt is instead usually someone with whom the departmental establishment has a relationship of friendship, patronage or collaboration. Bengt may be the pupil of an important professor at another university, someone who may control important resources. It’s the compadre phenomenon, where an alliance is cemented not by me marrying your daughter, but by me becoming godfather to your newborn son. Little infant Bengt’s personal qualities and CV are not important there.

  9. #9 Eric Lund
    June 28, 2017

    If you can form a strategic alliance with A and not B in the office politics world, A is your choice.

    This phenomenon exists in the US as well. We call it the old boys’ network, because the perpetrators and beneficiaries of this practice are overwhelmingly likely to be male.

  10. #10 Sujay Rao Mandavilli
    June 30, 2017

    I am pleased to announce the launch of the Institute for the study of the globalisation of science (ISGOS)

    Sujay Rao Mandavilli

  11. #11 Unfair Academic Recuitment in Swedish Universities
    International
    July 3, 2017

    First they just sent choice of candidates to all. When people asked details then this! What is mess! in process of choosing near and dears!
    From umea uni:))
    Du har inte fått den befattning som 1-2 Universitetslektorer i datavetenskap med diarenummer AN 2.2.1-100-17 som du sökt. Anställningen har gått till N.N.
    >
    > >
    >Beslutet meddelades 2017-06-19 på Umeå universitets officiella anslagstavla och genom det här brevet.
    Unfortunately, I have received incorrect information so I have sent a notice of rejection the fixed case has not been decided yet. I apologize so much.
    You have not been rejected but still have the chance to get the job.

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