An aspiring librarian complained that the University of Malta treated her unjustly when she was not selected for the post of Library Assistant.
A young lady lodged a complaint against the University of Malta claiming that the Institution unfairly denied her, without sufficient justification, the post of Library Assistant even though she had the required qualifications and some experience in the area. She also wished to know her weak points in order to improve her performance the next time she applies for a similar post.
Facts and findings
The complainant had been working in the Physiotherapy area with the State health authorities for the last twelve years. However, she earnestly wished to work as a librarian even if it meant loss of income.
In October 2009, she enrolled for the course leading to the Diploma in Library and Information Studies, which she completed successfully and graduated in November 2011 with an overall Grade ‘C’. As part of the course programme, she carried out a two-and-a-half weeks (100 working hours) practicum at the Health Sciences Library at Mater Dei Hospital. Her tutors awarded her Grade ‘B’ (70 percent) for her work performance.
The complainant applied for the post of Library Assistant following a call for applications issued by the University on 8 June 2012. This was her fifth application for library related work. In fact, she applied unsuccessfully twice for the post of Assistant Librarian and three times for Library Assistant.
The Members of the Selection Board for her most recent application were:
- the University Secretary;
- the Director of Library Services; and
- two other Members.
The Board interviewed the complainant on 17 July 2012 and applied the following selection criteria:
i. relevant academic qualifications;
ii. relevant work experience;
iii. aptitude and suitability; and
iv. performance in interview.
The Board considered 65 applications, shortlisted and interviewed 53 candidates, and selected three persons for the post. The complainant was not one of the selected candidates, and sought reasons from the University authorities as to why she was not chosen. Unsatisfied with the University’s reply, she lodged a complaint with the Office of the University Ombudsman.
The University Ombudsman requested the University to react to the lady’s complaint, whereupon the Rector asked the Selection Board to reconvene and examine the complainant’s claims. The Board reconsidered the complainant’s case on 25 September 2012, and confirmed its earlier decision not to appoint her. At this point, the University Ombudsman felt it pertinent to ask why it took the University three-and-a-half months to deal with his request for feedback when the reconvened Selection Board met and reached its conclusions on 25 September 2012.
The responsibility of evaluating and deciding on applicants’ objective and subjective attributes rests primarily with the Selection Board, which is the appropriate body designated by the University Council to carry out this task. In cases such as this, the University Ombudsman’s remit allows him to evaluate and comment mainly on the Board’s evaluation of clearly objective criteria such as the academic qualifications and the work experience of the applicants concerned. He does not disturb decisions reached by Selection Boards unless he finds erroneous evaluations of objective criteria, or manifest irregularities and discrepancies, or blatant discrimination. His responsibilities concentrate on trying to ensure that the selection process was fair, equitable, conducted according to set and approved procedures, and in a manner that is not improperly discriminatory.
In dealing with this case, the University Ombudsman was not in a position to comment on the purely subjective decisions such as Selection Board’s evaluation of the applicant’s ‘aptitude and suitability’ for the post of Library Assistant. Similarly, he could not pass judgement on the complainant’s ‘performance during the interview’. Indeed, on the latter point, the Boards concluded that:
“Ms … did not give a positive impression during her interview due to the manner in which she answered the questions and through her non-verbal cues.”
In contrast, the Selection Board found that:
“The three persons selected were smart and presentable and able to communicate effectively. They responded well to the questions posed by the Selection Board.”
The University Ombudsman accepted the Board’s evaluation of the two subjective criteria, and suggested that the above statements should provide the complainant with the guidance she sought to improve her future performance. However, he had reservations about the Board’s appraisals of the complainant’s objective attributes, namely ‘relevant academic qualifications’ and ‘relevant work experience’ especially when compared with those of the selected candidates.
The three selected candidates are first-degree holders at Honours level in Arts subjects namely in History, Communications and French respectively, and it was up to the Board Members to decide the extent of the ‘relevance’ of their degree to library duties. In contrast, the complainant undertook a two-year part-time Diploma course dedicated to Library and Information Studies with 62 study-units (including two synoptic final examinations) specifically devoted to the acquisition of the knowledge and the development of skills required for library work. Evaluated objectively, the complainant’s lower qualification appeared more relevant to the post of Library Assistant than the selected candidates’ first degrees. One also notes that over time, the University Library has lost a number of graduate Library Assistants, who initially accepted the post, but feeling overqualified, moved on to other posts as soon as the opportunity arose.
The appraisal of the complainant’s ‘work experience’ also raised questions. She spent two-and-a-half weeks (100 working hours) under supervision in actual library work at the Health Sciences Library at Mater Dei Hospital. Again, an objective evaluation showed that the complainant’s albeit limited library work experience was more directly relevant to the post in question than the selected candidates’ part-time “while studying” work experiences, which were in either sales, supply teaching, machine operating or nursing.
Furthermore, an important point about the complainant’s quality of work during her practicum needs to be clarified. The complainant’s official academic transcript issued by the University recorded that her supervisors assessed this part of the Diploma programme at Grade B (70 percent). However, the report by the reconvened Selection Board states:
“Her [the complainant’s] performance during this placement [practicum] was not satisfactory. This was confirmed by the Director of Library Services, a Member of the Selection Board, who had received feedback about [the complainant’s] during her placement at the Library of the Faculty of Health Sciences.”
It was evident that the feedback on complainant’s practicum performance received by the Director of Library Services contrasted markedly with her supervisors’ assessment. The University official grading scheme qualifies Grade ‘B’ (70 percent) as “work of good quality”, indeed better than “average quality” 7. Obviously between the contrasting evaluations the tutor’s official assessment should have carried more weight than unofficial feedback.
Conclusions and recommendation
In a letter dated 1 October 2012, the Director for Human Resources Management and Development wrote to the complainant:
“There were a number of applications for this position and the selected candidates proved to be stronger in the areas of relevant work experience and were better able to demonstrate their aptitude and suitability for the post of library assistant”.
It may well have been the case that when one took into account all the attributes and factors covered by the four selection criteria, the selected candidates proved to be stronger contenders than the complainant. However, a careful analysis of all the facts does not justify such an unqualified conclusion, certainly in respect of work experience criteria. As stated earlier, the University Ombudsman did not question the Selection Board’s evaluation of the complainant’s ‘aptitude and suitability for the post’ or her ‘performance during the interview’. On these counts, the University Ombudsman accepted the HR Director’s statement that the selected candidates proved to be stronger in these attributes than the complainant. However, the University Ombudsman could not reach the same conclusion with regards to the evaluation of the objective criteria, namely ‘relevant academic qualifications’ and ‘relevant work experience’ where the indicators point to the conclusion that the complainant had the stronger attributes.
In view of the above and having taken into account all the factors in this case, the University Ombudsman’s Final Opinion was that the young lady’s complaint was partially justified since her qualifications in Library and Information Studies, and her limited but highly relevant work experience in a University library do not appear to have been fully appreciated.
Furthermore, in view of the discrepancy between the complainant’s practicum ‘B’ grade in contrast to the negative feedback given to the Director of Library Services for the same exercise, and which he cited during the selection process, the University Ombudsman recommended that the Selection Board should have a fresh look at the complainant’s attributes. In the process, the Board would reconsider whether she was suitable for the post of Library Assistant when one weighs her suitability with her qualifications and experience.
The University accepted the University Ombudsman’s recommendations.Case Studies