Ethical Educator

A Dubious Job Posting
School Administrator, October 2021

Scenario: The personnel coordinator of a school district with a strong music program receives job postings from a community program seeking "female piano teachers." The program head says he is replacing a retiring female teacher whose students have requested a female replacement. Knowing the gender references are illegal, the district's personnel coordinator distributes the postings without mention of gender as many teachers rely on outside work. However, he feels ethically implicated in the program head's problematic hiring practice. Has he acted appropriately?

Sheldon Berman:

It's time for the personnel coordinator to have a discussion with the program head about the problematic nature of the posting. The personnel coordinator may have avoided a direct legal challenge by not mentioning gender himself. However, if the program head intends to consider only female applicants, the school district coordinator has been ethically and legally complicit with this practice by knowingly redistributing the posting. 

Although he has already acted on the request, the personnel coordinator should initiate a frank discussion with the program head. He should encourage the program head to withdraw the posting and repost the position without specifying gender and with the addition that the program is an equal opportunity employer. He should also encourage the program head to meet with the retiring teacher’s students and their parents and explain that gender cannot play a role in choosing a replacement. The best qualified person should be hired. 

Given that teachers in the school district are a prime source of candidates, the program head is likely to heed the personnel coordinator’s counsel. If the position is reposted, and for any future program posting, the personnel coordinator needs to feel confident that the position will be open to any qualified individual and that the hiring will not be gender-related. 

Louis Wool:

The district personnel coordinator did not act appropriately, nor in the best interest of any parties. As personnel coordinator, he should have been highly attuned to this extremely inappropriate gender-biased job posting. He should have informed the nonprofit that the job posting cannot include gender as a criterion. By omitting the language, he fails to communicate its inappropriateness. Failing to communicate the change in the posting may erode the relationship based on his lack of transparency and directness.

The implications for the district are significant and require careful consideration and investigation by the superintendent. Questions raised include: How is it that a director of human resources is unaware of the blatant inappropriateness of this job posting? Is this decision the result of a personnel director new to the role, confused by political alliances, trying to preserve an important community relationship while losing sight of the more critical issue – deepening relationships forged through honesty? Does the director possess the knowledge, sensitivity, and training to be effective in this important role? Has the director made mistakes or shown a lack of carefully considered judgments or lack of sensitivity on issues of equity and ethical behavior in the past? Because he is new to the role, has the district provided critical mentoring needed to understand the nuances of the culture and the importance of his behavior as the personnel director in defining the culture.

The director's desire to provide additional employment opportunities to district faculty should have been irrelevant in the deliberation about whether or not to publish the ad. The answer to these vital questions will determine the most significant steps that need to be taken by the school district. The district has a responsibility to ensure that these kinds of mistakes, mistakes that call into question the integrity of the hiring practices of the community-based organization and, by extension, the school district are publicly repudiated and never repeated

A host of options available to the personnel coordinator would've provided better outcomes for the district and the community organization, which are both cast in a negative light as a result of this insensitive and illegal job posting.

The coordinator might have reached out directly to the community-based organization and provided information, resources and a framework for the organization to reconsider the nature of its posting. The personnel coordinator was responsible for indicating that the job posting in its current form is impermissible as an extension of the district’s human resource legal obligations and its beliefs. Oftentimes, community-based organizations lack the resources and expertise to be knowledgeable about human resource law. Even though students requested a female instructor, it does not remove the organization's responsibility to fair and ethical hiring practices. Although the inability to recognize gender bias in this job posting might seem obvious to an expert, it might be far less so to a well-intentioned employee of a nonprofit trying to meet the request of students. Not all mistakes of this nature are mired in ill intent.

MaryEllen Elia:

It is not surprising that what we may think of as “common knowledge” related to hiring practices, is not seen in the same way by smaller community organizations whose scope is infinitely smaller. It is smart for the community partner to want to get teachers who know the subject, may know the students and have pedagogical experience that supports good programs for students. 

The personnel coordinator at the district should call the program leader and discuss the issues related to gender as presented in the advertisement. They can then explain how they will be distributing the information so that the community partners are aware of why the changes were made and the reason behind it. It is helping teachers by making sure that they are aware of opportunities available in their field; it is helping students by having an experienced teacher work with them. The community organization will make its own hiring decisions.

Chris Nicastro:

Yes. The personnel coordinator has a personal and professional responsibility to act in accordance with the law. His willingness to post the position at all is a service to the staff who might be seeking supplementary employment, and also to a community group — a plus for school-community relations. He could go a step further in contacting the community program to let them know he distributed the posting and explaining why he did not specify gender. It's possible that a community group — especially one run by volunteers — might not be aware of the legal implications of advertising a gender-specific job. By being transparent, he is not only following the law, he is also letting the group know the district is conscientious in its actions and open in its dealings with the community. 

All of this assumes that the district has no policy that prohibits the posting of external positions on its website or in its internal communication systems. Most districts limit the kind of information that can be distributed. Opening this up to community groups has some inherent risk, offset at least in part by positive community relationships. The superintendent and school board need to ensure that their policies are clear and that the executive staff are well aware of and compliant with these policies.

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Sheldon Berman, AASA lead superintendent, Redmond, Ore.; MaryEllen Elia, senior fellow, International Center for Leadership in Education and retired superintendent; Chris Lee Nicastro, former Missouri commissioner of education and president, Lee Consulting Group, St. Louis, Mo.; and Louis N. Wool, superintendent, Harrison, N.Y.