Monday, May 20, 2013

The Four-and-a-Half Types of People I Met in Job Interviews in May

"If you want the... best students in your hiring pools, librarianship, kindly convince... students that you deserve them."
- The Library Loon (source)

Over the past two weeks at my place of work (MPOW), we interviewed five people for a part-time position in the library that is either a part-time librarian position, the adjunct, or an intern position. Either way, it pays. We brought five people in for interviews. All looked good enough on paper; resumes gave the appearance of care and effort, cover letters discussed strengths and what one might bring to this position. Some had extensive library experience, right down to the kind of integrated library system (ILS) we use (Voyager), and some did not. But all appeared, on paper, as both trainable and interesting.
Applicant 1, you are brilliant. You will be an amazing librarian, probably a better one than any of the other applicants I've seen in this round of interviews. You understand our mission and you're already committed to it. You've lived it. You code switched three times in the interview in ways that felt organic and natural, not forced. But you won't become a great librarian here, and I'm disappointed in myself for writing that. I realize that oftentimes a discussion of "fit" is an excuse for all sorts of biases in hiring, especially in academia. However, fit applies here. As a manager, I have no idea, none, how I would harness the frenzied energy and passion you would bring to this job. I get the sense that you would kill for librarianship. These two things, the energy level and enthusiasm, terrify me. Our styles do not mesh. There is a mentor out there more suited to your needs. You'll find that person. But not here.

In the meantime, it's probably cold comfort to know that I've been beating myself up about this for the past week or so. I'd love to have you here, but I'd need to change my management style to do so, and that's what I've been thinking about for the past week. I don't know how to work with you, with someone like you, and that's challenging. It's my hope that there are more people like you out there, though perhaps their motors run at seven instead of ten, and that when I meet them, I'll be ready. I'm not ready now. "It's not you, it's me," may be a cliche, but sometimes it applies.

Applicants 2 and 3, you are librarians. Or "librarians." When I ask non-librarians to picture librarians, they picture you. That's not always a compliment. You like books. "Books are central to the library's mission," you tell us, without having seen our (dismal) circulation statistics. We ask you if you like the content of books or the container, and you stare blankly back at us. We ask about e-books, about databases, about the internet. You nod, but your world-views appear to be set. It seems hard for you to contribute to this discussion. You are Ptolemy in a book-centric world. Another library director has termed people like you "f--king bunheads."

You are tense, Applicant 2. You don't sit back, you clutch your umbrella for support and never take off a bag throughout the interview. You are boring, Applicant 3. We ask you questions to draw out your personality, but it never comes through. You've gotten back into writing? Please, tell us about it. What was the last interesting thing you've read? We're working way too hard to extract this information from you.

In hindsight, it was probably telling that the word "book" or "reading" or some variation thereof are in your email addresses.

Applicant 4, you look solid on paper. You know our ILS, our consortium, and our neighborhood. You want to work in an academic library and teach library instruction sessions. I have no idea how you would go about doing this when you can't form a coherent sentence in an interview. You are beyond tense and nervous, graduating to a blubbering mess. You tell us that libraries have been central to your development and maturation, dating back to grade school, but when I ask you to recall a negative or sub-optimal experience in a library, you draw a blank. Do you really mean to tell us that you've never had one? Are libraries immune from customer service issues in the service sector? Have you never encountered a staff member having an off day? You have extensive library experience. I ask you what you like and what you dislike about working in libraries. I want to know this because it's important for us to put people in positions where they can succeed and grow. You don't answer the question, so our reference librarian asks it. Yet again, you don't answer it.
I hope you're not always like this, and it's not fair that I only have two documents plus this interview to assess your abilities, but here we are. Please, sit back in the chair. We don't bite. You end the interview with "I won't let you down," but you already have.
Applicant 5, you have knowledge of self. You are honest about your strengths and weaknesses, and you can articulate them both on paper and in person. This helps us better manage people, and it helps applicants because it turns potential negatives into positives. You make eye contact, you are engaging, you laugh at our jokes, and appear enough at ease to contribute a few of your own. Like the other applicants, you have retail experience. Unlike the others, you seem able to not only apply this to librarianship writ large, but also to your experiences therein. That you have been a non-traditional student, like many members of our community, is a plus. More importantly, not only do we know this, but you do. You make the connections. You don't tell, you show. We have a sense of who you are, and where you might fit in our organization, our library. During the interview we can picture you working here. Thank you for accepting our job offer. Welcome aboard.

UPDATE: Based on feedback in the comment section and on other forms of social media, there is another post that follows up on comments, complaints, critiques, and questions.

35 comments:

  1. I am in the midst of applying and interviewing for my first post-MLIS job, and this is so very helpful. (Also funny.) And it makes me feel a lot better about my own non-traditional-studentness, so thank you very much.

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    1. You are most welcome. I'm grateful and appreciative that so many people have read this. Best of luck to you in the job search.

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  2. Cats, did Number 2 or number 3 talk about her CATS..... Love the article!

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    1. While we have had cat conversations towards the end of interviews in the past, it didn't come up this time. Knitting and cardigans are also fair game. Let it be known that people who work in this library own cats, cardigans, and know how to knit.

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  3. This reminds me of something a librarian once told me: the worst thing you can say in a library interview is that you love books.

    Thanks for this post.

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  4. Oh this makes me feel self-conscious. I get horribly nervous in interviews. I'm hoping my first LIS job interview goes smoothly.

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  5. I think applicants 1-4 dodged a bullet. This is in poor taste and way too much of an overshare to be considered responsible or ethical (see principles V and VIII for starters). I think any f--king bunheads can be forgiven for being thrown off by your f--king bunhead blog theme?

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    1. I tried very hard to omit and eliminate the identifying details and characteristics of the applicants so that I wouldn't be guilty of oversharing, or worse, violating people's privacy and human resource laws. Perhaps they can recognize themselves in the post (Applicant 1 certainly can since they got an email that says much of what I wrote about them above), but I don't want others to read it and then be able to identify the people who interviewed.

      At the same time, if I were asked to give feedback to these applicants, my emails to them would be based off what I wrote above.

      For what it's worth, I expected many more people to have the kind of reaction that you're having to this post, and I'm surprised that feedback is running something like 30:1 in favor of the post.

      As for my f--king bunhead theme. I plead guilty. I was aware of this when I used that phrase, but at the same time I don't want a put a beer next to a monitor with a database or catalog or library website loaded up.

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

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    2. I'm not the person you responded to in this thread, but I do agree it borders on unprofessionalism. Both the blog and the near real-time tweeting seem to me a bit troubling.

      It's not that I mind the descriptions. Commentary on the field, on the attitudes, on management styles, and the like can be useful, valuable, and informative. However, I do think you could have written this in a more generalized way, without having to tiptoe around or cross over professional and ethical lines. The specifics (in your blog post and your tweets) don't help make your point in any way, and for me, if not some others, detract from it, if only for its sensationalism.

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    3. C. Sean, how would you have written in a more generalized way? I'm going to try to address some of the comments, and especially the critical ones, in a post next week. Thank you for reading and for commenting.

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    4. Hi Jacob, my apologies for not catching the reply sooner. First, I think you raise some excellent criticisms in the post (e.g., the problematic response from the applicants about what they liked about books -- the content or the container). I might have generalized this and the other problems by not referring to them within a narrative but by referring to the issues in the form of a critical essay, which I think you show is needed. In the 'book' instance, I might have written something about the need to have serious discussions about the {un}importance of the container and the importance of the content and the interaction between these two things, and that, any applicant to my library should be expected to have a discussion like that, which should also include a discussion about those who [may] use that library.

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  6. Overshare? Yeah, a bit. Still, the worse part about job interviews is not knowing how you failed. I'd rather hear harsh criticism than be left wondering.

    And about reading books...I feel the same. I love reading. But it wasn't why I became a librarian and it's not at all pertinent to what I do on a daily basis. I answer tech questions, work on our website, manage e-resources, teach information literacy. I don't sit behind a desk reading all day and it irks me when people imply that I do, or that a love of books is somehow a job qualification.

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  7. I'm a lot like candidate 1, but I'm a director now myself, so it's easy enough for me to convince administration to go along with my ideas since I AM administration. However [incomprehensible string of letters and numbers], it's all about fit. If Jake wants something specific for his library (and for his community) it is his prerogative to hire accordingly.

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  8. I really appreciate the tone of the comments here; respectful and awesome dialog about sticky issues.

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  9. I actually am embarrassed about how little librarians know about books, but I worked in a bookstore so at least I wasn't surprised.
    As for the job hunt, I'm on two search committees right now and my advice is write a cover letter relating your skills to the job described and incorporate information about the workplace you discovered during your research. BECAUSE YOU WOULD NEVER SUBMIT A COVER LETTER WITHOUT RESEARCHING YOUR POTENTIAL EMPLOYER, WOULD YOU?? Seriously folks, a good cover letter takes me about two hours to write. Boilerplate cover letters are the norm and it is easy to stand out if you spend some time writing and also not applying to jobs you don't meet the minimum stated requirements for. With HR being what it is, we *cannot* hire you if an MLS is needed and you haven't got it. HR won't even let us interview you, but if they did how can we give the job to someone who doesn't meet the minimum qulaifications and reject someone who *does* meet those qualifications?
    If you get a phone interview, listen to the questions and respond to them. Please don't answer questions you wished were asked. But saying "I don't know" with a follow up addressing how you would come to know is better than serving up hot plates of extemporized nonsense.

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    1. I probably select most of my interviewees based on a good cover letter.

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    2. I cannot overemphasize how important a good cover letter is. http://beerbrarian.blogspot.com/2012/08/new-year-new-library-why-we-hired-who.html

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  10. Feedback is great, but being publicly mocked is not so great. It's rude and hurtful even if you and they are the only ones who know their names. Don't you think they followed you on Twitter and read your comments about all the applicants? If I was in their place, I would probably have decided that your library was not a good fit for me--it seems pretty mean-spirited. You are the person with all the power in this equation, you know, and job-hunting is not fun.

    I have been the interviewer and I've been the candidate and it's hard on either side of the table when you realize pretty quickly that there's not a good fit. Perhaps some of your candidates didn't do well during the interview process because they could tell you were dismissive of them.

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  11. Though I agree with the broader concerns highlighted in your piece--fit, preparedness, and nerves--I dislike the lack of sympathy and respect for these candidates. Just because you didn't reveal their names and hair color, doesn't mean that you acted within the realm of professional ethics. The tweets are especially outrageous, as I am sure that at least one of the candidates found your account and read between the lines.
    Remember that as an employed person in a position to hire, you have the power. Be kind and fair; rework this piece into something helpful and serious. That said, I would like to suggest that there is no shame in admitting to a love of reading. That's what brought us to your blog, after all.

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    1. Amy, thank you for reading and commenting. I'd like to address the comments in a follow-up. How are you sure that one or more candidates has read this, or my tweets, and recognized themselves?
      Also, nobody should be ashamed of reading.

      Best,

      Jake

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    2. Hello Jacob,

      Thanks for the response. Your article generated a good conversation. I discovered it via an ALA JobLIST link in my facebook feed. It was actually nice to see them linking out to a librarian's blog, rather than career-advice .com sites, which tend to be less relevant to the job seeking academic librarian.

      Yes, you are correct: I am not %100 sure that the candidates googled you, a common activity that would lead them to your public twitter account and blog. But having been on several search committees, and with friends who are searching, I am confident that they are very likely to have done so. With only five candidates and tweets that are time stamped, an applicant with self-knowledge and basic research skills might recognize himself/herself as the subject of your story. (Why do I feel like I'm plotting out a scene in the most boring crime novel ever?)

      To be clear, I am on the side of feedback and honesty. The controversial aspects of the essay would vanish if you had disclosed your intention, to publicly share details of the search process, with your five candidates. Probably, they assumed the opposite--that what happens in the interview, stays in the interview. Why not invite them to participate? Get permission, invite them to read the essay, and receive comments from them?

      What it really comes down to, for me, is that harsh personal descriptions of the applicants, unrelated to their work record. I empathize with a person who may have seen himself/herself characterized as a sociopath in the murder-themed tweet. I guess my real question for you is this: if you were confident that the candidates were following you on social media, would you still write this?

      Thank you for reading,
      Amy

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  12. Re: Googleable names

    It's tough having the same name as someone involved with a Clinton scandal. Go ahead, I'll wait...

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    1. Heh. Does your resume say "No, not that one" on it?

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  13. Oh dear. I think I was an example of Candidate #4 today in an interview I had.

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  14. "Books are central to the library's mission" - if you told me you're planning to run a library without a single book...I'd be right there with you. Love you're piece, I know those candidates, I don't think you sounded too harsh FWIW. Interviews are tough, but if people don't know how they come across, what use is it to pat them on the head and say, 'well done, you tried your best?' Let's hope they followed you on Twitter, and swallowed their pride, and learned. If you ever interview me I'd hope for that sort of honest feedback.

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    1. Thanks, Craig. Again, if I were asked for feedback, it would look similar to this.

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  15. I found this post refreshingly honest and extremely helpful. I've worked as a school media assistant for 13 years and am hoping to start on my Master's degree next fall. I think that fit is so incredibly important, especially when it comes to working with kids. I'm also happy to hear that as an employer you value people who are aware of both their strengths and weaknesses. I value honest, friendly people who care about their patrons (in my case, high school students) and their colleagues and really enjoy helping and interacting with others. I'm not interested in being with people who only care about presenting themselves as perfect "librarians." This post has reassured me that I am on the right track in my career choice. Thank-you so much for writing it.

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  16. I just went through a 2 1/2 year job hunt and there were points in the process where I would have killed for candid feedback like this. At the same time, the length of the process made me pretty thin-skinned at times and if I'd been following the tweets of someone I'd interviewed with and seen tweets like the ones you posted, I might have been devastated, even if I was the only one who knew you were talking about me. It's a pretty fine line and I'm not sure which side of it you fall on, but I appreciate that you're coming from a place of trying to help by providing clear honest feedback.

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    1. Sarah, I think that's a very fair comment, and it's one I'm going to address in a future post, following up on this one. Thank you for reading and commenting.

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  17. For all intents and purposes, I am candidate number one. I know a lot of people find my zeal for librarianship off-putting. I can't help it though. I am thrilled by what I do! Conversely, those librarians who glided through an on-line degree program, "jumping hoops" as they called it, and now put in the very minimal effort it takes not to get fired (which in a large bureaucratic system is shockingly little) drive me absolutely bonkers.

    Right now I feel like I'm not moving ahead in my career because
    1) The overall economic slump
    2) I try too hard, or come across as "not the right fit" for exactly the reasons you mentioned.

    Have you got any advice for me? How do I finesse the right balance of being excited about a management position, but not TOO excited?

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  18. FWIW, Madigan, there are other managers out there who will appreciate your enthusiasm and give you the opportunity to shine. Jacob sounds harsh, but he's probably wise to recognize the fact that he wouldn't be a good mentor for you. You'd feel stifled and he'd feel run ragged, and you'd both be miserable.

    However, there are many employers (myself included) who actively seek out candidates with your passion. It's a different kind of institutional culture, and if you can find the right one, they'll adore you.

    Cold comfort, perhaps, when the tight job market makes it so hard to find anything at all. However, that spark is what will make you stand out from the dozens of other candidates you're up against.

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    ReplyDelete
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