Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Proposed Ethical Lapse

These difficult economic times have resulted in many necessary cost-saving measures and cuts. These difficult economic times have also resulted in some unnecessary measures and cuts that do not save anyone any money. Examples of each:
  • Freezing faculty salaries (and hiring) saves a university money.
  • Freezing postdoctoral salaries (and hiring) does not save the university money if the postdocs are entirely paid from external sources of funding.
In fact, universities benefit financially from postdoctoral scholars because postdoctoral salaries may be part of the indirect cost calculation of a grant. Postdocs in the sciences bring money to a university. Freezing salaries of postdocs or other soft-money researchers is a money losing policy.

Perhaps administrators aren't aware of this? Perhaps they are aware but it's too difficult to make different policies for different job categories? Perhaps they are concerned about fairness? That is, why should one group of employees get a raise when others are experiencing salary freezes or cuts?

I know that faculty at various institutions have written letters to the powers-that-be about restrictive postdoctoral hiring/salary policies, with only limited success at overturning the policy or being granted exemptions.

I can't think of a good reason why grant-funded salaries can't be paid as budgeted in the grants. If the money exists in a grant for the specific purpose of paying a researcher, the researcher should get the budgeted money no matter what the university policy is regarding hiring/pay for faculty or staff.

Some of my colleagues have been trying to find ways to get around the salary freeze so they can pay their postdocs (or themselves) the amounts budgeted in grants. Here are some of the possibilities that I have heard discussed:

1. Writing and back-dating a letter promising a specific raise in an official letter to a postdoc. Although the salary for the first year is always mentioned in an offer letter/hiring contract, in some cases the salary for subsequent years is not. The proposed back-dated letter is an attempt to get around the lack of a specific letter for the second or subsequent years. If a pre-economic-crisis letter exists and spells out the salary/raise for subsequent years, the university has to honor this.

2. Finding a way to get the raise money to its intended recipient in a non-salary kind of way, e.g. buying an awesome personal computer of equivalent cost as the unpayable raise. Computer purchases can easily be justified on most grants. This isn't as good as a real raise, but it's better than nothing.

Back-dating a letter clearly isn't ethical, and I suppose spending grant money on something that wasn't originally budgeted and that might not directly impact the research isn't ethical either, but can these ethical lapses be forgiven because they are done for a good cause? Are the lapses justifiable because they are done to counteract a misguided policy, or should we follow the rules, however stupid they are?

If we can't spend the budgeted money on salary, we either have to spend the money on something else (something we are told at ethics training workshops is not allowed) or we have to give the money back to the funding agency at the expiration of the grant. Perhaps we can prolong our grants with no-cost extensions until the no-raise policy is lifted and eventually give our postdocs the budgeted raise, assuming the postdocs haven't moved on to another job.

I have recently considered another not-so-ethical route to take so that I can give a raise to a postdoc. The raise is in the grant budget, was justified in the grant proposal, and the postdoc deserves the raise. I made a request to the Dean that I be allowed to give the postdoc the budgeted raise, and my request was denied. So I started thinking of ways I could somehow get the raise to the postdoc anyway.

I could perhaps be talked out of my unethical idea by persuasive comments to this post, but at the moment this idea seems kind of appealing to me. Consider:

One of the only ways to be granted an official exemption to the no-raise policy is if the person in question has another job offer. The job offer doesn't have to be carved in stone -- it can just be an email from someone at another institution expressing an intention to offer a position. I don't want my postdoc to go out and get a real job offer (and he has said he wants to stay on here as a postdoc for another year or two), but I am pretty sure that I could get a colleague at another institution to send my postdoc an email expressing an interest in hiring him away from my institution (but without any real intention of doing so). With such a letter in hand, there's a good chance I could get the raise approved.

Ethical? No.. Should I do it anyway? Is there another, better way?


JLK said...

Ya know what? I say go for it. Like you said, the hiring freeze on post-docs isn't saving anyone any money anyway.

*ducks and prepares to be ostracized for being unethical*

Anonymous said...

Locally, the powers that be have considered that people paid off of soft money should be thought about differently. The main concern is that postodcs will leave or not come in the fall. A reputation for cutting postdoc's salaries will hurt the institution in the long run.

That said, it is not clear that a fully funded person is "free" to the university. National labs and industry have overhead rates of 100%+. I have heard it argued that a postdoc at 60+% is a cost to the university. I have no idea if this is actually correct.

Samia said...

The silence is deafening.

Could it be because this is a very prevalent strategy, and we are nonplussed when someone has the honesty to question it?

You are to be commended for doing that.

But why is it that we ask these questions more when the beneficiaries are post-docs than when they are higher on the pecking order? Are we trying to teach them something? If so, based on studies showing more misconduct as researchers advance in seniority, it seems that we are not as successful as we would like. Or is it that advancing age and impact factor simply jades us, and makes us more impervious to the sort of question you are asking? Or do we consider that bargaining with universities has its own rules?
What is going on here?

And why is it that we consider it OK for institutions to keep bargaining clout by making rules allowing them to match salary offers made by other institutions, and we don't consider it OK for post-docs to keep bargaining clout by getting such offers made? Our reason? That universities have made rules which state that the offer must be on the table in writing, and we cannot lie. How convenient.

OK. I'm unhelpful. Being in a situation that is set up against these post-docs isn't quite enough to ethically justify lying.
So perhaps one way around this would be to make it truthful? To ask for an email, yes, but from a colleague who would actually truly be happy to hire your (apparently very qualified) post-doc if your university does not agree to the raise? Of course, you'd then have to be ready to go through with it if the university did refuse, and if your post-doc did accept the other offer...

Mister Troll said...

Cunning plan! But it doesn't sound ethical to me, and I think it could lead to some unlikely but spectacular screw-ups.

Anonymous said...

Yes, make him get a job offer. It will be good practice for when he has to hit the job market in two years.

Plus, being a postdoc, the local Starbucks will pay him more than you are paying him now, and with full health benefits!

Anonymous said...

FSP, How would you feel about your Dean if s/he used the same method (i.e. a bogus job offer) to secure a raise for himself/herself? Would you feel differently if the funds for this raise came from an alumni association, not the general university budget?

If you would have negative feelings about the dean doing this, then it seems to me that taking what are (approximately) equivalent actions yourself are not a good idea.

Tara said...

Instinctively I see nothing wrong with what you're suggesting. I really can't see a loser in the situation. Sometimes you just have to make a judgment call. You have to make the system work for you, and resorting to somewhat questionable tactics to do that is sometimes necessary. I'm not against rules in general, often they are very necessary but quite often they are plain foolish. I don't see why responding to obviously foolish rules with a lack of respect for them is unethical. I know that I would probably go ahead and do it, perhaps that makes me corrupt but my conscience feels clear!

Greg said...

What a tough dilemma. A conflict of ethics really. I think it is most ethical to give the postdoc the raise they deserve. I would have no qualms about accomplishing this through either mechanism of backdating a letter or finding a competing offer to present. The other option, purchasing a computer on the grant, would not work for us. Any equipment we purchase belongs to the state and not to the individual. Thus, the computer would not really be the postdoc's property.

I am so happy I don't have to deal with these issues. North Dakota has a $1.2 billion budget surplus this year. All my postdocs are getting a 5% raise.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking the same thing - freezes aren't really smart for grant-funded people like me whose salary translates directly to an overhead that goes to the university.

When I'll be asking for a raise this summer, I will also ask for a promotion. Calling me a "research scientist" (or whatever) rather than "postdoc" looks better for me in the long run, and it leads to a raise as per policy, despite the otherwise applicable freeze.

Genomic Repairman said...

The offer letter would be a form of deception but I also think prohibiting pay increases for grant-funded individuals who are mandated to have pay increases by the grant is unethical as well. Deception to sidestep a boneheaded Draconian rule, go for it. But make sure the postdoc and everyone else is all on board.

Phys Student said...

Could you get the postdoc to apply for other jobs? If he is good, he will probably get a legit offer. He already said he wants to stay with you, so if he keeps his word you don't have to worry about him leaving.

That way, the raise happens and you are not unethical.

Anonymous said...

One 'loser' in this situation is postdocs whose salaries are *not* paid from soft money. As postdocs, we have little control over where our pay comes from (aside from applying for a K, with its single-digit funding rate ...).

So it will feel really unfair if the guy in the next lab gets a nice raise, while I don't, and we're equally qualified. Or maybe I'm even more qualified and deserving, but am not paid from soft money.

I think Drug Monkey had a post about this a few days back, specifically mentioning the UC system, where postdocs are paid according to a 'step' system. It's complex, but at least it hints towards an even playing field.

Anonymous said...

Well, I think whether this is ethical depends on whether you're running a finite (but perhaps small) risk that your post-doc will actually have another offer, and thus go off elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

I think this only highlights the point that postdocs get screwed. As I am one myself, I actually feel lucky that my boss sticks to the NIH scale. That said, the NIH scale could be higher.

As a graduate student, my boss had to launder money so we had lab supplies--we had a ton of money for people and computers, but no bench supplies. It was just the way it is.

So, do I think it is unethical? Nope. I think it's unethical when the university wants you to get money and then when you want to spend it the way it is supposed to, they say no.

Anonymous said...

Argue that funding guidelines trump internal politics, it may work. I was faced with a similar situation, where I had federal funding for a post doc and was facing a hiring freeze. I went to our sponsored projects administration to confirm that I had to spend $ on what it was budgeted for, and not doing so put the U at risk. It involves more hassle that other routes given the amount of legwork required, but this route keeps everything above board.

lost academic said...

People are really concerned that using a second offer to secure a raise or other benefit is unethical? This is specifically advice given in almost all career and job help books and manuals. You might not like it for other reasons, but it's what you are SUPPOSED to do. Besides, if you're not going to pay them what they really can earn, some of them are going to have to leave anyway. The soft money/raises issue is somewhat separate from that.

I think the administration is not entirely aware of what a postdoc salary means, and they should be educated. This is the faculty's responsibility at this point, I'd say. Realize, too, though, that their position may be forced - they may be forcing these freezes or cuts because they have to make that show to some other body - specifically more likely with a public institution.

If those of you with situations like these can, perhaps you can consider covering other expenses for your employees. I imagine many of you won't be able to, but it's something to consider.

Alioth said...

I'm not sure *exactly* what I think, but I disagree with one of the anonymous commenters -- I don't think doing this for a postdoc is at all equivalent to doing this for oneself. I would object if the postdoc in question went out and obtained their own job offer under false pretenses (with or without the knowledge of the party making the offer). But since it's a gift of sorts, I'm less sure where I stand.

Ψ*Ψ said...

Have you checked to see whether administrator raises have been frozen as well?

Anonymous said...

Do it.

Definitely do it.

It would be more unfair and unethical to keep the postdoc on a stagnant salary because of misapplication of money-saving rules than to arrange a well-deserved raise through a bureaucratic loophole.

Anonymous said...

A recession is when you lose your raise. A depression is when I lose my raise. (to paraphrase an old aphorism)

New Asst. Prof. said...

Like several others, I'm conflicted on the ethics, and angry about being put in this situation in the first place. I am a new assistant professor, and currently 100% paid by soft money, as will be the technician I am about to hire. My funding agency (private foundation, not federal) greatly dislikes moving line items about in the budget, or surreptitiously spending those dollars on something else. However, at our MRU soft money folks will not be treated any differently this coming fiscal year, so I anticipate an ugly situation next April when I have to justify all this leftover money in my progress report. I'm still fighting with MRU finance to allow me to even hire this person in the first place, despite the fact that his/her salary will be fully covered (including the raises I am not allowed to give either of us) for 3 years.

Anonymous said...

You should do it. Postdocs are already paid so little that giving him a raise will impact him far more positively than denying it will have any meaning in upholding a university "ethics" rule. It's easy for the Dean - who probably does not know what job insecurity and being underpaid means - to sit back in his cushy office and deny raises to the already-menially-paid workers. Therefore I support your "unethical" idea not just as a way to reward your deserving postdoc, but also as an act of defiance to the administrators.

By the way, I wish my postdoc advisor had been like you. He was the exact opposite of you. He would actively refuse to even try to do anything to help us postdocs for fear of anyone even so much as raising an eyebrow in his direction. Needless to say, those of us who were his postdocs got regularly screwed over and had no protection or even assistance.

Anonymous said...

Please, do it. To me this is not an ethical question, but a very practical one. All I can think about is that my current postdoc job is eroding my (small) savings from grad school. I make $2000/month and live in Boston.

Anonymous said...

Forgive my ignorance, but if the raise is already specifically budgeted for in the grant, why wasn't it in the original offer letter?

Female Science Professor said...

There are several possible reasons; for example, the case in which additional funding is obtained beyond that which was in hand for the initial contract. Because the postdoc is already employed at the university, they are subject to a salary freeze even though the new grant contains money for a higher salary. If an entirely new person were hired, they could get the higher salary.

Professor Staff said...

Depending on the free time of your program officer, maybe you could ask them to send an email or phone call and tell your university they are not honoring the budget outlined in your grant?

My university has asked me to include things in my grant budget that are legitimately A-21 (overhead) expenses - and since renegged on that policy when faculty pointed this out. So playing on the sponsored program office "fear of breaking the rules" might trump blanket rule making.

I saw similar illogic about raises and soft-money positions at my university, though they now differentiate between hard and soft money positions and have seen the light.

Kevin said...

Both NSF and NIH grants are usually pretty flexible---you can put money in to hire a grad student and hire a postdoc instead or change equipment money into salaries, so university administrators are unlikely to see a grant budget as binding on employee salaries.

Private funding may be less flexible, and that may give you some leverage with administrators.

I'm in agreement, though, that loss of state funds should not result in salary changes for those whose jobs are not dependent on state funding.

We've been told to make an 8% cut next year, and staffing levels have already been cut way back, so that probably means at least a 6% pay cut.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I think to be "ethical" on both sides of the issue - obeying university rules and being fair to the postdoc concerning his raise - you should go ahead with your plan to have him get a competing job offer (since that is the legal loophole that allows an exception to the university policy). BUT, you should do it "for real" and not setting it up to give the appearance of being real only. I think you should allow the postdoc (or encourage him) to go out and get a REAL job offer from an institution that truly wants to hire him. Then, if and when he gets that job offer, you should be prepared to let him leave you if he desires.

If the postdoc doesn't want to leave your lab but still wants a salary raise, then he can always decline the REAL competing job offer when he gets it.

Phys Student said...

If an entirely new person were hired, they could get the higher salary.

Can he quit and you rehire him in a week or so at the higher salary then?

Unknown said...

It certainly sounds like your postdoc should solicit an informal email offer to secure the raise. I see absolutely nothing unethical with this course of action.

How do schools end up with administrations that fail to understand the most basic parts of how grant funding work? Or is it more spiteful 'admin can't have a raise so neither can people paid by external funds'?

re offer letters only having one year: I always assumed it was so it would be easier to end something that wasn't working out to have 'one year at $$$$ with possibility for renewal' language.

Ms.PhD said...

Wow, lots of comments here.

I don't really see what's wrong with a semi-formal offer, if that's what it takes to please the bureaucrats?

However, I do think this has interesting implications. Why would it make sense to keep hiring more postdocs, if faculty hiring is frozen indefinitely? That's just going to postpone and exacerbate what is already the inevitable: former postdocs looking for other kinds of careers, because there aren't enough faculty positions to go around.

So in that sense, sure, freeze everybody equally across the board, or face uneven consequences in a few years when you've made the current problem of too many PhDs even worse than it is now.

Anonymous said...

I think the best course of action is to go to your vice president or provost for research and explain the post doc issue - perhaps it makes sense to set aside the no raise policies for that category of employee. But I don't think you should attempt the unethical things noted in these comments. You are a part of your university community, for better or for worse, and you need to abide by its policies, make a good faith attempt to change them, or leave. Those are your ethical choices.

Random said...

I don't really see how this is that much different than what it seems to me like most of the faculty at my institution do. They go on interviews, negotiate for more money more space or whatever, and its all considered pretty normal. (Whether its a good system or not doesn't change the fact that it is the system).

The fact is, I bet your postdoc COULD get a postdoc somewhere else (because postdocs are essentially pretty cheap highly trained labor) fairly easily, and probably could negotiate higher pay if she was being recruiting as an advanced postdoc. So, this isn't that far from reality anyways, particularly if the person who would write the email is someone who could conceivably hire her. I don't know, it just doesn't seem that bad to me somehow- I don't like it that everyone does all of this game playing with the job interviews, but thats what happens (at least around here, where I know of 3 very senior faculty who have done this in the last year)...

TW Andrews said...

Uh, I know this is an anonymous blog, but I'd seriously consider deleting this post.

If your anonymity is eventually compromized, you've essentially created a written record that you're willing to condone, or worse, carry out unethical behavior with grant money.

Even if it's for a good cause, I doubt that's the sort of thing that is taken into account by grant administrators, or worse, those awarding them.

This strikes me as the sort of discussion that could come back and really be a pain in the ass sometime down the road.