Further Questions: Do you send questions to interviewees before the interview?

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

This week’s question is from a reader. She asks, “Do you send questions to interviewees before the interview? [and I’d love to know why or why not] How long do you give the interviewees to prepare? Also, does that influence how you evaluate the answers/responses?”

Hilary Kraus, Research Services Librarian, UConn Library: I am a huge advocate of sending questions ahead of time, especially for phone or video interviews. We did this the last time I chaired a search committee, and many of the candidates told us it made the interview much less stressful. In addition to reducing anxiety, we found the answers we got were more thoughtful and substantive, which helped us make more informed decisions about which candidates to invite for the next round of interviews. I would recommend providing questions at least 24 hours before the interview; 48 hours would be even better. Candidates already have very full lives, and are taking time out of their day to speak to you. Providing questions earlier will make it easier for them to also carve out enough time to prepare.

Jaime Taylor, Discovery & Resource Management Systems Coordinator, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts: I’ve just started sending questions ahead of time with the most recent search I’ve led. We send them between a few days and maybe a week ahead of time (I try to make sure there’s a weekend in there), making sure that each candidate has the same amount of time with the questions before their interviews. I think it takes some of the anxiety out of interviews, which can help level the field, since some candidates do well in that situation and some don’t, and the high-stress environment of a job interview usually has nothing to do with the position we’re hiring for. It also helps reduce bias on a socio-economic basis, as some candidates may have gotten formal or informal coaching for job interviews in school or their family and others have not – and, again, that has no bearing on the position.

I don’t think you need to worry that candidates will getting them ahead of time to prepare bullshit answers to your interview questions. My experience so far is that good candidates continue to answer questions well, and less good candidates still don’t have solid answers. If anything, it highlights the differences between candidates; some candidates will have taken time to thoughtfully consider and prepare their answers, and others will clearly have not, which may provide you with information about how those candidates approach important work assignments. And, of course, there’s always the opportunity for us to ask on-the-fly follow up questions or have discussion based on a candidate’s response to a question. I think I expect a little more of our candidates now that we’re sending questions ahead of time – if you know what we’re going to ask you but haven’t prepared a response, it doesn’t look good.

Laurie Phillips, Interim Dean of Libraries, J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans: I have never sent questions to interviewees. I guess I’m curious now about what the difference would be. We have already given you some things to respond to in writing, in the ad, so it seems like the interview should be about your ability to answer questions about the job on the spot. If you are really prepared for the job, you should be able to answer interview questions. There are some situational questions that may take a minute to think of an example, but that’s okay. I’d rather have you take your time and answer the question well rather than rambling until you find the answer. I think, yes, we do take that into account when evaluating responses. We may follow up or try to put the person at ease. Honestly, we’re trying to get the best version of you and your ability to do this job.

Katharine Clark, Deputy Director, Middleton Public Library: I’ve never been involved with an interview before where candidates were given the question beforehand. Part of the interview process is seeing how well potential employees can think on their feet and be prepared to give off the cuff elevator pitches to anyone they meet in a professional setting. The only time questions are given ahead of time in my experience are essay questions that are part of the screening process. Use your colleagues and network to find out what types of questions they have been asked in the interview process before and you can certainly come with notes about what parts of your career/job history you want to share with those interviewing you.

Larry Eames, Instruction Librarian, Kraemer Family Library, University of Colorado Colorado Springs: Yes absolutely! I advocate for sending the questions about 24 hours in advance of the interview (shout out to the ability to schedule emails in outlook) so that every candidate has the same amount of time to prepare. I believe in sending the questions in advance because it gives the candidates the opportunity to be their best selves in the first round of interviews and to highlight their talents and accomplishments so that we can make an informed decision about the next round of interviews. It’s also good accessibility practice; you never know how choppy someone’s connection might be or how well they hear over the phone/over zoom. When I get push back, I point out the accessibility element and that we want to make the best decision we can about who we bring to campus and this gives us the opportunity to gather the data we need to do that. I’ve only been unsuccessful in advocating for this practice in one instance. For that search we instead told the candidates what themes each question would touch. Ultimately I think it was better than nothing but would have been far better to share the questions in full in advance. Knowing that the candidates had the questions in advance only influences my evaluation of their responses in that if a candidate is evidently unprepared in that scenario it weighs more heavily in my assessment of their answers.

Celia Rabinowitz, Dean of Mason Library, Keene State College: We have sent questions in advance for both library faculty and other staff positions for phone interviews although I am not sure we have done that for the in-person interview. I think about this the same way I think about giving students exam questions in advance. Any kind of assessment should not be an attempt to find out what people don’t know, or ask questions which are a surprise. With limited time we should be interested in doing our best to learn about candidates through thoughtful responses to questions. I’m guessing most, if not all, readers have been a candidate and have experienced that silence that seems like hours when you are frantically trying to think of an example or other response to a question from a search committee. Having time to think and prepare may improve the performance of most candidates (which is a good thing, right?). But students who have exam questions in advance don’t all get an “A” on the exam, and candidates will still vary in their overall performance.

I would want to give questions to candidates at least a few days in advance. A week is a good lead time, but sometimes a search is moving quickly enough that we want to schedule the first phase of interviews as quickly as possible. I think supplying questions in advance is very helpful for the phone/video interview and can make what is often a very stressful and awkward experience a little more comfortable and productive for everyone involved. There would be no reason, in my opinion, to evaluate candidates differently when given questions in advance.

Ben Van Gorp, Manager, IT & Digital Experience, East Gwillimbury Public Library: Our library currently offers two questions for each interview candidate. If I had my way I would give the full interview list. It’s an accessibility issue, especially for people who suffer from anxiety.

I would much rather have people coming in with confidence, able to fully show of the abilities they would bring to their role, than just the nerves that comes with job hunting.

Christian Zabriskie, Executive Director, Onondaga County Public Library: My answer is…it depends entirely on the job. For frontline staff I don’t do this since I am looking to see what skills they bring to the positions that we have that are honestly not all that flexible. Sure, I love it when reference librarians come up with new stuff, but it is not a daily requirement of the job. When I am interviewing people for “C Suite” jobs on my personal admin team I absolutely give them the questions ahead of time. Often this will entail doing a presentation or addressing a specific issue. This is another place where I can check for emotional intelligence. For a recent interview for our head of facilities I asked “You have been handed a plan for a redesigned library that you can tell will absolutely not work. Your boss (that’s me), loves it. How do you convince them (me) that this is a terrible idea”. The person who got the job had a great answer that showed her ability to “manage up” and she’s been an incredible asset to the org ever since.

Randall Schroeder, Director, Retired:

I have never as a supervisor sent the questions ahead, nor as a job seeker have I ever received the questions ahead of time. The only mild exception is if we expected, or I was expected, for a presentation to be given for an audience. Interesting question though.

Julie Todaro, Dean, Library Services, Austin Community College: What an interesting question! When I read it I first thought of the current Instagram meme of “hard no” or “absolutely not” superimposed over an animal, usually a dog…and said repeatedly! So the simple answer IS a hard no for my organization’s hiring today, but the concept brought back my days teaching in Library School Graduate Education – specifically “Management” in Library School. My general curriculum included a unit on hiring with a major emphasis on the interview itself and part of this was a collection of “ways to handle interviews” including ways for organizations to interview as well as ways for interviewees to prepare. In those days (too many to count) there were many more ways to interview than now but times have changed. Practices have morphed, processes have been automated and federal, state, local and organizational guidelines, rules and regulations have been infused with much needed equity, diversity and inclusion content, with measurement and assessment metrics embedded in processes. So while there are libraries with freedom in interviewing and hiring, there are many more who need to and should conform to a process that is consistent and provides a standard platform for applicants to engage with interviewers.

So why send them out in advance? Standardized questions present the library’s values. Questions in advance allow the applicant to focus on what the expectations are for specific positions in the organization. Questions in advance can emphasize organizational priorities such as customer service relationships, teamwork, flexibility, etc. Questions in advance provide interviewers a standard for comparing answers to organizational expectations.

And what are the prevailing views for NOT distributing questions in advance? Interviewers ask the same questions of each applicant NOT to determine if the applicant “got the answer right” but instead to try to determine what the applicants’ thought processes are, what critical thinking skills they might have, and to find out if applicants DID prepare for the interview. Other reasons for not distributing them can include: do applicant’s bring experience or education to the interview or both? Are they succinct in answers? Can they speak extemporaneously? Do their answers to questions match their resume? What gaps are there in their overall application process, that is, does their resume match the answers to questions but not their resume?

Final thoughts on not sending questions out in advance really focus on the need for more data for a comparison process. There are so many self-help environments for interviewing (beginning with this excellent web environment) applicants often show up with pat answers and generalities while interviewees are left to seek as much data as possible on applicants in trying to determine how applicant one is a better match to the position than applicant two is.

Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject…


Filed under Further Questions

2 responses to “Further Questions: Do you send questions to interviewees before the interview?

  1. Laura

    For the screening interviews, I send them at least a day in advance. For in-person, I give them a printout at the time.

    For screening, which these days are on webex for us, I also do powerpoint slides with the questions on them. We ask people not to have their cameras on (one piece of trying to avoid unconscious bias as far as possible), and that gives people something to look at and helps with a prompt.

    The day of, I don’t want canned answers, I don’t mind ums and ers, I’m not asking any questions that are intended to trip up candidates, but I also know that with a long question it can be helpful to have something there to remind you of what the question is. I know I can babble in interviews, and having that done for me once, more than a decade ago, helped me keep the babble to a lower level.


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

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