Reducing Bias in the Library Job Interview

Image from Flickr User Atomic Mutant Flea Circus

Image from Flickr User Atomic Mutant Flea Circus (CC BY 2.0)

This post is a follow up to my recent In the Library with the Lead Pipe article entitled The Quest for Diversity in Library Staffing: From Awareness to Action. I ended that article with “Brass Tacks for Library Leaders,” suggesting some concrete actions that leaders could take to make our organizations more inclusive and open to difference. One topic I didn’t mention was the job interview and how it might contribute to the homogeneity in library staffing and discrimination in hiring practices.

Most of the popular literature about job interviews has one of two goals: 1. to help the job candidate prepare for the job interview; 2. to help the interviewer get the best person for the job.

Typical examples of advice for job candidates include: how to prepare for and answer interview questions, which questions to ask at the interview, and tips to calm down and focus so you can make the best impression. These articles take the existing interview process as a given and place the burden of coping fully on the back of the candidate, who is advised to stay calm, believe in themself, breathe deeply, remain self-aware, dress “professionally” (whatever that means), maintain their self-confidence, not say anything stupid, ask intelligent questions, provide impressive answers, look neither too enthusiastic (read: desperate) nor too detached, and to talk about themselves with aplomb but not too much assertiveness. The list goes on and on.

Advice for interviewers includes: conducting a structured interview (i.e., asking all candidates the same questions); making the interview more like a conversation (so does this imply not asking all candidates the same questions?); asking about how candidates handled specific situations in the past; avoiding asking about how candidates handled specific situations in the past and instead asking them situational judgement questions or maybe hypothetical problem solving questions. As well, we may be advised to not make our interviews too friendly.

Many of these articles seem to be based on no research whatsoever and contradict each other.

In my job I participate frequently in hiring: on search committees, at candidate lunches and job talks, and sometimes as hiring manager. I also talk to other librarians about their interviewing and job search experiences. I’ve been thinking about how the conventional job interview process privileges a certain kind of job candidate: one who is able to think quickly on their feet; withstand a long series of what may seem like oral exams, one after the next (in some cases this is a multi-day affair); and who is comfortable navigating the cultural and social norms of our profession’s dominant culture.

Cultural “fit” is a common criterion for interviewing and hiring. In a blog post on “fit,” Meredith Farkas notes that “Screening for cultural fit tends to lead to monocultures that don’t embrace diversity of any kind — racial, gender, perspective, experience, etc.” and she points to research suggesting that “cultural fit has become a new form of discrimination.”

So what are some ways to improve the interview process in order to increase meaningful exchange with the candidate and to mitigate the potential bias of interviewing for “cultural fit?” A quick literature search suggests that there’s been very little written in the library literature about this question. But there has been a lot of research in other fields done on job interviewing, hiring, and bias. This is an area where library research is needed.

In the mean time, here are a few ideas:

Reducing bias: 

A few years ago, for searches on which I was the hiring manager, I started using a scoring grid based on the job requirements. For each of the major areas of responsibility listed in the job ad (e.g., “project management,” “manage staff”), the search committee and I write up interview questions and then add that area of responsibility to a scoring grid that we use for each candidate who applies. (I’ve used a 3-point scale — great/good/not so good — and a 5-point scale with more gradations; either one works). After interviews are over we tally up points and then discuss the results. This process:

  1. makes us focus the questions squarely on the job ad, rather than leaving leeway for potentially unrelated questions on pet topics
  2. pushes us to be fair in asking all candidates the same questions (Note: we also allow for additional questions, but we make sure always to be guided by the job ad and the candidate’s own CV)
  3. helps us score each candidate against our ideal level of qualification for each area of responsibility
  4. moves us away from those gut (biased) reactions like “wow they seemed really great” or “I just didn’t like them” or “just the kind of person I’d like to hang out with.”

Roger Schonfeld recently suggested a some “techniques beyond interviewing that can be used as part of a selection process,” including a homework assignment appropriate to the job.

Here are a few ideas that Angela Galvan offers in her article “Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias: Whiteness and Librarianship“:

  • “Screen interview notes for biased language.
  • “Doesn’t seem professional” as criticism without articulating why is a problem.
  • When someone says “I just like them better,” find out why.
  • If search committees consistently defer to one member, find out why.
  • Decide what you are attempting to measure with interview questions. Open-ended questions have answers that feel correct–there’s nothing wrong with behavioral interviews but hiding bias in a “correct” answer or “gut feeling” is a problem.”

I know others have rethought the job talk. I’d be interested in hearing more from them about what they changed, any feedback they’ve gotten from job candidates, and how they think it’s changed the interviewing and hiring process.

Reducing anxiety:

I recently asked on twitter how to lower candidate anxiety and improve conversations. A few people suggested sending the interview questions to candidates ahead of time. Here @schomj explains:

I appreciate what Jessica is suggesting in her second tweet: that expecting candidates who are already nervous to memorize questions as we ask them and then answer them astutely is really asking a lot. We’re not conducting oral exams, and we certainly don’t want to exclude people who happen to need a bit more time to formulate great ideas. I mean, look, even Denis Diderot occasionally suffered from l’esprit de l’escalier. We certainly wouldn’t want to ding him in the job interview, would we?

Others on twitter reminded me to build quiet time into the interview day for candidates to mentally regroup and relax a little bit. For longer interviews this could include a meal that isn’t social (where it’s usually quite hard for the candidate to eat anything at all!). It’s important to also schedule bio breaks and offer candidates water throughout the day.

Introverts and extroverts will react differently to long interview days. Some brilliant people don’t do well on oral exams. Add to all this the expectation that candidates will perform skillfully within the norms of our profession’s dominant culture. With so much research and writing being done outside the library field on bias in interviewing and mitigating strategies, someone really ought to dive in and apply this knowledge to interrogating and improving the hiring process in our profession.