Further Questions: How Can a Candidate Get an Accurate Understanding of the Workplace Atmosphere?

This week we have a question submitted by the same reader from last week. I asked people who hire librarians:

Any tips/tricks/methods for a job seeker for seeing through the “Company Behavior” that goes on during an interview, to get a sense of what the “everyday” atmosphere at a library is like? I’ve heard way too many horror stories about people feeling like everything clicked in an interview, accepting a position, and only then discovering that it was a really toxic environment.

Marleah AugustineIf it’s possible for you to be a patron of that library, or at least stop in and observe the employees before you are hired, you may be better able to identify that atmosphere. Do staff seem to work well together? Do staff work with patrons well? It is more difficult to identify the environment between librarians that may be more behind the scenes, especially if it’s a larger library — I may have to read those tips myself!

– Marleah Augustine, Adult Department Librarian at Hays Public Library

Pay attention to the other staff not on the hiring committee.  Spend some time at the library—either a day or two before, or arrive earlier for the interview—just to observe how the staff work together.  Do they seem happy, content, satisfied with their jobs?  Hopefully you can meet a few other people as part of the interview day: some libraries will have a staff member give a tour, others will have a prospective candidate meet briefly with others in the department.  In those interactions, do the staff seem threatened, possibly by you?  Do they volunteer positive comments about the library, director, manager, or department? Do their comments seem genuine?  A few people on a committee can put on a good face, but if the library is in a bad place, front-line and entry-level staff don’t have a reason to hide it from you.

Also, look for numbers.  Either at the interview or before, ask about turn-over rates for the last few years, both library-wide and department-specific.  Does the library have trouble hanging on to good people?  Get a copy of the annual report; look at rankings reported by the state library.  What’s the budget like?  How well are staff paid?  How are the benefits?  Management that cares about the staff will try to do right by them.

Lastly, be a librarian.  Find local news articles about the library.  Do they highlight programs or report on controversy?  Have there been any lawsuits involving the current director?  Find people who list the library, or specifically your potential position, on their resumes, websites, or linked-in pages.  How long were they at the library?  Is the relevant work history presented in a positive way?

– Anonymous

J. McRee Elrod


A careful study of their website prior to the interview might help.



– J. McRee (Mac) Elrod, Special Libraries Catalouging





Laurie PhillipsI think there are a number of questions you could ask. One, if you have the opportunity to speak to individuals, ask them straight out if they like their jobs. Years ago, I interviewed a candidate for a staff position who asked that question to all of us in front of each other. The ensuing conversation was great! Some of the questions from this article could be really helpful. “How do you celebrate accomplishments?” “To what do you attribute your success?” And then some that they didn’t mention, such as: “How do you work together to accomplish larger projects? Is there an esprit de corps to get things done together?” Just as we do with you, think about what you want to know, then craft questions to ask that will elicit the answers you need to hear. And not yes or no questions.  Ask them to describe library-wide initiatives and how they got the work done and achieved buy-in. Use every interaction with faculty and staff to get a feel for things.

– Laurie Phillips, Associate Dean for Technical Services, J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans

Rich MurrayMy favorite way to assess the emotional atmosphere when I’m interviewing is to ask this question one or more times during the day: “What do you like about working here?”  This question works best when you’re meeting with a group and is especially good if you’re meeting with the department/section/unit you would be working in.  Once I was at an interview where I was already starting to suspect it was a toxic environment, and when I asked this question of the department I would’ve been working with, there was complete silence in the room.  You could practically see the tumbleweeds blow through the room; nobody could come up with ANYTHING they liked about working there.  On the other hand, when I interviewed for my current job, they had no problems coming up with things they liked about working there and were practically falling all over themselves rattling off things they enjoyed about their jobs.  Needless to say, I withdrew from the former search and accepted an offer from the latter.

Asking people what their favorite things are about working there is a GREAT emotional barometer for the climate.  You particularly hope that someone, and preferably more than one person, mentions their colleagues/the people they work with as something they like about their job.

Also, spend time observing how people interact with each other.  Do they seem to like each other?  Do they joke around with each other?  Are they passive-aggressive with each other?  Do they seem interested in being there?  Remember, don’t let one person scare you off – even the most healthy environment has a few kooks – but look for the general mood and climate.  Trust your instincts.  At the end of the interview, you will be tired, but you should feel excited about the prospect of working there.  If there are red flags, particularly related to emotional healthiness, think seriously about whether you really want to wade into that swamp.

-Rich Murray, Metadata Librarian, Digital Collections Program, Duke University

Thank you as always to our contributors for their time and insight.  If you’re someone who hires librarians and are interested in participating in this feature, please email me at hiringlibrariansATgmail.com.

Thank YOU for reading! You can’t always comment what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you comment what you need.

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Filed under Academic, Further Questions, Other Organization or Library Type, Public, Special

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