Thursday, July 30, 2020

Some Insights for Interviewees & Interviewers

Tips for library interviews and hiring managers

So, I have officially started job-hunting after getting my MLIS and losing my paraprofessional job in a mass pandemic-related layoff, which includes experiencing virtual interviews for the first time. In thinking about all the interview experiences I've had past and present, and looking over various questions I've actually gotten or found online, I have a few tips for interviewees, but I have even more insights for interviewers to make the process both less painful for the candidate and more productive and informative for them.

For interviewees, prepare and practice! It is so hard to remember all the things you planned to say when the nerves kick in during the real thing, so practice going over your answers with a friend, in your head, in the mirror, and/or writing them out. You can find tons of great lists of questions online if you look. I spent as much time as I could, but it still wasn't enough. Though I gave decent answers, afterward I realized all the additional things I meant to say and didn't. Also, be sure to spend some time researching the community and the library, and make sure to demonstrate that in the interview.

For me, virtual interviews add whole other layer of anxiety to an already stressful event, with the added technology issues. My first virtual interview was a real struggle, as I could not hear one of the interviewers at all, and had some trouble hearing and clearly understanding the other two. I had to keep asking them to repeat, and had to concentrate so hard to make out the questions that it was mentally exhausting, and really affected my whole performance. I did the best I could, but it did mess with my head and threw me off a little. Here are a few tips:
  • Be familiar with Skype, MS Teams, Zoom, and other popular videoconferencing tools, because you never know what they're going to use or if they will switch platforms on you at the last minute. True Story. (If given a choice, I prefer Teams.)
  • Be prepared for technical difficulties, problems hearing and understanding the interviewers, and be ready to pretend like it isn't stressing you the heck out. Consider investing in a discreet wireless headset to aid with audio.
  • Put a poster or dry erase board up behind the camera where you can see it with key words and points you want to be sure to include in your answers.
  • Put books you can talk about where you can see them to prompt your memory.
  • Have some ephemera from your work: things from programs, flyers, bibliographies, and such handy in case you want to show them.
  • Have water handy to sip.
  • Take time to check lighting and background, and maybe do a little staging.
  • Wear something you feel comfortable and confident in.

I have quite a few tips for interviewers, based on both my experiences and hearing about others' experiences. This is not based on any single interview and is not meant as criticism, but just my insights on how to have a more productive interview from the interviewee's point of view:

  • Please don't use Skype for virtual interviews. MS Teams, Zoom, or Facetime are easier and seem more reliable.
  • If there are multiple people on the panel for a virtual interview, and you are all in the same room with one device, trying to social distance and wearing masks, the poor candidate is going to have a very hard time hearing and understanding you, and be mentally exhausted by the effort. You don't need to be physically together; be in your own spaces and each on your own device, where masks won't be needed and you won't be far from the mic.
  • Provide the candidate with the questions in writing before the interview starts to make sure they understand the question correctly, and minimize the time wasted in having to repeat things.
  • If you are doing virtual interviews for external candidates, you should do them even for internal candidates so that it is an even playing field. They are vastly different experiences.
  • Ask all candidates the same set of core questions to be fair and easier to compare, but also ask each a couple based on their resume and unique skills, experiences, or accomplishments so you are getting a complete picture.
  • For a children's position, please let us do the prepared mini-storytime at the beginning! That is our comfort zone, and will help us warm up and relax before the questions start. And please, help us out and try to play along and respond to prompts as a real audience would.
  • Most interviews consist of about 10 questions, which is really not very many to truly assess a candidate. So make sure every questions counts, and is really getting at what's most important. Ask follow up and clarifying questions.
  • Don't ask why we want the position or want to work there. Come on, we all know how desperate the job market is, and the truth is we need a job, and you have an opening! Don't waste a question fishing for compliments about your library. Yes, I know you want to know that we've done some research, and that we really have a passion for whatever type of work that position will be doing and not just applying for anything and everything, but you can get that from all the other questions, looking at transcripts and prior work experience.
  • Don't ask for our favorite book or author. That really has nothing to do with our ability to do the job. You might think it's a softball question, but for those of us who like and love many books and truly do not have a favorite, this question causes anxiety, and it's just a waste of time. Better to ask about genres, or just something we've read lately, but even then there are much better questions to ask.
  • Instead, what you REALLY need to know is whether we can be effective in providing reader's advisory. And that doesn't mean you give a scenario and expect us to pull the perfect recommendation out of the air. What is better and more relevant is to ask us HOW we would go about finding titles to recommend, not WHAT we would recommend. What tools would we use? Do we have a strategy, an effective process for when we don't just know off the tops of our heads. THAT's the important part!
  • Does the position involve programming? Then ask about the programming we've done, what has been successful, what we are proud of. Also, ask about the programs that didn't quite go as expected. How do we handle it when things don't quite work the way we expected. Also, ask about our programming philosophy - what is the purpose of programming? What are our goals for programs? Is it about the process or the product? Is it academic or experiential? How does programming tie into the collection and other library services? Does our philosophy mesh well with the goals of your library?
  • Definitely ask the usual conflict questions, see how we handle difficult situations. But, don't hold it against the candidate if they have been lucky enough no to have actually had really difficult customers or conflicts with coworkers. Some people are just lucky, or maybe have the skills to prevent it from ever getting to that point. Allow for a "what would you do if" scenario question, rather than insisting on a "tell me about a time" question with a real-life example.
  • Ask about creativity, but understand creativity can be constant and subtle, not always big and bold. Asking for examples of innovation or initiating change for an entry level position really isn't quite fair, as most likely the candidate has been working in lower level positions where they do not have the authority to be innovative or initiate any changes. Allow for hypotheticals.
  • If the position involves collection development, then definitely ask something related to that, such as how they would handle a patron complaining about the content of a children's book. Look for a response that mentions the importance of having and following a well-written collection development policy, in addition to listening and being tactful and showing patron how to file a request for reconsideration. Look for an indication of having had a collection development course (you'd be surprised at how many MLIS programs don't require it) and doing collection development projects. Be sure we understand weeding is a very necessary function to maintain a healthy collection.
  • If none of your questions even touch on diversity in any way, realize that suggests to the candidate that diversity is not a priority there, and that's a red flag. Mirrors, windows, own voices, and diverse POVs are so very important, as is reaching underserved populations, making sure everyone feels welcome, and increasing diversity in the field. There really should be at least one question that touches on one of those.
  • Also, look for candidates that have some formal education or training in child development, an understanding of child behavior, and a genuine desire to work with children and families. Ask a behavior management question to see if their expectations are developmentally appropriate, and that they would have an appropriate and tactful response. Child development knowledge is a necessary competency for children's librarians that not all candidates possess equally (And if you're interested, I know a great research paper coming out in April 2022 that shows this 😉.)
  • If you want someone with new ideas, ask how they stay current and keep up with new trends, what they do for professional development (and would like to do), where do they get ideas for programs. What are some programs they would like to do, but haven't had the chance to do. Do they have ideas for virtual or alternative programming to use while in-person programming is not possible.
  • And assuming you are reading this in 2020 or early 2021, as a former microbiologist I can tell you this pandemic isn't going away any time soon; we will be dealing with this for *at least* another year, possibly more. Definitely ask questions about what role we think libraries play during this time, how can we serve the public's information needs without putting staff and the community at further risk? What can we do besides virtual programming? What lasting impact do we think this pandemic will have on libraries and youth services?
  • Ask the candidate what qualities a children's librarian should have. The response should include genuinely liking and being able to relate to children and families, patience, flexibility, initiative, some level of creativity, a willingness to try new things, tolerance for chaos, and a sense of humor. Those things cannot be taught. Also important is a knowledge of child development, early literacy, and behavior. While it's good to have a knowledge of children's literature, that can be learned on the job.
  • I know the recent trend is to just use the resume to decide who gets interviewed, and base the final decision solely on the interview. Personally, I don't think you necessarily get the best candidate this way. You get the person who is best at interviewing. Use all the information you have to inform your decision. Some people who are great librarians just don't interview as well because of anxiety, and some people who perform really well in interviews turn out to be complete duds at actually doing the job.

If you ask these questions, you really should be able to get a good sense of the candidate's qualifications and genuine interest in the job, and if they've done their research on your library as they should, they will also have enough sense to demonstrate that in their answers.

And finally, good luck to everyone who is dealing with the job-hunting/hiring process in the middle of a pandemic, which has made an already difficult job market 10 times worse, and an already stressful process even more challenging!

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