Further Questions: How might a candidate overcome a bad first impression?

This week we asked people who hire librarians:

How might a candidate overcome a bad first impression? Job searching advice always says to be early, prepare for the unexpected, and research everything ahead of time, but social faux pas can still happen. Can a candidate still advance in the process or land the job if they make a mistake, particularly in an in person interview? Why or why not? Bonus points if you have any related stories, personally or from your libraries.

Laurie Phillips

I think it’s hard to overcome a bad first impression but not impossible. I’ve had people be late, but then recover. We had a candidate years ago who said, during her tour of the library before dinner (the night before her all day interview), something to the effect that undergraduates are stupid. Well, we’re primarily an undergraduate institution so that was decidedly a wrong answer. I thought to myself, “well, she’s not getting the job.” If she had realized her mistake and addressed it later, it might have changed our minds about her. But she didn’t. We have dinner with the candidate the night before the interview day and we hope that they can relax and talk to us. New Orleans is a tough city to have dinner with a committee if you’re not a foodie – lots of things on the menu that you might not be familiar with. If the person looks like a deer in the headlights, it’s hard for us to interact. If they’re not afraid to ask questions, or just go with the flow, we’ll get off on the right foot. Honestly, we have an evening and a full day with the candidate, so there are a lot of venues and opportunities for the candidate to shine or to overcome initial nervousness.

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


Jason GrubbThe best way to overcome a bad first impression is to make a good first impression. There is no room for error. I’ve been on multiple selection committees. It is almost impossible to forget a social faux pas. It sometimes becomes the defining point of the entire interview and all that can be remembered even when the candidate stood out in so many other positive ways. It’s human nature I suppose that we can forgive, but not forget even when we try. We were interviewing an amazing candidate that arrived chewing gum. She eventually removed the gum after the first question, but the damage was done. The gum became the focus of the post interview deliberations instead of her terrific answers to the interview questions. If you catch yourself doing something stupid during the interview don’t ignore it. Point it out, explain it off as nerves and hope that the other candidates do something far worse.

– Jason Grubb, Director, Sweetwater County Library System


It is extremely difficult to recover from a bad first impression. Also, if you plan to apply for another position at the same institution and you made a bad impression the first time, even though the search committee is only supposed to review candidates based on their application materials, if they remember you it may impact your chances at getting the next job.

It also depends on the other candidates and how they performed at the on site interview, it is possible your faux pas is not as bad as you thought or the other candidate said or did something much, much worse. If it is something out of our control (such as you are out of town for an interview, you are traveling with only one suit and the waiter at breakfast spills an entire pot of coffee and maple syrup on you) you can try to use humor to diffuse the situation or simply just explain to the search committee what happened and hope for the best.

The only bonus item I can think of from personal experience is we had a candidate make some racial slurs during her presentation. She did not get the job, it was several years ago, and people still bring it up.

– Julie Leuzinger, Department Head, Eagle Commons Library, University of North Texas Libraries


Celia RabinowitzWe actually had a case here of inviting a librarian for an interview who never showed up and never contacted us to tell us what happened. I was not the director at the time so I don’t know how that was resolved, but I do remember waiting to hear from the person and the committee eventually deciding that she was not going to arrive. This is was before cell phones or laptops so communication was not as easy as it is now.

I think a lot about answering this question rides on the kind of bad impression. Did a candidate make a joke that wasn’t funny? Was it really offensive? Were they overly finicky at dinner? Provide more details about their life than they should have? Most of those go into that amorphous “fit” category. How much can be chalked up to nerves or fatigue and how much is a harbinger of things to come? There is a fine line between quirky and creepy. Did almost everyone who had an opportunity to meet the candidate express some concerns or did the person make one big whopping mistake? Even though the in-person interview experience is short, I think it is possible to try to envision the candidates in your library. Will you and your colleagues feel comfortable? Do you think the candidate will? Will people come to trust and respect that person? It is heard to make a decision especially when there is more that went right than went wrong you might overlook the bad impression (assuming that it wasn’t formed because of something the person did or said that is outside the bounds of acceptable behavior).

We hired a librarian recently for a teaching and research support position whose teaching demonstration was the weakest part of her interview and she knew it. But we all were convinced that she had the most potential and did so well otherwise that we offered her the job. I think she was surprised when I called her. And she is a great part of our team.
– Celia Rabinowitz, Director of the Library, St. Mary’s College of Maryland

angelynn kingIt is always possible to recover from an error if you’re honest, self-aware, and in control of your emotions. Just acknowledge the mistake, take responsibility, and move on. The search committee members have all been on the other side of the table, so they know what it’s like to be nervous, and most of them will be understanding. (If they’re mean, you don’t want to work there, anyway.) Academic library job interviews frequently last a whole day or even longer, so it’s the overall impression that will stay with them, not any one thing the candidate said or did.

There’s a difference, though, between a misstep and a serious lack of judgment. Here are a few examples taken from real life…

Error (recoverable):

1. Getting someone’s name wrong
2. Blanking on a question
3. Arriving a little bit late
4. Being somewhat under- or over-dressed

Bad mistake (cause of concern):

1. Being rude to the support staff
2. Drinking too much
3. Saying bad things about your former or current employer/coworkers
4. Being obviously unfamiliar with the institution or area

Remember, everyone assumes that at the interview you are putting forward the best possible version of your professional self. If you can’t get through eight hours without saying or doing something unpleasant, they will not want to see how you react under day-to-day pressure.

-Angelynn King, Head Librarian, Delaware Technical Community College, Owens Campus

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 us at hiringlibrariansquestionsATgmail.com.

Thank YOU for reading!  If you liked reading, you’re going to really love COMMENTING.


Filed under Academic, Archives, Further Questions, Public, School, Special

2 responses to “Further Questions: How might a candidate overcome a bad first impression?

  1. Pingback: Further Questions Questions | Hiring Librarians

  2. Pingback: Return to Further Questions Questions | Hiring Librarians

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.