Hiring Better: Core Best Practices for Academic Interviews

The first run of Hiring Librarians was pretty eye-opening. I learned that there is no secret to hiring and that people who hire library workers have all sorts of contradictory opinions and practices. And I saw that many of those opinions and practices are rooted in internal bias. I am very grateful to the readers who took the time to point out problematic answers, and the problematic questions I was asking. 

So this time around, I’ve been looking for ways to help mitigate harm, both in the work of this blog and in our collective practices. Alison M. Armstrong said in her survey

I try to avoid using the word “fit” (based on the Core Best Practices for Academic Interviews – check out this webinar) because it can be used as a way to say “people who look like me”. Diversity is important. 

In working with her to create her post, she emphasized the importance of this document, and made sure that we provided a link for readers. I wanted to learn more about this document, and to share it with you. While it is targeted to Academic Interviews, I think there are applicable principles for all library types. I approached the authors, Xan Arch, Lori Birrell, and Kristin E. Martin, and they graciously agreed to write about it for us. 


Why did you decide to write the recommendations?

Our team came together in 2020 through a discussion of a blog post written about shorter academic librarian interviews. This post started a chat on the CORE lists and several of us expressed interest in investigating further. Ultimately, rather than focusing on shorter interviews in particular, we ended up exploring how to reduce bias and create more candidate-friendly interviews. As we talk in our libraries and universities about how unconscious biases influence how we judge others, it is more important than ever to examine traditional interview processes to see if they are effective in evaluating candidates or if they serve to reinforce these biases.

Can you talk about the ‘dangers of fit’?

This is one area we really want to highlight in recommendations. It came up frequently in the literature we reviewed, and I think it’s an understandable and common short circuit to move from “I like this person because we share similar manners/have similar interests/have the same alma mater” to “let’s hire this person because they seem like they’d fit in well.” Hiring candidates who seem comfortable at the interview and to whom you can quickly build a connection may indeed mean that a new hire is easier to work with initially, but may also risk the growth and innovation of your organization. Hiring based on fit risks homogeneity and the reproduction of a culture that, in many organizations, centers on dominant identities.  Many of our best practice recommendations are designed to counter this tendency by replacing subjective impressions with a thoughtful and intentional review of how the candidate meets job qualifications and can perform in the position. Examples include starting with unconscious bias training, providing structure and consistency throughout the interview process, and using a rubric for evaluations. 

What recommendations have you implemented at your own institutions?

Kristin:

In searches over the past few years, we have moved toward providing the search committee members with an opportunity to approach the search with intentionality, openness, and transparency with one another. This has included providing unconscious bias training at the beginning of each search process, both through a video and follow-up discussion. Use of a rubric for the hiring process has become standardized, particularly in librarian searches. What’s been so interesting about this change is how it’s affected all parts of the hiring process. By using the qualifications in the position posting to build the rubric, it’s helped us tighten up our language of the qualifications and have conversations within the search committee to explicitly clarify the meaning of those qualifications. For example, if we have a position that requires supervisory experience, we’ve been able to discuss questions like: Is supervising only students sufficient? Is being responsible for the training but not the hiring and termination of employees sufficient? By having these conversations in advance, we avoid situations where search committee members make different assumptions in determining which candidates are qualified. By using the rubric for evaluation of the initial application, we can also identify areas where we want to ask candidates targeted questions because their initial applications didn’t provide enough information for us to evaluate them. For example, in one position we had a question regarding experience and understanding around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion where we didn’t get sufficient information from their applications, so we knew to develop an interview question to cover this area. Finally, the rubric has also helped us focus on those qualifications that allow for us to differentiate candidates, and eliminate vague requirements that could allow for more subjectivity and judgment of “fit” to enter in the conversation. 

Lori: 

For many searches, we send questions to candidates ahead of time (about 24 hours) to signal that we’re interested in the content of their responses and not in how quickly they can think on their feet. In my experience, this strategy removes some of the performance aspects of interviewing that can be all too easy for the search committee to focus on when evaluating candidates. The list of questions should clearly indicate any questions that are non-evaluative (like the typical ice breaker question).

When deciding what interview format to use, consider how the format may enhance or hinder the evaluation process. Virtual interviews can greatly speed up the search timeline and can expand the number of stakeholders who can participate as they don’t have to be on campus. However, virtual interviews require just as much planning, if not more, as in-person interviews. Regardless of the format, I always carefully consider what sessions will be included on the schedule and treat each search as unique. For example, does a rare books cataloger need to give a job talk? Is presenting to the public a core job responsibility? If not, perhaps that session could be rethought as an open forum on a topic specific to that role and duties. When developing the schedule, it’s important to communicate to candidates any sessions that will be non-evaluative (like a meal). 

Xan: 

In our last search, we piloted asking candidates to keep their cameras off during the first-round virtual interviews. The intended purpose was to reduce the search committee’s ability to evaluate based on candidate appearance and the appearance of their home, office, or virtual background. Our search committee kept their cameras on so the candidates would be able to read body language and get a sense of their potential future co-workers. One thing I did not anticipate was that several candidates had profile photos that showed while their cameras were off. This meant we did have a visual element that might factor into our evaluation. However, even with this unexpected issue, I felt that the strategy was effective overall and we plan to do it in the future. 

In the same search, we tried reducing the evaluative aspects of candidate meals. As we move towards structured interviews that focus on stated job qualifications, reducing the influence of unstructured mealtimes is aimed at reducing our ability to judge things like the candidate’s food preferences or desire for a glass of wine at the end of the day. The candidates had lunch with library student workers, and we asked library staff taking candidates to dinner to complete candidate evaluations before dinner. Neither meal time produced feedback for the search committee, helping focus our deliberations on interview segments that directly related to job qualifications.

Do you have any best practices that are format specific for online interviews? 

If you’ve decided to do virtual interviews, the search committee chair or hiring manager should delegate someone to coordinate the logistics of the interview day. Who will be on call for tech troubleshooting? Who will monitor the chat for questions? Will you use one link for the whole interview, or different links for each session? 

Especially important is considering the start and end times for the day. When scheduling the first virtual interview I hosted, I didn’t consider the different timezone of our candidate and mistakenly started the day at 7am. It can be tempting to try and make the virtual interview schedule mirror an onsite interview. Resist this temptation! Can you schedule the interview over 2 days? Can some meetings take place before the interview day? Even with breaks throughout the day, sitting in front of a screen is taxing in a different way and you should construct the schedule to be sure you can gather the information you need to evaluate candidates without padding the schedule with unnecessary time.

What advice would you give hiring managers who would like to review their interview processes?

At many organizations, significant changes and decisions around the hiring process require review and approval by the organization’s human resources office or the provost’s office. However, as a hiring manager or even member of a search committee, you may have more opportunity than you realize to effect change in the interview process, and take steps to provide a candidate-friendly process that reduces bias. Just starting the conversation with others at your organization and stepping back to review what you’ve always done can make a big difference. Small steps, like adding more structure to the search process, working with the committee to evaluate based on a rubric, asking the question about the purpose of each meeting in a day-long search, can add up to make a better process. Maybe you can’t share the questions with the candidate in advance, but you can at least internally develop a list of questions to be asked of all candidates to improve consistency during the interview. Work within your sphere of influence as opportunities come up to bring additional ways to improve the interview process. Even if your institution doesn’t feel ready to implement some changes now, by keeping the conversation going, additional changes can happen over time.


You can read the full recommendations, which are posted through the American Library Association/Core: https://alair.ala.org/handle/11213/17612 


Headshot of Xan Arch

Xan Arch is Dean of the Library at the University of Portland. As Dean, she has developed initiatives that promote student success and sense of belonging within the library, and in support of this work, she has researched and published on first-generation student experiences in libraries, as well as academic library hiring practices. She holds degrees from San Jose State University and Stanford University. She has also trained as a search advocate through Oregon State University.

Headshot of Dr. Lori Birrell

Dr. Lori Birrell is the Associate Dean for Special Collections at the University of Arkansas. In this role, Birrell provides strategic leadership of the division and its stewardship of archives and rare books to best serve the needs of researchers at the University and across the globe. While at the University of Rochester, Birrell completed a Doctorate of Education with a focus on higher education administration and leadership. Her dissertation became the springboard for a monograph published by the Association of Research Libraries, Developing the Next Generation of Library Leaders. Dr. Birrell earned a Masters of Library and Information Science from Simmons University, a Masters in History from the University of Massachusetts- Amherst, and a BA from Mount Holyoke College.

Headshot of Kristin E. Martin

Kristin E. Martin is Director of Technical Services at the University of Chicago, managing a department of over 40 staff at all levels. She has over twenty years of experience working in libraries and archives, covering a wide range of technical services activities, including metadata management, acquisitions, and electronic resources management. She is engaged professionally with the FOLIO project, to build an open-source ILS, and with Core: Leadership, Infrastructure, Futures, a division of the American Library Association. She holds degrees from the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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