Further Questions: Do you have any tips for internal candidates? 

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(s) are:

Do you have any tips for internal candidates? Can you share any stories about successful or unsuccessful candidacies by internal candidates? What are the pitfalls to avoid?

Anonymous: My initial response is, where to begin?  It has been a long time and, frankly, I am still not over it. Being an internal candidate can be fraught and there are a lot of things that come into play that you don’t really have a lot of control over. Your colleagues have formed opinions about you and your work. They may have seen that time you acted human. They have probably seen you grow. They also may have some biases about all of it. Other candidates come in with a clean slate.

It is important for colleagues to attend your interview and presentation sessions, especially the people who think you should get the job. Some may think you will get the job and skip this part of the process but, that means that if they submit feedback saying they think you will be good, it is entirely possible that their experience from working with you for years will be dismissed because they didn’t see how well you performed in the interview process.

Years of being a hard worker and good colleague can be dismissed much more easily than one would expect.

Own it. You want to position? Tell people. Encourage them to support you by coming to your interview sessions. Tell them how amazing you are and will be. Of course, you think they already know but, now is not the time for letting your work stand for itself. It is time for you to stand for you. This is your chance. What do you have to lose? You keep doing what you have been doing? You find something better somewhere else?

I thought my years of service was enough. I thought I had strong relationships with my colleagues. I also thought that for an entry level position, there would be training, I couldn’t be expected to know things I had not been trained in. One mistake I learned was, as someone who is pretty easy going and can roll with things, I didn’t have a lot of questions. I knew what I thought I needed to know. I knew who to ask if anything came up in the future but, I felt like I knew what I was getting into. I have since learned that you have to ask questions. I thought if I asked questions, I would look like I didn’t know how to find that information and, it seemed weird to ask what they were looking for in the position, what was expected, what kind of timeframe, etc., because I felt like I knew all of those things. I was doing much of the work. But, the whole thing is weird. Try to find things that you do want to know or have clarification on. Will there be funding for professional development and, hearing directly what others are expecting isn’t a bad idea.

Someone else was hired. Someone who would be my supervisor.

I chalked it up to a huge learning experience and started quietly looking for another job while putting forth my best effort to be collegial. I thought I would work well with others and move along. But, things after the interview actually got worse.

The department head told my new supervisor that I had applied for the position they just accepted and they didn’t think I would “make trouble” but just wanted to make sure they were aware of that potential. Then the department head told me what she had said. For the next year, I experienced a lot of what was called “object lessons” in which I was reminded in a demeaning way, one-on-one or in departmental meetings about how I didn’t get the job.

There was also an active push to “put me in my place” conducted jointly by the department head and my new supervisor. It was hard not to take it personally. It was certainly a blow to my self-esteem on a pretty regular basis.

My new supervisor refused to acknowledge me. I was accustomed to working very closely with this position but they would go out of their way to not interact with me.

I went from feeling like a model employee and someone everyone would want to work with to being suspect.

I encourage you, throughout the process and no matter the outcome, stand up for yourself. Make the best of the situation until you can move up and out – if it turns toxic, try to get out as soon as possible.

One of my biggest regrets of that whole time was not speaking up and not standing up for myself.

When the department head and my supervisor called a special meeting to admonish me for changing my time off for sick leave twice in one week and telling me the next time it happened they would write me up, I wish I had just told the truth: “My dental hygienist got sick. They moved my appointment to another one and she had to audacity to go into labor the day I was supposed to get my teeth cleaned so that appointment had to be rescheduled.”

Instead, I just quietly renewed my vow to find a new job.

One last bit of advice – have a colleague who knows their stuff and has served on hiring committees read your cover letter and resume and offer edits. Ask about the process. As a staff person, I had no idea what was involved in the interview process for librarians because we were excluded from much of it. Additionally, my whole life I had been told that cover sheets should be straight to the point and just have high level information. Your resume is where you demonstrate your knowledge and experience. That may be true in other industries but it is not in libraryland. We are out here combing through cover letters, working through our matrix to make sure you say in a narrative format that you can do all of the things being asked for in the job ad and speak about it with passion, eloquence, and an awareness of current trends and pitfalls. (So, we end up with 3 page cover letters that try to hit every single element because, “that’s how it’s always been done”).

Larry Eames, Instruction Librarian, Kraemer Family Library (soon to be Digital Curation and Scholarship Librarian), University of Colorado Colorado Springs:

Having recently been an internal candidate, my advice is don’t assume your colleagues know everything about you. Especially in other departments, people may know what you do vaguely, but don’t be afraid to say things that feel redundant. Also it’s going to be weird to talk about group work that you had a role in in the library. Just prepare yourself for that.

Celia Rabinowitz, Dean of Mason Library, Keene State College: One piece of advice which is also, I think, a pitfall to avoid is the urge most internal candidates probably have to find out who the other candidates are. It is helpful for search committee chairs or supervisors to provide space for internal candidates to be away from work on the days other candidates are making site visits if they are happing in person. This really benefits everyone involved, and especially the candidates.

Be sure to treat the process as if you were an external candidate to some degree – update your CV/resume, and if asked for a cover letter write it as if you were applying for a position at a different institution. Read the job ad carefully and prepare. If the job you are seeking adds leadership, management, and/or supervision to your work spend some time thinking about how you will help the search committee and other participating in the process begin see how you would approach this new role. As much as being an internal candidate means you are more familiar, it also means current colleagues may need to be intentional about thinking of you in new ways. The virtual/in person experience is where you can refer to people or projects that you know your colleagues are probably familiar with and that may give you an advantage but also means your colleagues also know a lot more about your work than they will of the other candidates.

I also suggest being thoughtful about references and, if you are able, ask at least one person outside your institution to be on that list.

One last piece of advice – if you feel comfortable, it could be helpful to inquire about whether your application is appropriate. I think this is probably more important if you are thinking of applying for a leadership position like director, dean, associate dean, etc. If the Provost or other senior administrator recommends against it there could be a lot of reasons, and there might not be anything stopping you. But you may want to consider whether it’s worth the time and mental energy.

Anonymous: Of all the job searches I have been involved with, both as a candidate and on the search committee, an internal candidate is the trickiest and without clear communication, can easily turn into a dumpster fire floating down a flooded street.

If you are on the search committee, you are playing with a grenade with the pin pulled out. If you don’t hand it carefully and with clear communication, you could have a HR and PR disaster on your hands. Of the dozen or so I’ve been a part of, the search committee, even if it won’t explicitly say so, has already made up its mind from their prior experience working with the candidate. They are either the heir apparent and the search is for show…thus pissing off the candidates that wasted their time applying…or they have decided that there is no way on God’s green earth that they will hire the internal candidate but nobody has the guts to say so. So, the poor schmuck spends the time feeling like they are on the 50-yard line of the stadium with a spotlight on them being judged during the search process. Sadly, even if they don’t know it, they have already been judged.

In either case, there are going to be poisonous feelings from either the outside candidates who had no chance or the internal candidate who had no chance.

So how do you know if you are the internal candidate that has a chance or no chance? You don’t until you apply unless you are really good at reading tea leaves. Because of employment law and policy, nobody is going to run the risk of a complaint or lawsuit to be honest about one’s chances. It is similar to what political scientists say about incumbent political candidates. If you start the election cycle under 50% in the polls, you are in trouble. Most everybody feels they know what they need to know about the candidate. Disastrous results that I have witnessed were failed internal candidates who made it their life’s mission to sabotage the outside candidate who got the job. This includes a small-town public library where the rejected internal candidate recruited their friends in town to harass the library board and ghosted the successful candidate’s social media accounts to prove that they were not a good political fit for the town. All before the successful candidate’s first day on the job.

I’m not surprised that there is little response to this question because I have yet to meet anybody who felt at ease with this process. We just have to be honest that it is a nasty minefield.

My only tip for candidates and search committees is empathy, empathy, empathy. Both are in impossible situations. Search committees in particular need to understand that the reputation of their institution and library are at stake. I was a stalking horse candidate for a well-regarded private college that was going to go with their internal candidate no matter what. After a horrible trip for an on-campus interview that involved tornados, blizzards, and cancelled flights…none of which the college helped me with…the flush letter that informed me that it was going with the internal candidate beat me home. They weren’t even trying to be artful about it. I had fulfilled a policy requirement.

Needless to say, that well-regarded bit disappeared when I opened the letter. I have also not been bashful when other people asked me if they should apply to this school with a resounding, “HELL, NO!”

Treat candidates like they are respectable professionals, not like a disposable asset that checked off a list requirement.

Laurie Phillips, Associate Dean of Libraries, J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans: Put your best foot forward and apply for the job with the best possible letter of application that you can. Don’t assume that your colleagues know about all of your projects and skills and how they fit the job you’re applying for. Spell it out just like we would expect anyone to do. If you interview, don’t make it weird for your colleagues. They obviously know you, so you can’t act like they don’t. One thing I’ve been told by HR is that, when an internal candidate interviews for a job, we use everything we know about that person, good or bad. Make sure you can choose people who aren’t on the search committee to be your references. The people on the search will already be able to have input. Don’t expect preferential treatment, but do expect to be treated like all of the other candidates. 

Jess Herzog, Director of Adult Services, Spartanburg County Public Libraries: My organization does a lot of internal hiring, and hands down the most important advice that I can give is to avoid acting like you already have the job. Act like you’re an external candidate and put your best foot forward. I’ve had to skip over internal applicants because they didn’t put in the work: no research into programming we were offering, no new ideas, sometimes even concerning answers about customer service questions. All the same questions still apply to internal applicants, and I sometimes am even more analytical with internals because I’ve had the opportunity to get to know them, either in person or through other colleagues and what they have to say. The interview is a time to address both successes and failures, and with internals, I expect to hear some reflection on the work they’re doing in the library. I expect to hear really specific reasons why they want to be in this role or in my department, because they have an idea from the inside what working here is like. The successful internal movement that I’ve facilitated is because those employees prove in the interview that their interest is enthusiastic, work is valuable, their ability to plan and implement is successful, and their knowledge is specific to our department’s role.

Jimmie Epling, Director, Darlington County Library System:  There are two tips I can offer internal candidates.

Internal candidates need to be proficient and excel at their current job with their library. Internal candidates have a readily available work record and coworkers as references. Poor performance or attitude in a current job does not bode well for a candidates potential in another job within their library.

It is very important that internal candidates who do not get the job they want to not become resentful or disgruntled. Internal candidates who “quietly quit” on the job are not going to be considered favorably for any future job by management. It is sometimes difficult to accept not getting a job, but do not let that be reflected in future performance or attitude as it will be noticed. It is a measure of internal candidates’ character how they face disappointment and act in the future.

Alan Smith, Director, Florence County, SC Library System: Applying for a job as an internal candidate is easier in some ways but more challenging than others. The advantages are that you are familiar with the organizational culture and priorities, you probably personally know the interviewers, and since you’re still an employee, your job performance is at least adequate. 

On the other hand, that familiarity goes both ways. The hiring committee knows much more about your work experience than they would with an external candidate, so minor things that may not come up in an external candidate’s reference check would be considered. An internal candidate also faces higher expectations in regards to knowledge of the library. For example, in interviews we sometimes ask some version of, “what would you say to a patron who says a certain book is inappropriate for the collection?” With an external candidate, we’re looking for a thoughtful answer. An internal candidate should give a thoughtful answer, too, but also indicate familiarity with our Collection Development policy and our Request for Reconsideration form. 

There are a few pitfalls to avoid. Probably the most common is taking it for granted that the hiring committee will assume you have certain skills and experience. For example, everyone in the library may use Microsoft Office every day, but when they ask about work technology experience in the interview, still mention that you’ve made flyers in Publisher and book order lists in Excel, etc. 

Another pitfall is focusing heavily on successes in your current position, without giving a good sense of what you would bring to the new position. If you are in Reference and want to move to Cataloging, don’t just tell us how great you are at Reference; tell us how the skills you picked up in Reference will make you a great Cataloger. Of course, this requires being very familiar with the new position, so talking to someone else in the new department beforehand can be very helpful. Finally, this may not need to be said, but do tell your current supervisor that you’re applying for another position internally. They will definitely find out anyway, and it doesn’t help your candidacy if they find out from the other position’s hiring manager instead of you. 

All that said, our library generally tries to promote from within whenever possible, and internal candidates have several advantages. 

By the way, if you’re a job hunter I have a new survey for you! Will you please fill it out?

If you’re someone who hires LIS workers, the current survey is still open.

Other ways to share your thoughts:

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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