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 a simple one, suggested by someone who hires librarians:
What are the best and worst questions you get from candidates when you say “Do you have any questions for us?”
Laurie Phillips, Interim Dean of Libraries, J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans: I think the worst question is “What does a typical day look like?” That’s impossible to answer because our jobs are so dependent on the ebb and flow of the school year. The first week of school looks very different from finals week and everything in between. Good questions we’ve had recently were about new initiatives that we’re undertaking in that unit, and reporting lines for different tasks that are part of the job description (a good question because some of them are “dotted line” reporting). One asked “What inspired you to be here?” Two of us in the room have been here for more than 30 years and two were much newer, so the answers were varied. It’s a flattering question for the committee, but I have liked it better when someone asks about professional development and organizational culture. People often ask about benefits in first round interviews. That’s difficult for me to answer because I want to be sure they’re getting correct information from HR.
Gemma Doyle, Collection Development Manager, EBSCO: The worst response I’ve ever gotten when I’ve asked candidates if they have any questions is no questions at all. Which can be understandable in the moment, since interviews can be stressful and overwhelming, and some candidates might be afraid of asking something that doesn’t come off well. I always give them my email address and make sure they know they can email me with any questions they think of later, and a lot of candidates take me up on that. I try to cover as much of the job and the organization as I can in an interview, but I know I forget important pieces, and when candidates ask something extremely basic I always feel like it’s my fault for not being clear enough.
The best questions I’ve gotten are usually ones that dive deeply into the culture of our workplace or the job and show me that the candidate is really thinking critically about whether or not this is an environment they’ll do well in. Asking about what performance metrics we use, team dynamics, work/life balance, longevity in the position… these are all things that can affect their day-to-day life in the job that I may not have time to address in a normal 60 minute interview. I definitely want to know if there are things that make them hesitant about the job, because neither of us want them to be hired and absolutely miserable.
Julie Todaro, Dean, Library Services, Austin Community College: I have a few in both categories; however, I have a third category – what is the most frequently asked question we get from candidates when we say “Do you have any questions for us?”
I rather enjoy it when an applicant wants to ask one or more committee members to identify two or three things that THEY like about the organization – or if a committee member is in a parallel position, two or three things they like about the position. I also like a variation – how long have you been here and what keeps you here or what attracted you to the organization. I also like someone asking a question that is a clarification of something they saw on the website. This communicates that they have not only looked at the website, but they have looked closely and need clarification on how something might relate to them or the job/position for which they are applying.
General questions like “Is there a probationary period?” or “How soon is my performance evaluation?” or “How am I evaluated?” are rather obvious questions and always – even though they probably shouldn’t – raise questions in my mind, but there ARE ways to find out these things which are important to applicants and rightly so. But I would suggest that people ask them differently “I have a copy of the position description and I am sure that is a measure of my performance but what other tools does the organization use for planning roles and responsibilities? That is, do librarians set annual goals? Do teams or committees set goals? Are goals or outcomes the practice and how is their success measured? How is my success measured?
Specifically though – I have two bad questions – one of the worst questions is one that immediately indicates that you are applying for a job but you don’t want that job…that is, “If I get this job – how soon can I move or transfer to another job?” And that or a close variation – is a question we got which sends all of the wrong signals…clearly you don’t want to be “there” or “in that job” or “serving that clientele” and you are trying to find out – obviously – how quickly you can leave the job for which you are currently applying. (Interestingly in my organization – we do have a minimum of a year someone must stay in a job before they can apply for another job in the organization, so that is an easy answer.)
The other “worst answer” is similar in intent – but framed a little differently – and that is the intent of the applicant is to get a job “near home.” And they don’t want a job that is x miles away from their home. I should add in here, Austin does not have a reliable transportation network of any kind and obviously – right now – gas is high and cars are expensive in general and used cars are hard to come by BUT an applicant should either wait to ask this question until they are alone with the chair of the committee or email afterwards, explaining the high cost of gas, the inability to have reliable transportation, etc. and their question regarding this position at a certain location. (I should also add that our position descriptions do mention “access to reliable transportation.”)
I can safely say that almost every – if not every – single applicant for a faculty librarian position has asked about our support for their professional development. “Do we support them?”” How much money do they get allocated to them or how often can they travel?” Another approach is someone will say “I am a member of x Association Committee – will you support me in that service?” This answer is far too layered to answer here; however, suffice to say – yes and no …and then we outline some of our processes.
Ellen Mehling, Job Search Advisor/Instructor and Brooklyn Public Library’s Job Information Resource Librarian: The best questions applicants have at the end of an interview are those that relate to succeeding in the job, and that show that the interviewee has done their homework re: understanding the job and the employer, like:
“For the first 3 – 6 months of this job, what would success look like? What would be the most important things I’d need to get up to speed on, right away?” or “It sounds like [X] and [Y] are the things I’d need to get a handle on right away, is that correct?”
“How is success measured here? How often are employee evaluations done?”
“Are there any other responsibilities (or challenges) of this position that we have not already discussed?”
The worst questions are ones that the applicant could have found the answers to with a quick look at the library’s website, or questions that reveal that the applicant is focused only on what they can get from the employer, or that they just want a job, any job, rather than the specific position the employer is trying to fill, such as:
“What programs and services does this department provide?”
“How soon do employees get their first raise? How quickly do people get promoted here?”
“How many vacation days will I get, to start?”
Some interviewers are turned off by applicants asking about salary, but I think it makes sense to discuss that early on, and I wish that including salary info in job descriptions, and discussing salary during the hiring process in general, were more normalized. It can be tricky though, so interviewees should gauge how well the interview has gone so far, use their best judgment in deciding whether or not to ask at that point, and know that salary should probably not be the first thing they ask about. If an interviewee does bring it up, it should be in a respectful way rather than a demanding one (tone is so important here), emphasizing that the goal is to make sure that the applicant and the employer are on the same page regarding pay, before investing more time in discussion.
Randall Schroeder, Director, Retired: The best question I ever heard from a candidate which I shamelessly stole when I started interviewing again was:
“In two years, how will you know I was successful or unsuccessful?”
A few of my colleagues on the search committee were completely unprepared for the question and gave pablum answers. Others took a deep dive into what the library needed and what its mission was. When I used it as an interviewee, it gave me a good read as to how much the library really thought about what it wanted from this position and whether it was a good match.
We’d love to hear your thoughts here in the comments, on Twitter @HiringLib, carved into my homeroom desk. 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.