A little while back I decided that I had the funds to recruit a postdoc and that I should do so. My first inclination was to talk to a few PhD students I knew who were finishing up soon and whose experience would translate well to the work we are doing, without being completely overlapping. After some discussion with a couple soon-to-be graduates things fell into place with one of them, who will be starting this summer.
In preparation for the new hire, I thought it would be a good idea to sniff around my institution to see what is required for hiring a postdoc and I wasn't surprised at what I found out.
The good news:
Postdocs are a recognized category of employee. Health care benefits (the same I get) are required when hiring a postdoc and there is vacation, sick and maternity* time for these employees. A 30 day warning of a layoff due to funds drying up is also required.
The bad news:
1) Despite there being a category of employment for postdocs, they have no advocate. Like most institutions, both grad students and faculty are unionized here, but postdocs get squeezed between the cracks. Their "advocate" is, by default, someone whose primary job it is to advocate for the grad students.
2) The only things required to hire a postdoc are a willing body and some state and federal tax forms. NO CONTRACT IS REQUIRED. That means I can just bring someone in, have them fill out a few forms and lock them in a lab with no indication of expectations or guidelines on which to fall back on in case of a grievance. That's the kicker, right? When things go well maybe it's easy to not have any sort of record of expectation and no one cares, but what if things go poorly? What if something in my personal life goes down the toilet and I start getting all crazy and start firing people? Everyone has heard that story, no? Without a contract of any kind there is nothing to which a postdoc can go back to and say "I have upheld my end of the bargain!" There is no recourse, which takes us to Bad News #3.
3) Postdocs come in on a 12 month "probationary period", which is code for "can be fired arbitrarily". I asked our head of HR directly what it would take for me to fire a postdoc and the answer was "call me and I will either come over and facilitate that conversation or do it for you." In the first year postdocs have no protection and after that "it just takes a little longer" if one wanted to fire someone without documenting cause. Now, there are certainly times when the termination of employment would be justified and with the appropriate documentation that is just how things go. But what I described above is for if I wanted to walk into the lab one day and tell someone to clean out their desk.
Having at several institutions during my career, this doesn't surprise me a bit. But as a postdoc there are ways to protect yourself to some degree. Almost any PI with some sense will write out a contract because it protects both of you, but in reality the PI isn't the one who needs the protection. For that reason, postdocs should ask to have a contract written up at the start of employment. It should outline not only the performance expectations of the PI, but also what the postdoc can expect from the PI. No one tells you how important a signed document like that can be when you start a new position fresh off your Thesis Experience. Whereas you hope to never need to use it, you need to request it if your PI does not bring one to the table on day one.
Admittedly, I never signed a contract as a postdoc. I had an offer letter, but nothing beyond that. I had no idea that I should request one and hindsight is 20/20. I was fortunate to never need that contract and my supervisor was really good about communication, but that doesn't mean things couldn't have gone differently.
More important than the contract, however, is something that postdocs can't do anything about on their own and that is getting a person or office in place to handle all things postdoc related from the postdoc's side of things. Some larger R1s have this type of thing, but the vast majority of institutions only pay lip service to it. It requires the demand from PIs to get the wheels turning, and one might guess that PIs might be less than motivated to put a structure in place that takes away some of their power to make personnel decisions.
As a PI, it's easy to say that a postdoc office isn't worth your effort because you treat all the postdocs in your lab well. However, I think it's critical that we recognize the fact that a big part of the disgruntle factor of postdocs is the very fact that they can be dropped like a sack of potatoes. If you do treat postdocs in your lab well, then there is nothing to lose from pushing for greater university recognition in the form of dedicated postdoc advocates and it may turn out that they can facilitate some things (visa issues, a sense of community, etc.) that either you currently have to, or can't, deal with. As with most things, there's a high cost up-front, but they pay-off will be worth it.
I'll let you know how it goes here.
* I don't know how well this policy works in conjunction with granting agencies yet, but I am trying to find out.