The Tale of the Disappearing Job Offer

A philosopher with a tenure-track job applied for a position at another university. The application and interview process went well, and he got the offer. And then he didn’t get the offer.

The candidate says:

I just went through an absolutely wild experience where I was given a verbal offer for a position. [Over the course of several weeks] the chair continually repeated to me, “the written offer is coming in a few days.” Then, over five weeks later, I was in fact told that no formal offer was going to come.

He says that the reason is not that funding for the position vanished or that the search was canceled. He doesn’t know the precise reason, but says “I can only assume the chair was lying to me while they locked down someone else.”

He wrote in to share the story, curious about how common this is.

It is unusual for this kind of thing to happen, and it ought not to happen. As for why things like this happen, my default background view is Hanlon’s Razor: don’t assume malice when incompetence will do. But also, some forms of incompetence are professionally irresponsible.

It may be that the chair was foolish in thinking things were settled before they really were, and then was too embarrassed to communicate this before circumstances forced them to. Or it could be that the department voted the candidate the offer but for some reason a dean or someone else higher up surprisingly didn’t approve (and perhaps for some reason completely unrelated to the candidate’s qualifications). And so on.

In short, there are a variety of ways in which what ends up officially happening with a search is not what the search committee or department decided to do.

Search committee members, department chairs, and anyone else providing informal updates to job candidates should know this. And they should know that professional ethics at the very least here recommends that they be transparent about the contingency of job “offers” before they are in writing and in the possession of the candidate.

Of course, it may be that the actual explanation in this case is that the chair was intentionally conveying to the candidate a false impression of his chances as a way of keeping him interested while the department looked at other applicants or made up their minds. That’s not incompetence. That’s being sleazy.

Those on the hiring side may fear that being honest with a candidate about the uncertainty of the process risks losing them, but they ought to recognize that the matter is morally much more important to the candidate than the department. Whether an individual job candidate has a job offer could have significant effects on the candidate’s life, even if they don’t take it; but whether a department has to hire someone else because their first choice candidate accepted an offer elsewhere as they wrapped up their hiring process is of little if any moral significance (at least in regard to its effects on the department).

If you’ve had an unofficial offer fail to materialize in writing, or a similar experience, feel free to share it here. If you’ve had experience, as a member of a hiring department, with a surprise failure of your department’s hiring decision to be executed by your university, you’re welcome to share that, too. It would be useful to be reminded of the various contingencies that can affect the outcomes of job searches.

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Maybe it is more common
11 months ago

The very first verbal offer I got did not materialize after I verbally emphasized that I was hoping for a spousal hire. Not sure if there was a causality there, but after that I did not take verbal offers too seriously. (But such a thing has not occurred again, thanksfully.)

Maybe it is more common
Reply to  Maybe it is more common
11 months ago

I want to add that the spousal hire bit was part of (what I thought to be) a negotiation after the verbal offer. Then, not only the formal offer never came, but also I never heard from them again. From reading the other comments, I suspect that, for some schools, a strong interest in accepting the offer is a prerequisite for sending a formal offer.

Alan Nelson
11 months ago

At many universities a Dean will not forward an appointment case until the candidate “accepts” the job. There might even be a letter from the Dean making an “offer” with a sentence at the end saying that the post is contingent on the President (or whomever) sending the actual offer letter. The letter from the President might come many weeks later.

W. Y.
11 months ago

Straight out of grad school, I was interviewing for part-time teaching positions. No need for a interview process etc., beyond meeting with the chair and the dean. Being my first teaching position, I had extra hoops to jump through, getting fingerprinted, filling out tons of paperwork at HR. I start putting together syllabi for the courses I’ve been hired to teach. It all takes a fair amount of time, several weeks.

I send the chair an e-mail inquiring if the syllabus was satisfactory, and he responds with a surprised e-mail…. He thought that I couldn’t take the position. I’m not sure why he got that idea…. but for whatever reason, he had given the courses that he hired me for to someone else. He asked why I hadn’t contacted him sooner. I was busy going through the on-boarding process!

Totally gobsmacked!

3 weeks after the start of the term, I get an email. Would I still be willing to teach the courses they hired me for? Apparently the other person they hired simply quit on them! Talk about a rollercoaster of a first hire experience!

Patrick Lin
11 months ago

If the school were in the US, a verbal job offer may be legally binding, if the candidate also accepted the offer verbally, and the offer was not conditional.

See, e.g.:

Matt L
Reply to  Patrick Lin
11 months ago

Verbal offers can be binding, but they have to be made by someone with authority to make the offer, and it’s, at best, not obvious to me that the department chair has the authority to make an offer. From the above, it _sounds_ like the information is all coming from the chair. If that’s so, I’m skeptical that it’s a legal “offer”, even if it is otherwise pretty bad behavior.

11 months ago

They lied or they knew they were lying.

11 months ago

The idea that a specialist would need to go through this amount of thinking and work, to find out if one has a job or not, is indicative of how unprofessional this field is. Bending over this far so that one snaps their spine with charity to exactly one to four people is an absurdity.

Ben Laurence
11 months ago

The first tenure track offer came by phone call from a small liberal arts college. I was all set to get on a train in the morning and go there to shake hands with the Dean and speak to HR etc. But the night before the chair called to tell me funding had been pulled for the position. They couldn’t have been more apologetic.

Jimmy Alfonso Licon
11 months ago

I was interviewed by an unnamed university in Louisiana for a TT position. They liked me, gave me a second interview and teaching demo. The chair called and emailed a couple weeks later to offer me the job.

After eight weeks of nothing from the school or the chair, the dean finally reached out to let me know the position had been cancelled for lack of funding, but if that changed I’d be first in line. I was devastated.

Luckily, I ended up at ASU. I’m very happy here, and the department is great. Few stories like mine have a happy ending.

11 months ago

I am quite confused by the account outlined in the quoted passage and the one beneath it. What purpose could possibly be served by offered X a position, while they try to “lock down” someone else? I am truly trying to just get the facts straight.

don't mourn, organize!
don't mourn, organize!
Reply to  Gorm
11 months ago

My assumption was this (call the philosopher whose story Justin shared ‘B’):

  1. Hiring department’s preferred candidate is A, but hiring department would be happy to hire B if A doesn’t want the job.
  2. Perhaps the hiring department also has a (strong?) hunch that A will not take the job if offered.
  3. Perhaps the hiring department also is afraid that B has other offers.
  4. Hiring department gives formal offer to A and verbal, informal offer to B.
  5. Hiring department spends 5 weeks negotiating with A.
  6. A accepts the hiring department’s offer
  7. So, hiring department withdraws the informal offer to B.

If this is what was going on, then at step 4, had A not accepted the hiring department’s offer, then the department could quickly turn around and send B a formal offer. Without the initial informal offer to B (in step 1), it’s possible that B would have accepted an offer from an alternative department in the meantime.

Hence, sending an offer to B would be a strategy for giving themselves a chance at hiring B if A fell through while also trying to “lock down” A.

This is at least what I assumed B meant in sharing his hunch about the process. Moreover, I have never been on the hiring side of a hire, so I don’t know whether a) stuff like that I described above happens or b) how often it happens if it does. And of course, it’s possible that c) what I described above isn’t what B meant in his original story.

don't mourn, organize!
don't mourn, organize!
Reply to  don't mourn, organize!
11 months ago

Small correction: If this is what was going on, then at step *6*, had A not accepted the hiring department’s offer, then the department could quickly turn around and send B a formal offer

Fritz Warfield
11 months ago

Please name the University that did this.

Contract Instructor
11 months ago

I was teaching in my most recent contract-teaching role for 3 months before I received an official letter of employment. I received the verbal offer in July 2020, and I had to follow-up several times for the hiring committee to confirm my employment in writing, over email, so that I felt comfortable turning down a fellowship position I had already been offered. I eventually received an email confirming in writing that they were offering me the position in late July; I began teaching in August, and received an official letter of employment offer from the President only in late October.

In our recent bargaining discussions (our Collective Agreement expired about 6 months ago), we petitioned for more timely written offers of employment. We were told that, given the summer schedule of Board of Director meetings, it would be impossible to issue letters for mid-summer hires before August for an August start. This puts new hires in the challenging situation of needing to act on faith that a verbal offer is as secure as a formal, written one. My sense from those negotiations was that the university regards letters as a mere formality; but this sense is not shared by job candidates, many of whom have heard stories like the OP’s and who may have to make big personal and logistical decisions on faith, awaiting the confirmation of a written word.

Qiu Lin
11 months ago

This sounds like a terribly predatory behavior through and through. Just wish to second the commenters above and ask the OP to name the University that did this to them.

Just an Instructor
10 months ago

I work at a university in a developing country that has close partnerships with prestigious western institutions and attempts to hire faculty with strong research profiles or with strong research potential. I served on a search committee for a low-ranking Instructor position. We made a verbal offer to our top-candidate, who then proceeded to initiate salary negotiations (our starting offer for this position is shamefully low). According to what the candidate reported to me later, our dean said he would take the candidate’s salary request to the provost and get back to him. Meanwhile, as the candidate was waiting to hear back from the dean, I was told by the dept. chair that we had made a verbal offer to our runner-up candidate, and that the candidate had accepted. According to my later conversation with the first candidate, the dean never wrote him back. I had the displeasure of having to tell him it appeared we had hired the runner-up. I asked my dept. chair (who, incidentally, had supported the candidacy of the runner-up over the committee’s top choice) to explain what he thought was going on, and he replied only that it was the dean’s “prerogative” to make offers to the runner-up if he wanted to. Obviously, I don’t know all the behind-the-scenes details of what happened here, but from my perspective, the dean engaged in unethical behavior, and our dept. chair was complicit in it for self-interested reasons.

Just an Instructor
Reply to  Just an Instructor
10 months ago

As we have to put a lot of effort into convincing high-quality candidates to accept our offers, this kind of behavior is massively damaging to our reputation and undermines our recruiting efforts, however justifiable it might seem to the administrators trying to save few bucks. Our top choice for this position was an excellent candidate from a top graduate program, and it seems likely we won’t be receiving applications from people coming out of that program in the future because of this.

not dean's favorite
10 months ago

Not in philosophy, but I had an interview for a TT at a public R1 (a dream job) in winter 2020 and I also had an offer for a fellowship. I asked for an update from the committee chair because I needed to say yes or no soon about the fellowship. He told me that the search committee chose me and I would be getting an offer from the dean soon. Then covid “hit” and the dean was unreachable for weeks and the chair just kept reassuring me and asking me to wait. Finally, the chair called me and explained that I wouldn’t be getting an offer because the dean decided to hire another person. I think the plan was originally for them to hire both of us, but the dean was suddenly saying they only got one hire and the dean picked the other person. This was extremely devastating and heartbreaking. The chair technically should not have told me an offer was coming I guess, but he sincerely thought it was a safe thing to say at the time. Thankfully, I was still able to do the fellowship because I was granted more time to accept and was waiting for the official offer before declining.

Also not a Dean's favorite
10 months ago

This happened to me as well between the informal offer from the department and a formal offer from the administration. The relevant administrator (not a philosopher) denied to extend a formal offer because, as I was told, my research did not fit their view of a strong humanities research profile. The department was very apologetic. I think they treated the time between informal offer and official approval by administration as a mere formality, but that was not always the case. The whole incident did not help my concerns that my work (think: collaborative, interdisciplinary) is often de-valued as philosophy.