November 24, 2017

A Group Effort | Careers 2016

ljx160301webCareer7Most group interviews are really panel sessions—two or more interviewers meet with one candidate at a time. The other, scarier type of group interview is the multi­candidate interview. Two or more candidates gather in one room, and hiring managers expect them to make small talk, work in teams, and take turns answering questions.

Multicandidate interviews are rare in Libraryland. (They are uncommon even in the private sector, though librarians interviewed for this article mentioned group interviews at a variety of companies, and two attested to universities employing this approach to fill graduate assistantships or other student jobs.) But for that very reason, librarians who do find themselves faced with one may not know how to handle it.

Most librarians with whom I spoke had never heard of group interviews, and many called them red flags. Su Epstein, director of Saxton B. Little Free Library, Columbia, CT, “would refuse to do such an interview.” Chealyse Bowley, scholarly communications librarian at Texas Woman’s University, Denton, would not “feel respected as a candidate.” John Sandstrom, acquisitions librarian at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, expresses concern about post-interview gossip jeopardizing a candidate’s current job.

ljx160301webCareer8Why group together?

On the other hand, Marilyn McPheron, public services librarian at the Collier County Public Library, Naples, FL, feels that working in teams to solve problems creates a more “relaxed, realistic” interviewing environment. Nevertheless, McPheron advises using group interviews only if 1) there is more than one opening for the job; 2) the way the interview is structured promotes collaboration rather than competition; or 3) the employer is hiring a new team and wants to get a sense of how candidates would work together and complement one another.

Successful candidates describe the best group interviews as structured and collaborative. McPheron recalls being asked, for a teaching position, to work in a group to create a lesson plan. Sandstrom had “four to six candidates sit around a table and discuss topics related to working in a library.” MLIS student Hailley Fargo, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, sat opposite her competitor and took turns answering questions. Some of the sessions included individual interviews apart from the group. Tessa Betts, academic resource coordinator at Baker College, Clinton Township, MI, recalls sitting in a “‘holding pen’ during individual interview periods” and fretting while waiting her turn.

Tips, tricks—and teamwork

Thriving in this environment is a challenge, so librarians were eager to share tips for candidates looking to ace a group interview. The consensus was that acting as a team player is essential. “Be friendly and gracious to everyone,” advises one library manager, who requested anonymity. “Don’t be afraid to compliment a good answer by someone else.” Similarly, Sandstrom advises candidates to build on other candidates’ answers. Be an active and original contributor, Fargo recommends. But “make sure everyone gets heard,” says McPheron. “Don’t talk over people.” Bowley even invited other candidates to speak first. Candidates should show they can “play nice and share their toys” with competitors, in the words of Eileen Theodore-Shusta, director of planning assessment and organizational effectiveness at Ohio University Libraries, Athens.

In fact, Betts recommends treating competitors “as if you were colleagues working together on a project” or “in a networking event or panel discussion at a professional conference.”

“More times than not,” says David Borofsky, president of Hodges University, Naples, FL, “candidates either know each other or know of each other,” so it is important not to become intimidated or resentful. “Be yourself,” Borofsky advises, “and do not worry about the other candidates.” For some, this is easier said than done. “The intimidation factor,” Sandstrom warns, “could snuff out candidates with skills and values otherwise well suited for the organization.”

However, quieter people can actually have an edge in group interviews. According to Borofsky, listening carefully helps candidates spot the nuances of a question, whereas impulsive candidates may “think they hear the question, but do not.” Listening to other candidates helps you “better figure out your own train of thought,” Fargo says, “or might spur something you had forgotten.” McPheron suggests using body language to show oneself to be engaged and alert. Candidates also can use the times when they are not speaking to assess the situation—“Are the interviews meaningful?” asks Betts, “or do they seem to be nothing more than a way to save the employer time?”

How can candidates successfully navigate competitive, high-pressure group interviews? The best advice comes from MLIS student Fargo. “You do you,” she says, “and don’t let the others distract you or bog you down.”

Michael Rodriguez (topshelvr@gmail.com) is an Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of Connecticut, Storrs; a fair use consultant; and a 2015 LJ Reviewer of the Year

This article was published in Library Journal's March 1, 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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