Professionalism and the Job Market

Priscilla Butler, Kwonsei Gakuin University

While recent opinion pieces have focused on the changing status of English language teachers in Japan and elsewhere (McClure, 1996; Oda, 1995; Wadden, 1994a, 1994b) and alleged Ministry of Education and university forfeiture of responsibility for employment promises made to foreign instructors (Vaipae, 1997, for example), little has been publicly said about a corresponding sense of responsibility applicants and employees should feel toward their institutions. As a member of the hiring committee which selects foreign instructors for one of the programs at Kwansei Gakuin, I am greatly concerned about the lack of professionalism some candidates and instructors have displayed concerning their commitment to the school.

In this year alone, three applicants have later declined offers that they had initially accepted. In recent years, a full-time (contractual) instructor has left mid-year without prior notice, the only excuse being that he did not want to stay in Japan until the end of his one-year contract. To anyone who has been at least partially responsible for hiring foreign faculty, these stories probably come as no surprise. While surely there are irresponsible people in every element of the population, including teachers, it is my belief that at least some examples of unprofessionalism may derive not so much from intentional irresponsibility as from a lack of understanding about hiring practices at Japanese universities. By briefly outlining the process by which at least some hiring occurs in Japan, I hope to give job seekers another perspective on the job search.

At the same time, however, I do not wish to downplay the very real problems that foreign instructors face in finding and keeping jobs at Japanese institutions. These are concerns that clearly warrant substantially more discussion and action. Additionally, it is important to note that there are many foreign English teachers in Japan who are both extremely professional and deeply committed to the educational enterprise. However, examining hiring policy issues from only one side can do as much harm as good by divisively separating interested parties. Conversely, looking at other facets of the recruiting process can contribute to a deeper understanding of what is at stake for both sides.

The Hiring Process

While it is true that hiring still occurs through personal connections and recommendations at many Japanese colleges and universities, some institutions have adopted an open hiring policy in at least some of their programs. Regardless of the process which is used,however, hiring takes a substantial period of time in Japan. Many teachers who are accustomed to schools in their own countries recruiting four to eight months before a position opening may be surprised to find that many Japanese universities start their searches far earlier--even as much as a year and a half in advance. Of course, when hiring foreign instructors from overseas, part of the extra time is needed to allow for visa application as well as the arrival of required documentation. However, the process also generally takes longer because of the number of levels through which hiring recommendations generally have to pass.

In addition to the more informal hiring committee which screens, interviews, and recommends applicants for hire to the main committee, all hiring recommendations must pass through a series of additional committees, including the University Senate and often, finally, the Board of Directors. Because committees meet on different days or weeks, it can take anywhere from a month to two months for a list of hiring recommendations to become officially approved.

Because many committee meetings do not take place between terms, timing is also essential in making recommendations. A person who has initially been approved by an interviewing committee in February, for example, may not be able to make it onto an initial committee's agenda again until late March, due to the lack of regularly scheduled meetings between terms.

This potential for lag time in the official approval process substantially lengthens the time needed for hiring from start to finish.

Initial Acceptance and Its Implications

When candidates initially accept a job offer--whether verbally or in writing--their names will then be submitted almost immediately for the first committee's approval. Candidates should understand that job offers are not made unless recruiting work is at a very advanced stage. Once the candidate accepts, much of what occurs next is a series of necessary formalities. Of course, it is possible that a hiring committee's recommendation may not be approved, but this possibility is small. In a society where verbal agreements are considered binding, it would be wise for candidates to consider verbal acceptance as akin to signing a contract.

When candidates later back out--even if only a week or two later--they create a situation in which the change in candidate status must be explained, a new candidate must be decided upon, and a new recommendation made to the first committee. With at least several months required for the visa application process, this can result in real problems for both the university and the replacement teacher. At least as importantly, retracting a recommendation after the fact can result in a loss of face for hiring committee members who may appear to their peers as being uninformed or lacking in judgment by choosing uncommitted applicants.

For candidates who have been through the process, however, acceptance at an initial stage with no possibility of declining later may seem like a double-edged sword. Because there is still a chance, no matter how small, that one or more of the later committee's may object to a hiring recommendation, it may appear that the university holds all the cards; candidates are expected to come if their recommendation passes, yet the university holds no further obligation to the candidate should there be a last-minute snag that disallows university approval of the candidate. It can certainly be uncomfortable for candidates not to have any guarantee of employment, sometimes as long as several months after an acceptance.

The system is certainly different from what many foreign teachers may be accustomed to, and these differences can lead to a serious misunderstanding about the status of one's application. While it would certainly be beneficial to keep candidates updated at every stage of the long approval process, and this is something that the institution for which I work does, it is also important for candidates to realize that they are not just being strung along once an offer has been made to them, even if this offer only comes verbally. In my own experience of working on a hiring committee for the past two years, no initial recommendations we made were later rejected. In the three cases in this year alone where candidates declined offers they had previously accepted, however, the hiring committee did not receive the same kind of courtesy. Once a verbal agreement is made, it behooves both sides to do their absolute best to ensure that their part of the agreement is met. This is just as true for the candidates as it is for the university.

Why should job applicants care about any of this? One of the main published complaints about hiring practices in Japan is that institutions rely on connections rather than on open job searches. When the university expends upwards of a million yen each year on recruiting and when several full-time faculty members spend considerable time screening, interviewing, and corresponding with applicants and still a candidate's behavior is seen as being less than reliable from the hiring school's perspective, it may appear to many university faculty members that all of the money and effort is simply not worth it. While it would be a truly sad thing to witness a shift from an open hiring policy to one which relies solely on connections, as long as the applicants found through open searches are deemed as being less reliable--and therefore less professional--it seems understandable that some universities would shy away from the great expenditure of money and time that an open search entails.

Advice for Job Applicants

If more universities are to open up hiring and provide greater stability to those who are hired, foreign instructors need to show understanding and professional courtesy for the contexts to which they are applying. Though it is understandable that, especially in these unstable times, it may be necessary to juggle competing offers, at least candidates should realize that an acceptance sets in place a chain of events, the repercussions of which affect not only the candidate him/herself. Though what we do and how we behave may not affect us personally, it will almost certainly affect those foreign employees who follow.

As a general rule, it would be wise for applicants to keep these words of advice in mind: Don't accept unless you're sure; Don't break a contract unless you or someone close to you is dying. The second of these is somewhat facetious but still underscores the importance of accepting commitment as a professional. It is impossible for candidates who are offered jobs at more than one university to play every job offer off of every other one, and the harm it may cause could be greater than supposed.


My intention here is not to devalue the experiences of teachers shut out of potential jobs because of closed hiring practices; rather, it is to call attention to the fact that every issue has at least two sides. Such an argument may appear to be a dressed-up version of blaming the victim. Clearly, other factors should and do influence hiring policy than just the behavior of a small group of teachers. At the same time, though, those who wish to propose or even demand institutional change should at least recognize that in so doing, mutual responsibility is entailed. When calling for institutional change in hiring, we should at the same time ask a greater level of professionalism and commitment from ourselves.


  • Oda, M. (1995). The 1991 revised standards and the EFL profession in Japanese universities: Focus on teachers. The Language Teacher, 19(11), 47-49.
  • McClure, B. (1996). The "information departrnent": New and improved corn flakes. On Cue, 4(1),19-23.
  • Vaipae, S. S. (1997). The need is now. The Language Teacher, 21(2), 82.
  • Wadden, P. (1994a). College curricula and the foreign language teacher: A forecast for the late nineties. The Language Teacher, 18(7), 32-35.
  • Wadden, P. (1994b). Sociopolitical concerns: The serfs and the gentry: ESL teachers in the academic fiefdom. TESOL Matters, 4(4),17.