Thursday, May 30, 2013

Interview 4.5.1: The Four-and-a-Half Follow Up Post

Initial book cover via Elizabeth (Eli) Perez. Source:
Job interviews are a strange thing. Based on as little as two pieces of paper and a half-hour of talking in person, hiring managers are supposed to be able to identify applicants who would benefit and add value to an organization. Last week I wrote about the face-to-face aspects of the job hunt, so what follows will make no sense unless you've read this. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Criticism 1: The ethics of oversharing
I accept that it may be the case that these applicants recognize themselves in the post. No doubt Applicant 5 will, as that person has accepted our job offer. I scrubbed all identifying information from these candidates. You will find nothing about gender, age, or appearance. The "f--king bunheads" did not have that hairstyle, as that terms refers to a mindset, and there's more on it below. In addition, I altered the chronology of the applicants. Applicant 1 was not the first person we interviewed, nor was Applicant 5 the last. I did this for the same reason I omitted other identifying details. If the candidates read that post and recognize themselves I think that is fine. I hope they take away some valuable insights from the interview process, which was one of the goals of the post. If the friends, families, and colleagues of the interviewees can recognize the candidates, then I agree that I have a problem.

On commenter wrote, "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." To me, and I think to most readers, these details are important because of the advice contained therein. Did anyone really need to be told to not act nervous during an interview, or to at least try to minimize the manifestations of those nerves? I'd rather not use this space for cliches and platitudes. The details are what matters; there are concrete ways in which candidates can improve their interview process. That post was about, in part, such improvements.

"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," wrote another commenter. This is food for thought for future interviews, though I doubt the controversy would vanish thanks to at least one tweet I wrote, and more on that below. But I am not seeking to to publish posts like this in journals that would require institutional board review (IRB) approval. I gave these applicants anonymity in the post, which of course they are owed.

Another commenter accused me of violating the American Library Code of Ethics (pdf), articles V and VIII. Here are said articles.
V. We treat co-workers and other colleagues with respect, fairness, and good faith, and advocate conditions of employment that safeguard the rights and welfare of all employees of our institutions. 
VIII. We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of coworkers, and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession.
I think that the charge relating to article V is wholly without merit, but it is addressed below all the same, as is article VIII (see: "Worst. Boss. Ever.). The last clause of article VIII is, I think, an awful thing to aspire to. I want competent librarians. I want good librarians. I want excellent librarians. The only way to ensure that our profession is to be good is to do good. If there is someone who wants to be a librarian, but you don't think will make a good one, then talk them out of it. Don't foster their aspirations. If you're not good at your job, I may call you out on it. It's been done before.

On that note, I talked none of these applicants out of librarianship. They all looked good on paper. In practice they need work interviewing. I hope they read this and recognize themselves and come back stronger next time. For all of them there will be a next time.

It is telling that an arm of the very organization in charge of this code of ethics promoted this blog post via the ALA Job List, though of course that was not without controversy or push-back. The weekly newsletter of American Libraries, American Libraries Direct, did the same.

Here is the Facebook part of said controversy. 

Corollary: They follow me on twitter.
No, these people do not follow me. Nor do I follow them. Though pseudonyms are all the rage, and I cannot rule out creating a false identity, I'm pretty good at figuring out who is following me on twitter, thanks to my librarian sleuthing skills. In doing a social media background check on the applicants I found one on twitter. I do not and will not follow this applicant on twitter, unless the applicant asks me to. There are other staff at the library who tweet. I also do not follow them. The same goes for friending them on Facebook. My reasoning is that I don't want them to think they're being watched on social media. And they're not being watched, at least not by me. An exception is on May 8th, when I noticed a candidate taking photos of our campus and putting them on Instagram. This candidate also linked a resume to their twitter handle, so I checked that after the interview to see what was said, if anything, about the process. And as it turns out, this person did say something. And it was nice. Because I like nice things, I tweeted it, which is below.

Let it be known that I do not tweet during job interviews, but I may do so beforehand and afterwards. Thanks to the miracle of the twitter archive, here are the sum total of my tweets about interviewing candidates:
Question I really wanted to ask that last applicant, but held back on: "Have you ever killed someone by accident, but secretly enjoyed it?" - 5/16/13
"Connecting with people through information." - Something a job applicant here said. There's still hope for the future. -5/15/13
Interviewing someone for a PT position today. The candidate has an un-googleable name because it's the same as a semi-famous author. - 5/15/13
Our interviewee on twitter: "Job interview went well - cosy [sic] library which screamed 70s retro, small dedicated team, amazing smell." - 5/8/13
Doing a social media check on a job applicant while said applicant is instagramming photos of our campus. Ahh, the 21st century. - 5/8/13
Just interviewed a candidate who also works at Trader Joe's, so my first question was "what's your favorite item?" Answer: Garlic naan. - 1/15/13
Just interviewed a candidate who's writing a thesis on ska. #librariansareawesome - 1/10/13
Arriving 25 minutes early for an interview & then asking to have it immediately is poor form, prospective applicants. #protip - 8/6/12
First person we interviewed for the part-time position name-checked The Wire. The bar has been set. High. - 8/3/12
Attn, #library job seekers: if I ask you for a color, and you say "banana," you don't get the job. Answer the question! - 5/23/11
I assume that the first tweet above is the one driving much of the criticism of this piece. I find it humorous because I have a dark, morbid sense of humor. It was also clear to me that the candidate I wanted to ask this question to was out of their element, and asking odd questions, though not this odd, can often "reset" an interview. We employed that tactic in one interview. I didn't work. So it goes. Another applicant had spent some time in Naples, so I asked a question about the best local options for Neapolitan-style pizza. Some may find the first tweet cruel and callous, and I understand why. To the extent that there are intersubjective, agreed upon ethical norms here, I don't think they were violated, and I'm heartened that the majority of people who've given me feedback agree. In fact, the number of compliments on that post from library and information professionals who are looking for work outweighs all criticism by at least thirty to one. Moreover, much, if not all, of the criticism on that job post appears to be from employed librarians, whereas the response of job seekers has been positive. I like to think that I know where the ethical line is, and judging from the responses, I have that right.

"[I]f you were confident that the candidates were following you on social media, would you still write this?" asked a commenter. I think that's an excellent question, one I don't have an answer for. In January we hired someone for a similar position who I had a pre-existing professional relationship with via twitter. I have noticed a tendency among librarians on social media to overestimate the role of said media. In the grand scheme of things, very few of us (something like 120,000 librarians, of whom 51,000 are American Library Association members) are on twitter, for example. And while you, dear reader, may conduct some research on a position beforehand, it was clear to those of us present in these interviews that this was not the case. Not everyone is as savvy as you, though I wish they were. As for posting potentially controversial statements, thoughts, opinions, and quotes on social media, the internet comic xkcd has it right, but that is my mileage; yours may vary.

Criticism 2: Heartless bastard
Again, back to that first tweet. Yeah, I thought it. I also tweeted it. I didn't ask it. That would be an awful, irresponsible thing to do. We don't bring people to campus for interviews so we can mock, torture, and humiliate them. We don't have that kind of spare time and I'm not that sadistic. We bring them to campus because based on their resumes and cover letters, they appear to be strong candidates for a position here. In this round of interviews, much more so than other rounds, there was a disconnect between what was on paper, or the screen, and meeting in person.

"Perhaps some of your candidates didn't do well during the interview process because they could tell you were dismissive of them," wrote one commenter. No. Despite what you think of the alleged professionalism or lack thereof of that blog post, we don't do that at my place of work. Again, that would be an awful, irresponsible thing to do. Also again, based on what we saw in terms of resumes and cover letters, we were eager to meet these applicants. There were multiple people present for these interviews, always including someone who is not a librarian. We were all in agreement on these candidates, who were given numerous opportunities to present themselves, free of any biases.

There is an alternative explanation: the applicants met us and within the first five minutes decided to tank the job. I find this highly unlikely given how they interviewed, but it's not out of the realm of possibility. I once had a phone interview for an academic position and it was clear within about that time frame that it was not going to be a good fit. I was a bit frustrated and it was not my finest moment. I regret doing so. After all, I could end up meeting these fellow librarians in the future. It was a stupid, immature move on my part, one I've learned from. But again, I don't think that happened here.

As a librarian aware of the surfeit of unemployed librarians on the job market and as someone who has been unemployed in the past, I know the pain of the job searching process. I still remember the shame and humiliation, the loss of self-worth, that comes with the job search process while not earning any money, being unable to provide. It's an awful feeling. It's one reason why I write posts like these from time to time.

I'm rooting for these candidates. We all are. I want to cheerlead for them. We all do. But if they come into an interview having not prepared, being so nervous that they can't complete a sentence, well then my time, our time, is being wasted.

"I think candidates 1-4 dodged a bullet" said another commenter. And that brings us to the work environment here.

Corollary I: Worst. Boss. Ever.
Might this workplace be some sort of dystopian nightmare, based on that blog post? Might I run around humiliating staff, calling them names like a library version of Gordon Ramsay?

Far from it. There are six, soon to be seven, people who work in the library. I have been in several positions here, over a total of more than six years. Our reference librarian has been here for more than five years in two positions. Two of our part-time staff enjoy this work atmosphere so much that despite earning full-time librarian positions some time ago, they still work here between fifteen and twenty-five hours per week (they also have students loans to pay off; it's not all sunshine and rainbows). We are one of the most stable departments on campus, which is something I'm proud of. I like to think that our interview process, which has graced us with these staff members, plays a role in their longevity. We know how to pick 'em. Then we know how to keep 'em. I'm also proud of the culture of experimentation and ownership that I've helped to create at this library. It is okay to fail here. I have their backs, and they know that. In January of 2012 I wrote,
I called a meeting of all our full-time and part-time staff, and told them to treat the library like a laboratory. We’re going to try some things here. We will fail some of the time, but that’s life, and I’ll do my best to limit the damage.
None of these staff members is over 30. All have skill sets that I, and the others, don’t. Some are still in library school. I retain veto power, but this will be interesting. More later. 
To the extent that I have the power to control what goes on in this library, and some days it's more than others, I think you, dear reader, would like it here. And because we, not just I, were unimpressed with many of the applicants we brought in, we're still hiring. Interested? Let me know.

Corollary II: F--king Bunheads
I did not come up with this term. Another academic library director did, and immediately apologized for it. Note that I linked to said apology. Note the quote from the library loon about librarianship getting what it deserves at the top of the post. Self-awareness? I haz that. Irony? That, too. Also note, as one astute commenter did, that the theme of my blog is a shelf full of books. A shelf full of books is a wonderful thing, made more so with a dark lager.

But if you are interviewing for a position in an academic library, "I like books" is not an appropriate response to any question save for "Do you like books?" Know your audience, interviewees. This is not to say that books are not important, they are, and they will continue to be so. Yet in academic libraries there is no primacy of books, certainly not in the way one might see books in children's section of a public library or a school library. And full disclosure, I moonlight as a school media specialist. I, too, love books, but of the approximately 214,000 circulating items in this library, only 10,613 did so (data is from the 2011-12 fiscal year). It's unfair to expect an applicant to know that, but I think it's fair to expect them to be somewhat aware of the challenges facing academic libraries when interviewing for a position.

Criticism 3: Taxonomy
No, there is no such thing as a "librarian personality, 1, 2, 3,..." You get the idea. This is not a taxonomy. It's fine if you self-identify as "I'm type 1 with a dash of 5," but Myers-Briggs is probably better suited to an exercise like the one some readers and commenters are engaging in.

Criticism 4: Johnny Law
"yikes! doesn't this kind of thing violate privacy and hr laws? (sorry to be a party pooper)"
That's a tweet from someone who read the post. No, it doesn't violate any laws.

The Plight of Applicant 1
Applicant 1 wasn't so engaging in their enthusiasm because they were compensating for lack of experience. This candidate had worked in archives and also had significant experience teaching, researching, and supervising students workers. On paper, Applicant 1 was excellent. I tried to talk myself into hiring this person, but it was clear that it would not be a good fit in this library, even though this person would no doubt help advance the mission of the university. That we did not extend this person an offer says far more about me, and my management style in particular, than it does about them. 

Do not be surprised to hear about this person as a Mover/Shaker/Emerging Leader, or some other holder of accolades in the near future. It just wouldn't work here, and that's sad. I wish I knew how to manage someone with that energy level and personality. But I don't, and I'm still thinking about it. 

By now everyone knows the cliche "don't read the comments!" I'm very heartened and appreciative of the respectful and inquisitive tone of comments and feedback on the initial post, be they on the blog, or on social media networks like twitter, Facebook  and Google +. Thank you all for reading, sharing, and commenting. I'm happy to continue doing so on or in media of your choice.




  1. Worst boss ever? Nope. I love working for people who are honest and have a sense of humor. I also appreciate your taking the time to address your critics in a calm, reasoned way. Cheers!

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  3. I think anyone who remembers their interviews or has had to interview applicants should have been able to recognize the 5 types of applicants. I have been all 5 applicants in my life at one point and time. if the 5 types of applicants and the hiring committee's thoughts had been in any of the job interview books i read(i read a lot of them, still do to help others) it would have helped me fix my problem areas.

    The ones who got offended are probably ones who recognized themselves and did not like what they saw. The ones who did not find the jokes funny are probably the sensitive type who were politically correct before that was even a phrase because God forbid you hurt somebody's feelings by telling them the truth.

    As far as ethics- you did not name names, it was anonymous. It's like when people post a status on FB/twitter "Phony people are ...", and 5 or more of their friends think it's about them when it was just a general statement. I do see how some would call the tweets unprofessional but technically wasn't. you did not tweet during the interview and you did not say what you tweeted to the applicants.

    I was very surprised so many people had a problem with your very helpful blog. the fact this still surprised me even though I love to read the comments after articles, blogs, etc. Ignorance and offense still surprise me. I can only think the reason must be I surround myself with people who are rarely show me that side of humanity and that's why it often surprises me when i see it.

  4. I just want to say thank you for not kowtowing to your critics. It's a shame that so many librarians have difficulty distinguishing (1) your personal opinions as expressed on your personal blog from (2) how you behave as a library director. Nothing about your initial post suggests that you are in any way deficient with respect to either professional ethics or compassion. Sure, your post may have been a bit blunter than some librarians are used to (we are, after all, stereotyped as a meek profession), but that's a matter of taste and de gustibus non est disputandum. As far as I can tell, you're an honest and fair library director who actually shows some compassion for job-seekers by sharing a director's perspective on the job search. Keep fighting the good fight. D

  5. As someone looking for library work (in DC! But not in an academic library, unless you need an archivist in which case, yes please) I really appreciated the previous post because a lot of the advise is either obvious and generic (wear a suit. research the institution. ask them questions, too.) or geared toward getting the interview, not doing well at it. It also made me feel better about jobs I've interviewed well for and still not gotten.

  6. Sorry for commenting on a five-month-old post, but I just read it and since I've paid the price of admission, I'll bloat your comments section a little. I like your point that job seekers reacted postively and employed librarians reacted negatively, which makes perfect sense because the two groups have different interests. I'm actually the spouse of a job seeker so maybe this will give a slightly different perspective.

    First thought: Super valuable, helpful post; keep them coming. My partner's been through over a year of library job searching and this kind of feedback is great insight into the thought processes of an interviewer.

    Second thought: There's no way that calling someone a boring, blankly-staring 'f--ing bunhead' is respectful, and I don't see why you're hedging about it. Your post was brutally, refreshingly candid, which makes it valuable, not respectful. Anonymizing the candidates doesn't make any difference to them. And since I know that a job seeker who manages to get all the way to the interview stage but still gets rejected will obsess over what happened, it's likely that your bunheads managed to find your post (they are librarians after all), read it, and were very hurt. I know my partner would be in tears reading that about himself after what may have been his first professional interview in months, even if no one else knew it was about him.

    So if making a colleague cry is disrespect, then I think your post was a pretty clear violation of article V of the 'librarian ethics' code. But so what? Why try to pretend that your name-calling was really respect in disguise? The value of your post derives from and outweighs its disrespect. You might lose your union membership, but don't backtrack; just acknowledge that you threw respect out the window for the greater good. Nothing wrong with that. I know in my field (computer science), there is no similar obligation of mutual hugs and kisses (though programmers do have long memories). Honest feedback by both parties evolves the market, and those interviewers who found your post will almost certainly not repeat their mistakes. So, kudos.

    One last, unrelated tangent: contra one of your tweets, banana is definitely a color. In fact, Procato's RGb color search engine ( lists 7 varieties of banana colors, and COLOURlovers actually returns 67 *pages* of banana colors as of the time of this comment. So my advice to job interviewees: if an interviewer thinks your answer is invalid but you disagree, challenge them and defend your answer! That will make an interviewer stand up and notice you.

  7. I mentioned this article in a recent blog post:
    I know this is an old post, but your words really stayed with me: "I want competent librarians. I want good librarians. I want excellent librarians. The only way to ensure that our profession is to be good is to do good. If there is someone who wants to be a librarian, but you don't think will make a good one, then talk them out of it. Don't foster their aspirations."
    As a new library school student, I've been heartened by the intelligence, passion, and creativity of many of my fellow students. Then there are those few who just aren't. I'm not one to discourage others from their chosen path, no matter how poorly prepared they are to travel it. Regardless, I'm very glad there are librarians like you out there who are willing to be honest and direct with those who will be mediocre librarians at best, bitter underemployed LIS grads at worst. Thank you.