Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Square Pegs: On "Fit" in the Hiring Process


I responded to a survey for Hiring Librarians recently, and my response was published yesterday. I always learn a lot from Hiring Librarian posts, although it is frequently of the "what not to do" variety, so I recommend clicking through and looking around at what I said and what others have said.

Three notes before I get into what I mean by fit, and how I've learned to test for it:
  1. I know 'fit' is sometimes a way for people to hide their biases. This has been and will continue to be an issue in academia and libraries in general, one of which I am very aware. What I'm talking about is organizational culture and organizational values.
  2. I have experiences with looking for fit from both sides of the interview table, and this post is informed by all of those experiences.
  3. I know it might sound dismissive for me to advocate looking for fit in your job search. After all, here I am comfortably employed, right? But the truth is I have made the mistake of taking a job just to get the experience and been unhappy as a result. I've also turned down an opportunity, at a time in my life when I was feeling a little desperate to find a job, because I didn't think the fit was right. (In both cases they were lovely people, great schools, just a bad fit for me.)

Anyway, in no particular order, here are some of the questions I ask myself/the interviewer(s)/the interviewee and things I look for when interviewing.
  • As I mentioned in my response to the Hiring Librarians survey, I pay attention to what kinds of questions am I being asked? There are lots of ways this can play out, but here are some examples... An interviewee asking "What's your favorite thing about working here?" shows me that they are curious about the culture. Conversely, an interviewer asking something like "If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?", and doing so seriously, worries me.
  • Are people smiling? Of course they are going to smile when they face you, but try to see their expressions when they don't notice you looking.
  • How risk averse/risk seeking are they? This can be hard to tease out, but asking questions like, "How do you like to keep up with new developments in the field?" or "How comfortable are you with taking on new projects?" can help. Remember: this is about fit. If you are a risk taker, that's what you want for an employer. If you are risk averse, likewise. You just want to avoid being the person who likes cutting and/or bleeding edge who is working for a long tail organization.
  • Is there joking going on? Personally, I like to be able to laugh at work. I spend way too much of my waking life at my job for it to be constantly serious. I think a lot of people feel the same way, but I know not everyone does. From the interviewer perspective, I look to see if the person laughs at my jokes. Yeah, I get that sometimes people will laugh as a way to kiss up, but I've learned to look at someone's eyes to see whether or not the smile extends there. (It's hard to fake a genuine laugh.)
  • Do our politics match or at least come close? No, I do NOT look for this from the interviewer's perspective. Politics are a DO NOT PASS GO DO NOT COLLECT $200 situation if you are the interviewer. However, if you're the interviewee... it could be a make or break kind of thing. For example, I decided not to apply for a job based on the fact that the school was hosting a Republican Presidential debate series.

Two other pieces of advice: read Joe Hardenbrook's piece, "Interview Red Flags," which has lots more suggestions of how to interview your interviewer; and consult GlassDoor.com, which has reviews by employees and interviewees of employers (I've never looked for a public library in their database, but I've rarely not been able to find at least a couple of reviews of colleges/universities).

How about you? How do you judge for fit? Or, if you've never thought about it before, how do you think you will in the future? If you've never thought about it before, you really should. I've been that proverbial square peg trying to fit in a round hole, and it really never works.


  1. One of my favorite questions to ask when I was job-seeking (public librarian) was "In light of recent economic issues, I assume you, like most libraries, have had to make cuts. What cuts did you have to make and what are your restoration priorities for when funding is restored?"

    The answers I got to that told me SO MUCH about the systems.

  2. You had some good advice in here and by no means am I trying to argue or anything, but my experience is that I'm not sure if fit is so important that a new librarian should pass up an opportunity for work. For example, me. I've spent the last six years trying unsuccessfully to find a full time job in this field (class of 08, still no FT job to show for it). I cannot imagine having an opportunity to take a full time job and turning that down. With my track record, if I turn that down, another job offer isn't just around the corner. I need to take what I can get. I actually wrote something along those lines here:


    (not trying to advertise, it just illustrates how desperate I am and how I have little to no power to turn anything down, no matter how terrible).

    I understand I may be unhappy if the job isn't a good fit, but isn't that what many people in the world have to do? Suck it up and go to a job they hate because it pays the bills? I know it's nice to be happy and all, but would you really suggest a new librarian put on-the-job happiness over getting experience and paying the bills? I know, a bad fit might make me unhappy and might squelch my passion for library work and all that, but I'm just not convinced that's worse than turning down something as rare as an opportunity to work.

    Again, it was a good and informative read and I'm sure great advice for a lot of people, no disrespect intended at all. I just wonder if you'd concede that not all of us have the luxury of looking for fit, or if you think it's always a mistake to take on something that may not be a good fit.

    1. Failed, first... the premise of this post is pretty much showing you the perspective I bring to the hiring process, not the interviewing process. Further, the thing that inspired it - the questions I answered for Hiring Librarians - is purely about that.

      Second, good things can come out of bad jobs, for sure. I have friends and learned lots about what I don't want from bad fits I've had in the past. But those were also some of the darkest times I've had. (Actually, I've got someone working on a post in this vein. Hoping to have it to publish for next month.)

      Third, I would never presume to dictate to you what you should do in your situation. I don't know all the ins and outs (no, I'm not asking), so only you can answer that question for yourself. You need to take care of yourself, however you can do that.

      Finally, phrases like "no disrespect intended at all" and "by no means am I trying to argue or anything" always sound like the opposite to me. Regardless, I respect that you've had an alternate experience. My standard position with the advice I give on this blog (or in any other arena) is "your mileage may vary."

      Thank you for reading and commenting, and good luck.

    2. ok, it seems like I ticked you off. I'm sorry, again, not my intent. "no disrespect intended at all" and "by no means am I trying to argue or anything" were sincere-- I'm trying to talk to you over the internet and wanted to make sure what I said wasn't taken the wrong way, which I guess I still failed at miserably. I guess failure is just my thing.

      I know there was more to your post than just that, and I wouldn't be reading your blog if I didn't respect your opinion. I really was wondering if you advocated never taking a bad fit job like 3 seemed to suggest. Sorry again.

    3. I've had some horrendously bad fits in my working life, but I've never regretted any of them (even that horrid secretarial position that was the reason I decided to go to grad school) because I can always learn something - even if it's what I don't want to do. The reason I don't want to say yes or no to advocating for always turning down bad fits is because I can't know what will work best for you, only what has worked well (or not worked well) for me.

      (Thanks for the apology, btw. It's appreciated.)

    4. I straddle two fields, and have had my fair share of yes, you are smart, but no, not what we are looking for.

      I was speaking to a mentor last night, both about my design thesis project, but also about jobs, the future. He worked as an animator, owned his own company successfully for many years; taught; and in addition is a very Italian Philadelphia native. The combination of these characteristics means his perspective is interesting.

      He too is interviewing, but for design positions; one he decided was not a good fit for him (they claimed they made a large amount of prototypes all day, and that was not his thing), but the company said, well, okay, but maybe you can be a consultant and help us train people (he said, yes!). Another he thought was a good fit, but they thought the opposite.

      The analogy he gave me, which helped, was this: he told me, you have a phone, a car, a computer; at some point, you looked at all the phones, cars, and computers, and you made a choice..it may have been for quality, price, branding...you chose an iPhone because it's hip; you got an Android because really iPhone's are just bad phones, Toyota cars are dependable, motorbikes make good novels, etc.

      The unfortunate thing is very recently, and even now, though things are better, the choice employers have are equal to the choice we consumers have;

      It is very hard when you seem to strike out so much; I definitely understand that, and I understand the move of taking a job not because it is a dream but because work must be done. What I like about Jessica's post here is that she distributes the idea of power to both employer and employee...she reveals what interviewing is about (in my opinion): it is a conversation, and dialog; when it reaches this level, not only will both parties be better informed, but the chances that both parties will decide to become serious together (why is a job search so much like dating?). You are a brand, the place you are interviewing at is a brand, and the choice is about does that brand fit in with your life?

      I'm so sorry, FailedLibrarian, you have had difficulty securing a position; the economy has been so bad for most professions (I met a woman on the train yesterday whose son was an unemployed lawyer for a year after law school; which struck me as impossible, as law school was once thought to be a sort of golden ring for employment). Things are improving, and I have no doubt you will be successful and happy; I am rooting for you. The great thing we have going now, I believe, is that our ability to "meet up", find like minded people, and create, is more available then it has ever been....It may not give solace financially, but it can begin to build something that is distinctive;

  3. Thank you, Michael. I don't want to pull the comments section here off topic, so apologies again to Jessica, but I did want to say thank you for the response. It is good to know things are improving.