I'm in a predicament about changing jobs
January 11, 2013 3:25 PM   Subscribe

I teach at an independent boarding school in the United States (aka: a private high school). It is time for me to move on to a new position, so I'm beginning a job hunt. My present school requires its faculty to sign a contract for the next academic year in February. However, private schools don't begin to post their available positions until spring. The school surely knows that this puts its faculty in a bind. What to do? More about this quandary after the jump.

If I don't sign a new contract (which is not, by the way, legally binding), my school will immediately begin a search for my replacement and I'll risk not finding a job and being out of work next year. If I do sign, continue my job search, and then find a job, I'll have to break the contract. This is the same as breaking my word, which I am reluctant to do. Plus, the school will learn of this the first time a prospective employer requests a recommendation.

However, I think the school is unethical in requiring a commitment that makes it impossible for faculty to honestly explore new positions elsewhere. Sure, faculty retention is important to a school, but here it is done in a heavy-handed way.

Talking directly with the head of school or others in administration is unfortunately not an option. I'm told that they're not flexible in this matter. Yes, I am confident in my ability to land a new position, but one never knows. No, I don't know what others have done when in this situation. I'll see if I can find a former faculty member who can help.

It seems to me that I'm stuck between the risk of unemployment and a dishonest act of signing a contract that I will not likely fulfill.

Your thoughts please.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Do you think they would honor that contract unreservedly? Of course not. They -- and you -- should believe that you are always looking for a new job, just like you -- and they -- should believe that they are always looking for your replacement.
posted by Etrigan at 3:29 PM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

First, their doing something like this which puts you in a bad spot does not justify unethical behavior. But, I am not so sure signing while looking for a job is unethical. It may make you uncomfortable. You seem to think you can and will get another job. I applaud your confidence, but you really don't know. You may not like the offers you get or you may not get one. I think it is reasonable to protect your future and sign as well as look.

On the other hand, some decisions have to be made that may not be in your best interest, but they are ethically correct. If you have no intention of returning unless it is a last resort, then I would take the risk of not getting another job and not sign.

It comes down to your intent. If you have no real intent of returning unless it is an emergency don't sign. If you are simply exploring other options, sign and make the decision when as or if you have a decision to make.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 3:33 PM on January 11, 2013

A contract is neither a promise nor your word. It is a description of a relationship and includes (or should) clauses for what happens when one or both parties choose to sever that relationship.

If you chose to end the relationship do so as the contract stipulates and there is no impact in your word. Not showing up one day and leaving a message that you have left is going back on your word, ending a relationship while respecting the definition of the agreement is not.
posted by cCranium at 3:40 PM on January 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

What kind of contract isn't legally binding? What are terms of this document?
posted by MattD at 4:32 PM on January 11, 2013

i am in the same predicament (albeit not in your field). my current employer "promoted me" contingent on my agreement to an additional two years at that location. to turn down the promotion was to opt out of a job with them altogether. i used neutral terms when i verbally agreed to this, not saying that i would in fact be there for two more years, but that i agreed to the job offer. you are however signing a contract, but you note it is not legally binding, so i would put this in the same category as my agreement to the terms of my new position. i didn't appreciate their "heavy-handedness" either, and therefor i don't see it as unethical to continue my job search. as etrigan says, they wouldn't hesitate to break that contract if say, immediate budget cuts needed to be made and you were the one to go. your new employer will understand your position and not contact the school if so requested. let them make you an offer and then contact the school for a reference - this is done all the time. you need to look out for your own interests, because as you said yourself, the interests of the school are minimal turnover - and not you, your workplace happiness or prosperity.
posted by ps_im_awesome at 4:46 PM on January 11, 2013

I was previously a librarian at an independent school - one note to other responders is that independent schools are weird this way. Among other things, the contract is often very very basic - there's no specified method for breaking it.

Mine were always "We're offering you a job for the X-Y academic year at the salary of Z. Your employment runs from DateA to Date B with [specified vacation break]. off." And not a ton more. (I wasn't on the same schedule as faculty - we got ours in June - but I understand the content was really similar.) Your faculty handbook may have more specifics, but a lot of places, even that's really weak.

- Are you working through one of the placement agencies? If so, they have a good feel for the culture at a given school and may be able to give you advice.

- If you're not, or if you don't want to talk to them, is there a trusted senior teacher at the school you could talk to? Where I worked, there were always a good handful of people who were close to retirement age, had seen it all, and were able to give advice on school culture, while being discreet. (This is often best and easiest if it's someone outside your own department: offer to take them out for a drink or coffee after work and say there's something about school culture you'd like their advice on.)

- In practice, yes, schools want to reduce turnover, and they want as much advance warning as they can get. *BUT* they also know that stuff happens, and I think generally expected that most years they'd be hiring at least one position over the summer, and maybe one or two in the late spring.

- The answer to the question about signing the contract may come down for you - as it's come down to other people in independent schools I've talked to "Given my current options, do I intend to return here next year?" If yes (i.e. you do not have another job offer in hand), then sign. If you'd leave no matter what, even if you don't get another job, then don't. If you're not sure, saying "Hey, I'm really not sure" is also an option.

(You don't mention in your post why you feel it's time for you to leave: if it's because you're struggling, they probably know that, and might be able to point at better options. If it's because it's just not where you want to be, that's trickier.)

- That said, it can be *really* hard to interview if you don't tell them you're looking. I don't know about you, but I had a grand total of 2 personal days off a year (more sick time, but obviously, there's only so far that goes too.) If you think you'll need to travel to interview, especially, you might find more flexibility if you do say you're considering not returning next year. Plus an easier time with references.
posted by modernhypatia at 5:09 PM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wrote this long thing, and then re-read your post. Yes, this is horrible. Even my stupid public school district could only require us to sign a non-binding "intent-to-return" letter in March. This might be worth hiring an employment lawyer for an hour to read the contract, advise you on its real enforceability, and write a letter on your behalf if needed.

/came from public schools where prior to tenure, you were supposed to commit in March, but would then get pink slipped in June due to budget cuts only to get rehired three days before school started in August, so admittedly, I'm a little biased about these things.
posted by smirkette at 6:49 PM on January 11, 2013

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