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:
What’s your most horrifying hiring horror story? Either as a hirer or hiree. If you have incorporated lessons learned in your current hiring practices, it would be great to hear about that too.
Anonymous: As a hirer, I’ve had a few. One person, during phone interviews (years before Zoom) started her answer to each question, “Well, I don’t really know, but…” then proceeded to ramble on for what seemed like hours. We couldn’t find a way to politely end the interview. I had one candidate who said to me, during the tour of the library the afternoon before her interview, that undergraduates are stupid. We are primarily an undergraduate institution and were even more so back then. I knew she wasn’t going to get the job, but had to continue. We got to dinner to discover that she was a vegetarian and hadn’t said anything and we had scheduled dinner at a restaurant that had no vegetarian option. They made something for her, and I’m sure it was lovely, but definitely lesson learned there!
As a hiree, I have been put in campus housing of some kind for my interview. This has really become a pet peeve for me. The last time, there would have been no way to make coffee (if I hadn’t brought some things for myself) or have breakfast before my interview started at 8:30am. I was the only person there and had no idea about thermostat, wifi, etc. It is really not great for a candidate to feel comfortable and be able to sleep. I looked and felt tired the next day, which was a second day of a gauntlet of meetings with various constituents. I also, very early in my career, had an interviewer ask me about one of my grad school professors. Uuuuuuuuugh, this person was horrible to me and made me cry almost every time I went in his office. I froze and didn’t know what to say. The interviewer (who really was an awesome guy) leaned over and quietly said, “it’s okay. We can’t stand him either.” At my most recent interview, no matter what we did, I could not log in to their guest wifi for my presentation, which was simultaneously in person and via Zoom, with Google slides. After trying and failing and getting help and having to give up, someone brought me a laptop to use. Huge relief. It was all fine, but more stressful than it should have been – and I had even discussed all of these logistics with them in advance!
Ellen Mehling, Job Search Advisor/Instructor and Brooklyn Public Library’s Job Information Resource Librarian: My horror story actually happened twice. It was at two different workplaces, but was basically the same story.
I was on the hiring committee both times, but not the hiring manager for either position. In both cases the applicants interviewed very well, but lied about their experience, claiming to have years of specific experience crucial to the position that they did not actually have. Beware the slick applicant who seems “just perfect” for the position!
In one of the positions references were checked but only in a superficial way, and in the other case, references weren’t checked at all.
In both cases it became clear early on that the person hired did not know what they were doing – within weeks. Also in both cases, the new hires made up “best practices” to try to cover for the fact that they did not have the experience they claimed to have, and doubled down when confronted, insisting that the way they were doing things was effective, and the way things should be done.
As you can imagine, this caused a lot of problems as the work they were hired to do was not getting done properly, and their managers struggled to supervise and hold accountable these employees who refused to follow policies and procedures in favor of their own fictional “best practices”.
The moral of this double horror story: always check references and check them thoroughly. Don’t just go by the info on the resume and cover letter, and an impressive performance in the interview. Skipping this step in the hiring process can lead to disaster, endless headaches, and lowered morale among other staff. Ask probing questions of references, to (perhaps) uncover some red flags you would otherwise miss. It is best to contact “unofficial” references too (others beyond just the references provided by the applicant), if it is at all possible. The more info you have about the applicant, the less chance there will be of hiring someone who turns out to be a problem.
Anonymous: We hired a new librarian a number of years ago. The interview went very well and the individual arrived and it was quickly apparent that they had all of the skills and qualities that we were looking for. The person worked well with their library faculty colleagues including team teaching and long overdue work on some collections. I began to get the impression that this person and one other librarian were spending a lot of time together. I am not usually very perceptive about this kind of thing but I had a feeling.
At the end of the most recent hire’s third year, the other librarian came to me to say that they were each leaving their spouses and also taking a separation incentive package from the institution and leaving. I also found out they were pregnant. So this hire resulted in the break-up of two marriages and the departure of two librarians. And both positions were then eliminated. Clearly more of a horror story for me than for them.
Jess Herzog, Director of Adult Services, Spartanburg County Public Libraries: My assistant director and I were interviewing an internal (already in our department) to move up from one role to another, and the head of HR was in the interview as well. The four of us were seated at a round table, and at one point I crossed my legs. I am what most would consider A Large Human, and the table is what most would consider On The Smaller Side, and I whacked my knee pretty hard on the underside of the table. As one often does when one is shocked by a jolt of pain, I forgot where I was, and said “ow, f**k!”
And then the head of HR and I both turned beet red while my two staff began cackling. Oops! I apologized profusely and counted my lucky stars that everyone in the room was internal. Lesson learned: keep the legs crossed at the ankle, Herzog.
Anonymous: While it isn’t universally evident, oftentimes a workplace suffering from a toxic culture is unable to hide that discontent from candidates. The most obvious example of this I experienced as a candidate was at a parochial institution. About four or five minutes into the interview the search chair referenced a day of particular importance within the organization’s founding religion and noted, casually, that they had always wondered why this event was celebrated on that specific calendar day. Another member of the search committee, one whose aggression and disdain had made me question if I wanted to continue in the search at the phone interview level, immediately snapped and shamed the search chair (who was also their boss!) for not knowing the reason behind the date and, further, remarking that it was amazing the search chair had ever been hired into their position given their “ignorance.” From that point on, I knew I was basically only in town for a free lunch. However, I did continue to pay close attention to the aggressive committee member’s interactions throughout the day. It quickly became apparent that this individual had been with the organization the longest and had a long, long history of being moved from department to department as they wore out their welcome in each unit. They had left a significant, multi-year (multi-decade?) trail of carnage in their wake because multiple leaders were unwilling to take on the admittedly gruelling and often thankless job of documenting and terminating this employee. It further became evident that this person was the primary source of the organization’s current toxic culture as people either suffered their abuse or tried desperately to avoid their attention, even if that meant throwing someone else under the bus. Obviously I didn’t take the job, but I think about it often as a lesson in the harm of not confronting a problem early and, if needed, definitely.
Anonymous: I was hired for an administrative position over an internal candidate. They informed me on my first day that every single library employee objected so strongly to my hiring that they were actively seeking employment elsewhere. That was when I started perfecting my neutral, flat-affect “oookaaay,” which has come in handy many times since.
Alan Smith, Director, Florence County, SC Library System: This may not be truly horrifying, but as a hiree (in previous positions long ago) I have had experiences where the organizational culture was not at all what it seemed during the interview and recruitment. In interviews now I try to give an accurate picture of what it’s like to work here, both in the questions I ask and also just describing it outright. If a candidate decides it’s not for them I’d rather them do so during the hiring process, not after the first day on the job!
As a hirer, I won’t go into specifics about horror stories, but I have learned that the most likable, charismatic interviewees do not automatically become the best employees. After an interview that feels more like a fun conversation, or reuniting with a long-lost friend, it’s helpful to ask, ‘do I want to hire this person to do a job, or do I want to be their friend?’ Having whatever social charm or spark to make an interview enjoyable does not necessarily mean the candidate has the necessary skills or alignment with the library’s mission. And in a worst-case scenario, a person who breezes through interviews on charisma alone will do the same thing on the job, getting by on likability rather than competence — and that can make disciplinary action as well as co-worker relationships a lot more difficult.
Anonymous: During the hiring process, there are things that don’t always come out because they are things you can’t ask and the person wouldn’t be able to answer you honestly, anyway. Most jerks are unaware of their jerk status. And, while you can ask some questions and watch for signs of jerkiness, it is sometimes undetectable until it is too late. In my experience, “plays too well with others” has never been a concern, however, “does not play well with others” can have some lasting and pretty devastating consequences.
On the hiree side of things, it can be a challenge to see just how dysfunctional a place is until you are on the inside. There is being honest and then there is “airing dirty laundry”. You don’t get to smell the laundry until you are there for a while. I used to have an “ideal” workplace with people who worked together in perfect harmony as a goal. I am an adult now and know that you are better off if you recognize the “odd ducks” for who they are just as you recognize the toxic bullies for who they are. And deal with each appropriately.
As an interviewee, I had the privilege of interviewing for a position I was excited about virtually. For the most part, everyone was very professional. Being completely virtual was a unique experience and, in much the same way a person might be “assigned” to help with the transitions between sessions, they assigned someone to help make sure everything was set up and working properly and there was some friendly chit chat during that time.
Obviously, we all have very different spaces and Zoom can provide a bigger glimpse into someone’s life than one would ordinarily share. I was surprised that there was a giant box of adult diapers featured prominently on the screen the entire day. I was also surprised when I popped into a Zoom room after a break to find this person having a bit of an argument with a family member. Full sound and all of the details. I tried to make my presence known, but it took a while.
It was more than I had signed up for.
A person in an important role that I was looking forward to meeting was a no-show at my first opportunity to meet them. Later, when we were supposed to meet one on one, the person had to be called to be reminded to join the Zoom. While awkward, it didn’t seem “out of the ordinary” to the person who had to make that call. When they “arrived” they were very apologetic but very clearly had been asleep. They volunteered that they did not want to return to campus due to the distinct benefits of being at home (naps, apparently). During the entire interaction, this person referred to me in an overly familiar way. I played along, but was taken aback at how overly casual and candid the conversation was.
I felt like I was playing a game called “Tell Me I Don’t Want This Job Without Telling Me I Don’t Want This Job”.
We’d love to hear your thoughts here in the comments, on Twitter @HiringLib, or whispered on the wind. If you have a question to ask people who hire library workers, or if you’d like to be part of the group that answers them, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.