Further Questions: How did you learn to hire people?

Each week (or thereabouts) I will ask the same question to a group of people who hire library and LIS workers. If you’d like to be part of this group, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.

This week’s question is:

How did you learn to hire people? What did you learn through formal training versus through mistakes, mentoring, or some other method? Are there trainings or tools you would recommend?

Photo of Celia after finishing a marathon first in her age group. She wears an orange shirt and has a medal

Celia Rabinowitz, Dean of Mason Library, Keene State College: I love this question! This is so not something that any of us learns in library school (at least I didn’t) and that might actually be more useful than some of the management topics we did cover (granted, I went to library school in 1991-1992 so a few things have changed).

Most of what I have learned has come from a combination of the experiences of being a candidate myself, being a member of a search committee, and chairing a search committee. I did not receive any formal training beyond the obligatory sessions with Human Resources staff that are a part of every search I have done. That work focuses primarily on issues around consistent and equitable process, reminders about what kinds of questions are illegal to ask, and now attention to DEI commitments.

My strongest recommendation is to find opportunities to participate on search committees. They can be a lot of work but it is rewarding and an important contribution to the life of your organization. If you have the chance to be on a committee for a department completely outside the library, take it, and that includes searches for very senior administrative positions. These are really great opportunities to get to know coworkers and the process. Then – remember that this process is really much more an art than a science. We have all experienced wonderful candidate visits, a successful hire, and then a struggle with a colleague who does not turn out to be what we expected. And most of us have wondered if that candidate with the dismal interview experience might really turn out to be just who we need.

I don’t have training or tools to recommend. I do encourage thinking about what questions you have for candidates that you think will really help you understand them and give them some insight to the organization they are interested in joining. In my experience, search committee members find themselves aligning much more than you might think about which candidates seem strongest. And leaving space if you have it for a long shot can be a smart move.

Alison M. Armstrong, Collection Management Librarian, McConnell Library, Radford University: Some, I learned through trial and error. Experience has taught me that I should usually trust myself. Other things were from blogs like this one. I learned a lot from talking to other managers.

In conversations with colleagues, friends, and family, I listen to their experiences and we talk through things and different perspectives. The confidential nature of hiring and management can make talking about current issues or questions a challenge. This can have a soloing effect and make you feel like you are working in isolation but, talking in general terms, and broadly speaking about past experiences can allow information sharing and learning from others to occur.

Hearing about the experiences of others in a variety of professions can be beneficial. You never know when a piece of information will stick with you for you to apply months or years later.

Jimmie Epling, Director, Darlington County Library System:

How did you learn to hire people? Learning to hire people is an ongoing task. The way you hire people changes with the introduction of new laws or the reinterpretation of existing laws, societal trends, the latest recommended management practices, and the staff involved in the process. This said, it seems the library science programs generally do a poor job of training students in employment practices. The best training for me came by way of continuing education lead by human resources managers, especially SHRM certified managers, and labor attorneys.

What did you learn through formal training versus through mistakes, mentoring, or some other method? The best hiring practices and advice came through formal training. The formal training was impactful because it spoke to the costly financial consequences on an organization just by an accusation can have and the simple ways such could be avoided. You don’t want to learn by your mistakes. Mentoring is helpful, but there are practices that a mentor may encourage that are really unproductive for all involved, such as courtesy interviews.

Are there trainings or tools you would recommend? The best training is lead by human resources managers, especially SHRM certified managers, and labor attorneys. A good resource is the Allied Professional Association of the American Library Association’s “Library Worklife: HE E-News for Today’s Leaders” (http://ala-apa.org/newsletter/). “Library Worklife” is a great resource for the latest labor legislative news that also includes information on trends and the latest practices.

Hilary Kraus, Research Services Librarian, University of Connecticut: I haven’t seen much formal training for members of search committees in the academic libraries in which I’ve worked. Typically it covered what it is and isn’t legal to ask or do, along with internal HR policies such as using a matrix to evaluate candidates. Most of what I’ve learned about good (and bad) hiring practices is based on personal experience either as a member of a search committee or as a candidate. In the last few years, I’ve become very interested in humane hiring practices, and I’ve seen an uptick in webinars and conference sessions on topics like inclusivity, reducing bias, and how to treat candidates kindly and fairly. If you’re in higher education, ACRL has been producing some quality content in this area. Unfortunately, you really have to seek out these kinds of trainings yourself. I would love to see more guidance in this area for search committees as they’re formed. At a very basic level, I would encourage folks who are tapped to be part of those committees to really consider what they would like their own experience to be as a candidate, and try to apply that to the work they do.

Laurie Phillips, Interim Dean of Libraries, J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans: I started learning about the search/hiring process in library school. My academic library management class (with Anne Woodsworth) was one of the most valuable courses I had. I was the only student in the class who was job hunting at the time, so we used my experiences as a case study. Then, after I got here, I was on faculty search committees from the beginning. We have a regular process, which has been honed over time. The biggest change is that we no longer talk about all of the candidates from the beginning. We have a grid and anyone we agree on, either yes or no, we don’t spend time discussing in depth before first round interviews. We also err on the side of more interviews in the first round because you gain a lot from just talking to someone. The biggest evolution of our process is interview questions. HR gave us some great questions several years ago and we have developed a pool of questions we start with, then write questions to get at particular aspects of the job. The question we ask ourselves is “What do we need to know from them to make a good decision?” I have developed very good instincts about candidates and fit over the years. Several years ago, I interviewed a man for one position and I said to the dean at the time, “I think he’s great, but is better suited working for me (in information resources) than for this position.” A year later, I had an opening and hired him. He’s been amazing.

Randall Schroeder, Director, Retired: The most valuable thing I did to get a grasp on hiring after 20 years of being a public service librarian and not in charge of hiring was to take a summer class on library administration at the University of Wisconsin. It was taught by a veteran library director from the La Crosse Public Library. She gave the class tools that would allow them to tease out what we needed to know about candidates. The most useful tool was to get the candidates to tell stories about their experiences. That goes a long way to establish their social and people skills. I’ve found that people skills can be the most difficult to get a handle on during the interview process. Learning about interview skills in a classroom setting and not learning those skills by guess and by golly during a hiring process made it much more relaxed and those techniques stuck. You had time to think about those skills and let them sink in. There was never a hiring process where I didn’t use those skills I learned in Madison.

The other teachable moments were simply learning from horrible interviews during my job searches. The question that always came into my mind while designing a process was a variation on the George Constanza conundrum from the old Seinfeld show (George, what is your first instinct? Do the opposite). Especially when it came to the treatment of candidates, I would find myself asking, “what would (fill in the blank) College do? Do the opposite. My goal was to make interviews and the process as humane as possible. I appreciated it with the libraries and colleges that also had a reasonably humane process. I never wanted to be the anecdote of a hellish interview afterwards.

Finally, I will pass this tidbit I learned from a business professor who was on a search committee with me at a university in Michigan. “Which candidate would you be willing to be stuck with during a flight delay at O’Hare Airport?” When in doubt, go with that candidate.

Interested in more discussion? Comment here or take a look at Twitter; I asked the same question there earlier in the week.

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One response to “Further Questions: How did you learn to hire people?

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

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