Monday, December 12, 2011

Interview Red Flags, by Joe Hardenbrook

Much has been written on the topic of “interview red flags” – but it’s mostly from the employer perspective: what to watch out for when interviewing candidates. But what about the view from the interviewee? Here are few red flags—along with a couple anecdotes—that should make you run and scream from a library interview.

Wildly Different Answers
During an interview day you meet with lots of people. Often you get asked the same questions over and over. Turn the tables! When appropriate, ask the different people you meet the same questions. For example: How would you describe the library’s organizational culture? What do you see as the library’s biggest challenges? How is the library perceived by its constituents? Although you will see differences in opinion, answers should not be wildly divergent. If so, it may indicate fundamental differences among the library’s staff when it comes to priorities, mission, and vision.

The Non-Answer
Also known as “hemming and hawing”—this is when you get a less-than-straightforward response to your questions. For example: Tell me about the library’s budget situation? How stable is funding for this position? Why is the position open? If you cannot get straightforward answers these important questions—red flag alert! What are they hiding?

Workplace Atmosphere
It is my duty to provide a warm and welcoming environment when interviewing candidates. I expect the same in return if I’m the interviewee. How do your potential co-workers or supervisor act during “small talk”? How do they interact with patrons? Do they say anything disparaging? Bottom line: Do you feel uncomfortable? Do you think you would have a hard time fitting in?

Let me give you a specific example: Several years ago, when I was getting ready to graduate with my MLS, I went on a round of interviews. On the morning of one of my interviews, I spilled juice all over my tie and shirt. I had the forethought to pack an extra dress shirt, but didn’t think about bringing an extra tie. So I had to proceed to the interview sans tie—an interview faux pas. The interview day was proceeding normally until I got royally reamed by a senior-level administrator. During the interview, the administrator said: “Can we just stop the interview for a second? I want to tell you how unprofessionally you are dressed. It’s very disrespectful. OK, now let’s continue…” That was enough. I was deflated. I didn’t even tell the administrator what had happened. It also gave me some insight into how the administrator might interact with employees. Luckily, I accepted a job elsewhere!

Keep your eyes and ears tuned for any potential interdepartmental or administrative conflicts. Do different departments get along? How do you perceive the relationship between administrators and staff? You may want to ask questions about communication styles and how departments share information.

Case in point: On one interview I went through almost the entire day without meeting my direct supervisor. That tipped off my radar as an odd thing. And this was not a large library where you might see your supervisor infrequently. I was allotted just 30 minutes to meet with the supervisor at the end of the interview day. The supervisor said that the previous person in the position I was interviewing for had been fired and that she could not go into the reasons (which is the standard HR response). Later I learned about serious conflicts between the supervisor and library staff. There was mutual distrust between both these groups.  

Sometimes it’s easier and the red flags are openly apparent: Once on a library interview for a job that involved working heavily with technology, I was told: “Did you notice that the I.T. staff isn’t here? They don’t work very well with the library.” Although you could see this as an opportunity to improve relations, the person hired would not only have to learn a new job but also walk a tightrope between the library and I.T. departments. No small feat!    

Small Things Matter
Scheduling and communication are key. Individually, the issues below do not automatically equal a red flag—but several added up do! Think about some of these: Is the library interview timeline inconveniently short? (“It’s Monday. Can you interview on Wednesday?”) Are you being reimbursed for your interview expenses? If not, was the library was upfront.? Were you left to find your own way to the hotel? Were you given a tour of the area (especially if you are unfamiliar)? Did the library change your presentation topic at the last minute? Ouch! Did they give you time to ask questions? A library with communication and scheduling issues may be indicative of larger problems.

The bottom line: Trust your gut! If something seems “off,” then it probably is. Proceed with caution and evaluate whether you think the job is worth it.

Joe Hardenbrook is an Instruction & Reference Librarian at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He blogs about libraries at and is on twitter @mrlibrarydude.


  1. A red flag you might not consider (I certainly didn't) are "interviews" in which the "employer" is just trying to get information and not actually looking to hire someone. Basically, an unpaid consultation. This has happened to me twice. Once at a private corporation and once at an academic library. Be on the lookout for questions that don't really seem to have to do with the specific job or are out of line for a standard interview.

    For instance, it is standard practice when interviewing for a a reference/instruction/subject specialist position at an academic library for the interviewee to give a presentation. Normally, the presentation is a sample instruction session. I was asked to give a presentation on what is wrong with their website and provide suggestions to improve it. RED FLAG!!!! This might be standard for a systems librarian or web developer but definitely not for an instruction librarian.

  2. Good point! It also depends on the institution's hiring policies. At my present library, we have very strict guidelines on the hiring process, so something like this wouldn't fly. Another thing that I've heard some people mention is figuring out whether the library has an internal candidate already in mind. In this case, some libraries (but not all) may just go through the "motions" of the interview process when they already have someone lined up for the job. This one can be hard to figure out, unless you ask :)


  3. "In this case, some libraries (but not all) may just go through the "motions" of the interview process when they already have someone lined up for the job. This one can be hard to figure out, unless you ask :)"

    I've found that even if you do ask, it's very likely they'll not admit that they're only going through the motions.

  4. I'm so glad you posted these tips. I'll be job searching in the coming year & I've been just eating up all the job-search advice I can find... but you're right, most "red flags" articles are aimed at helping out employers rather than candidates.

  5. I once interviewed for a Reference/Instruction Librarian position and the person who would have been my immediate supervisor didn't even sit in on my presentation. I was later told that she was "too busy" to attend. I didn't get a good vibe from the place anyway, and didn't accept their offer. Good thing too, as I've seen this same position advertised 3 times in the two years since I interviewed.

  6. I interviewed with a commitee at one school made up of the vice principal and several teachers. I was called to say I had been chosen for the position. Then Monday morning I received a call from the school secretary for a meeting with the principal. It was another interview and she said she would let me know if I had the job. I immediately called the vice principal about this and he sighed and said she had a habit of doing this. I told him I was sorry but that I was withdrawing my acceptance of the position. Red flag: power struggle and poor communication.

  7. At one school I was told that the Librarian whom I had figured out had been hired recently was resigning, and that was why they needed a replacement. Maybe I should have been more bold about asking why she was resigning. I haven't been offered the job so far.

  8. Recently I had an interview where the job description had been changed significantly between the time we agreed to meet and the actual interview (which was about one week). The first thing they tell me when I sit down is that on top of the duties/responsibilities already listed (information literacy instruction, reference, collaborating with faculty, etc.), the candidate would have to design and teach on their own a 3rd-year history course, representing a third of the workload. Sure, this can be interpreted as a great opportunity, but it was not the job for which I had applied or prepared. It just seems sketchy to me.