Further Questions: Do you think virtual interviews are effective hiring tools?

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 was prompted by someone who hires librarians:

Do you think virtual (Zoom, WebEx, etc., or even phone) interviews are effective hiring tools? Where are they most helpful and where do they fall short? Would you be willing to hire someone without any in-person meeting? Finally, do you have tips for candidates who are preparing for a virtual interview?

Alan Smith, Director, Florence County, SC Library System: Virtual and telephone interviews are definitely useful hiring tools, but I’ve never based a final hiring decision on those alone. That could be different if our library had positions that worked remotely, or focused exclusively on behind-the-scenes work, but all of our positions require a good deal of face-to-face interpersonal work, even if it’s not always patron-facing (like systems and technical services). Interacting with a candidate in a real space just gives you a more complete picture of how they will interact with other people on the job. 

To me virtual interviews are most useful as pre-screening or follow-up tools. I may do shorter virtual interviews with a wider pool of candidates to narrow down the selections for a longer in-person interview. This is especially helpful when a candidate would need to travel a good distance. I’ve also used virtual interviews after the full round of in-person interviews, to go deeper into a certain topic or ask follow-up questions. This can be helpful when candidates are nearly equally qualified and the hiring decision is very close. 

Anonymous: I love this question. I was interviewed over the phone (before video conferencing was really a thing), got the job and worked there for 3 1/2 years. Part of why I think it was a successful interview was that it did not try to be an in-person. At the end it was a bit more casual  because we were talking on the phone (and I was sitting comfortably on my couch in yoga pants and a hoodie). With that being said, I think that virtual interviews can be successful. I am, however, going to tell you about how a WebEx interview that I was on a hiring committee for went terribly wrong. 

Everyone was having internet issues, so the interview started late. Two of us were in the room together, one hiring committee member was on the video call as was the interviewee. 

There was a weird delay and the interviewee was not comfortable speaking into the computer microphone. The person not in the room with us could not hear the interviewee very well and kept asking them to repeat themselves. It was super annoying and we (the people together) got a little giggly. Something happened in the background of the interviewer so they started looking away from the camera which the interviewee could see. I accidentally asked the same question twice (this made us even more giggly) and at the end of the interview the interviewee did not mute their mic (maybe on purpose) and said “f*&k this place” as they were getting off the call.

Now to go back to your question(s). I think virtual interviews are fine if everyone agrees that stuff might happen during it to make it less professional. I have hired folks that I didn’t meet in-person until they were standing in front of me on the first day of work. 

Tips. Tips. Tips???

Practice on a zoom call and ask your friend to be the interviewer. Find a place that gives you good lighting, quiet, and where you feel comfortable. I think it is okay if your cat sticks their butt on the camera during the call as long as it doesn’t disrupt your answers or throw you off your game. Wear something you feel good in even if the interviewer(s) won’t see it. 

Since the pandemic I think it has gotten (I am saying this cautiously) easier with virtual interviews. And dare I say that with the flexibility of interviewing virtually for positions that have a virtual component to them it will show how the candidate presents in that medium.  

Gemma Doyle, Collection Development Manager, EBSCO: Since the pandemic our team has been permanently remote, and our company as a whole has switched to an either hybrid or remote structure for employees. Our last hire was the first one I’d done that was for a fully remote job, although we’ve hired people using virtual interviews for years before the pandemic, since a lot of roles are specialized and required national searches. It is so much easier doing virtual interviews now than it was in 2019 – everyone is more comfortable with the technology, and the technology itself has gotten better and easier to use, so the last experience was kind of night and day even though we were using the same programs. I won’t lie: I love virtual interviews. I feel like everyone is more comfortable in their space than they would be if we arranged meetings in person, and the more comfortable you are, the more authentic the conversation will be. Since the job is remote anyway, how I interact with a candidate in a virtual interview over Teams is how we’re going to interact every day at work over Teams, so I don’t think I’m missing any nuance as I might be if the job were in person.

The only advice I feel like I can give to candidates based on the interviews I’ve done lately is that virtual interviews can feel very forced and are very difficult to capture a casual, warm vibe by interviewer or candidate. I do my best as the interviewer, but I’m not always sure how much of it comes across. When it comes to backgrounds, I 100% blur my own and understand when people do it, but if candidates can find a place where they don’t have to, it can be a nice way to showcase some of your personality and make me feel like I know something about you. Being able to roll with technical issues is important, too.

Laurie Phillips, Interim Dean of Libraries, J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans: I do think that Zoom interviews can be effective and I believe they have been effective hiring tools for us. During the pandemic, we used them exclusively. There are some quirks and I think the candidate sometimes is more rattled when there are technological difficulties. Zoom interviews are far more effective, I believe, than phone. You get to virtually meet one another and it’s just a different vibe. I think there are two places where they fall short – one is that the candidate never gets to see the workplace or meet people face to face. That could certainly be an issue for an administrative position, or even a completely front facing position. The other is when the candidate would normally have a full day of interviewing with different groups. I think it’s a bit harder for someone to interview or meet with a smaller group who are not the search committee over Zoom. That said, I think it can work. I have done follow-up interviews by Zoom (after an in person interview with the committee) to help the hiring manager make a final decision and I believe the candidate was much more relaxed with me one-on-one on Zoom. In terms of preparation, make sure your technology is working and that there are no distracting background noises. Obviously, it can’t be helped if suddenly your neighbor decides to rent a jackhammer for the day, but you could move to a less noisy place in your house, or maybe ask your neighbor to take a 30 minute break. Dress nicely and either use a Zoom background or check what’s going to be in the background of your Zoom call. Animals are less of a concern – who doesn’t love a cat wanting treats in the middle of a meeting? But, a continuously barking dog is more distracting than your dog wandering in while you’re on Zoom. 

Celia Rabinowitz, Dean of Mason Library, Keene State College: We have not been able to do any hiring in over two years so we did no virtual interviewing. I did participate on the search committee for a new provost for our campus which is entirely virtual so I have that perspective. I have always been conflicted about phone interviews having been on both sides of the process. But I think they can be useful parts of a search. I would be that all of us have had a really good phone interview with someone whose in-person visit was not as good and vice-versa. I think both of those outcomes are what make a phone/virtual interview useful. The virtual piece (with or without video) and the in-person together provide ways to experience communication styles. If questions are provided in advance then there is the chance to assess preparedness (sometimes candidates don’t sound as if they have done a lot of preparation). The in-person interview then has opportunities for the search committee to see more spontaneous thinking from candidates.
The in-person portion of an interview isn’t just about the person and the job. The candidate sees the campus and its surroundings, likely meets more people than they might virtually, and can really see the library. I still think that is an important part of the process, especially if a search is nation-wide and most new hires would make a move. As an academic librarian I also acknowledge that, at least for library faculty positions, the college bears the cost of travel for an interview (and for others we would at least reimburse mileage). Perhaps we will move toward talking a hybrid approach that would allow candidates and search committees to work together to decide on the optimum schedule that could take into account weather, whatever public health situation may be in play, or other factors.

Julie Todaro, Dean, Library Services, Austin Community College:

Do you think virtual (Zoom, WebEx, etc., or even phone) interviews are effective hiring tools? 

I think “digital” opportunities are very effective as long as they allow for visual connections. AND, it is important to say here, I don’t care what the person looks like but this medium will be the one they use to conduct the critical part of their interview where they teach us (as if we were their students) and an awareness of software issues and packages, their knowledge of pedagogy conducive to online learning and their knowledge or even their familiarity with how one teaches and engages online is critical to their success at my institution. 

And while I might narrow down a pool of applicants through a conference call or phone interview, I would not use a phone interview only to hire. 

Where are they most helpful and where do they fall short? 

My answers to this question have completely changed in the last two years or at least expanded to include the fact that someone applying for a faculty librarian position with us absolutely should have had the experience or education – whether formal, informal or self taught – with online services in an educational sector. The  most helpful aspects include:

  • increased interview pool for us based on our lack of funding to bring many people in (and pay for some or all of them)
  • increased interview pool for applicants who may be coming from farther away or may not have the funding to pay for some of their travel (if needed) and possibly be in a position where they aren’t able to take off work to travel somewhere for a day or two
  • the opportunity for applicants to display a number of competencies in an unusual and more typical work setting (now that there IS so much online teaching)
  • multiple levels to impress the committee on what they can do…navigate and engage as well as answer questions and design content
  • more people as finalists – that is, it becomes impossible to bring in – for example – 8 applicants who deserve to be finalists – but organizing 8 applicants time and our time for online – even if they are a 1/2 day “ish” each – is very easy to do
  • more people and a wider group involved in hiring as “stepping out of a standard work day” is easier for a larger group and a more group with many more diverse levels can step away

Where digital interviewing falls short includes:

  • NOW there are many more software packages offer these experiences and they vary dramatically in “bells and whistles”…so while one organization may provide a variety – most do not provide as “many out there” as needed…at one point we had five or six different ways to connect so we felt confident that applicants COULD choose which package to use, etc. but many can’t and even ours have decreased. Applicants being versed in their package but not in yours puts up roadblocks that are often insurmountable.
  • Visual digital experiences like Zoom are not all equal among products of course but absolutely within a single product and there are a variety of levels of access so use of one and making sure all of the right information gets to applicants and committee members is critical. As software upgrades take place, links in some packages appear in different places, and some aspects of the service are not available and it is NOT uncommon to bring an interview to a halt as the software isn’t able to do what the applicant diligently prepared.
  • Our database packages do not allow for remote guest access – only in-person guest access. This means that an applicant not working somewhere where they have the access to online materials that they want or think they need – at the level or content area they think they need – may be a drawback for them. 
  • Two of the most difficult things we know about in higher ed are the engagement of online audiences or classes and the application of online active learning pedagogy online. Given the variety of ways people learn AND our own institution’s constituent group – audiences may be equally uncomfortable online and no matter what – find it hard to engage or be actively involved in their educational process – creating a roadblock for teaching success.
  • Many applying do have the access or bandwidth they need in terms of equipment age, privacy, speed, sound issues, etc. Lacking in tech opportunities and a good location can create a major problem.

Are these insurmountable? Absolutely not, they just require more specific work not only by those organizing but by all participating. 

Would you be willing to hire someone without any in-person meeting? 

Yes and we did and continue to do so and have been extremely pleased. It has taken more time to get to where we all want to go, but we have hired some very successful employees who have been a perfect fit – at all levels. I should also say that many years ago we convinced our HR department – for all of the reasons above – to let us narrow down finalists with a virtual interview and that was very successful. We did not – therefore – consider it a major leap – to move to a complete interview and – frankly – I was afraid of the impending timeline of the pandemic and the fact that many times – as a pandemic wears on – organizations cut staff or freeze positions. I did not want that to happen and luckily it did not and we hired some great people.

Finally, do you have tips for candidates who are preparing for a virtual interview?

The same due diligence is needed by applicants who need to prepare for interviews by looking very specifically at the organization and those employed prior to even deciding if they want to interview – much less applying. Then they should:

  • the review of the umbrella organization or parent group 
  • the review of the community or the constituent group of the organization or general environmental area
  • review the pro and con list above to determine aspects that work and don’t for them specifically
  • online content availability and what the organization requires for the interview vs what they can make available
  • software packages and the version of packages
  • what best practices for online interviews are in general and does the organization reveal its goals or values beforehand in emails? in their values statements? in their online “About us” ?
  • the ever-important dry runs where people practice with someone “at the other end” or practices with another person who IS remote so they can tell you if the clothes, etc. work
  • dressing for the interview as if you were there in person
  • if handouts are required, send those in advance if at all possible
  • experimenting with lighting…on or off, natural light or not…visuals available in contrast….using materials in back of you? etc.
  • experimenting with background…on or off, etc….a blank wall if often better than the fuzzy image or the one where every time you move your head, part of you disappears
  • fully engaging with the software and if not available asking questions about their version AND trying to get on early or the day before to make sure you understand what is available

Clearly I am a big supporter and think it can enhance the interview process for many positions in the organization.

We’d love to hear your thoughts here in the comments, on Twitter @HiringLib, or yodeled down from Alpine heights. 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.

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One response to “Further Questions: Do you think virtual interviews are effective hiring tools?

  1. Pingback: Post-lockdown considerations: virtual or in-person job interviews - kmlussier

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