Should principal rescind teacher’s offer over gossip?

 

Q: I’m a male principal who made a great hire. At least I thought I did. The teacher — let’s call him Todd — was energetic, experienced, and positive. His references were glowing. Everyone on the interview panel wanted to hire him. But after Todd accepted the job, a teacher in my school asked to talk to me. She said that a friend of hers worked at his last school, and that he was infamous for hitting on female teachers. He’d say crude sexual things to them and generally make them feel uncomfortable. I asked the teacher to see if she could get more information from her friend — like, what kinds of crude comments are we talking about here? Is there more to the story? When she told her friend that I was skittish about the hire, the friend walked back her allegations. She said that some of what she heard was secondhand, she didn’t know of any “official” complaints, and she didn’t want to “wreck the guy’s career.” I can understand her point of view, but now I’m feeling unsettled and unsure how to proceed.

 

A: Your teacher essentially shared gossip with you. It would be unfair to pull his offer over unsubstantiated and somewhat vague accusations. At the same time, you’re in a tough situation. I can understand why you feel uneasy, especially if you have a low tolerance for risky hires. You can’t “unhear” this information, and you have staff to protect. If he harasses any women at your school, people could criticize you and say you were forewarned. I’d take the following steps to protect yourself and others.

First, contact your school system’s legal or human resources department and flag the issue. Perhaps they’ll do a more involved background check or ask you to call additional references. Even if you’ve spoken to his former principal, you might want to have a second, clarifying conversation. After everyone gathers more information, it may become obvious that you should pull the offer. If you get the “all clear,” however, I’d ask Todd to come back in to talk. Start by expressing how excited you are to have him join your staff, and then tackle the issue directly. State exactly what you heard. You can say, “This is the report that we got. We aren’t jumping to any conclusions, but we felt you should know what was said about you and give you a chance to explain.” If he’s surprised and denies the allegations, I’d accept his explanation but outline your expectations. You might say something like, “These are unverified rumors, and I’m sensitive to the fact that you’re now in a difficult position, but I do want to make sure you understand that nothing like that can happen here. I expect you to treat everyone with respect and to follow the Code of Conduct.” Point out the consequences for making unwanted sexual comments or advances to colleagues. I’d try to end on a positive note, though, by reiterating that he did a great job in the interview, impressed the panel, and will be a great addition to your staff.

To be clear, this conversation requires finesse — it would be tricky for anyone to pull off. It’s not easy to balance, “I’ll be watching you closely, so don’t be skeevy” with, “We’re thrilled to have you join our community.” You’re not looking to humiliate him or scare him off, but you do have to cover your bases. I’d role play with a colleague in advance to ensure you strike the right tone. Last, I’d establish some sort of record that shows this discussion took place before his start date, and share those notes with a staff attorney or HR representative. If anything does go wrong down the road, there’ll be evidence that you took preventative steps.

 

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Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers.

 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog.

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