Surviving and thriving and getting that professional archives position.

Welcome. If you're here, you're probably wondering how to get some job--maybe the perfect professional archives position or maybe just something you can use as a springboard--and you're seeking advice on how to do that. From searching for advertisements to writing a resume or cover letter to making it through the interview. And hopefully even beyond.

No guarantees, you probably already know a lot of this, but maybe some help from a lot of people who want to make sure that good candidates get good jobs. If you've got better advice? or need further explanation? Please share in the comments.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Interview part 4: So why do I matter anyway?

The personality questions. I threw a few queries about this in on the survey because I'd recently been chastised by somebody (not one of my candidates) who thought they shouldn't matter. All that should matter was their ability to do the work. And I'm going to try and keep my opinions out of this--as much as I'm able to anyhow, which probably won't be much--but you will see them creep in so let me get my bias out there and get on to what the survey respondents said.

I ask the hated personality questions though I will admit, they're sometimes cleverly disguised as experiential questions, and my ones that are clearly personality (if you had one word to describe yourself) aren't often so much about personality as they are about whether you can keep your answer short or how you react to weird things out of left field. At any rate, whether you can tell if I'm asking a personality question or not, I listen just as closely to the personality subtext as I do to all the information you're providing me in your answer. I've worked in more than one place that had long-time baggage of employees having gone postal. Suicides, violence against co-workers, restraining orders, involuntary commitment to treatment centers, harassment lawsuits. (I wasn't involved, okay? In fact, most of it happened before I came there.) It's not just a matter of working with the public, it's a matter of working with colleagues and supervisors. Even the little problems and disagreements that we all have sooner or later, those put huge dents in productivity, not just of the people involved in the dispute, but amongst everybody else who witnesses it. And it sticks around, affecting morale, for years. To sum up: the job is never just about the work. There are very, very few archives jobs that isolate a worker to the extent that you will not have contact with others regularly.

Okay, enough of Arlene. Let's go on to what others had to say.

First question was: In an interview, do you ask questions that are intended to assess the personality of the candidate? 82.5% said yes. Chances are? You're going to be asked the personality questions. 8 of the 10 people who said no were from academic institutions, 1 from corporate, one from federal governments, so pretty much a representative sample from most of the types of people who filled out the survey.

So for the ten people who said no, why not? The options were: it's irrelevant, it's unnecessary, it's unfair, and then a fill in the blank. They could choose multiple responses. Nine of them answered the question. One said it's irrelevant, and left it there. One said it's irrelevant and unnecessary, and left it there. Three just said it's unnecessary. One said it was unnecessary and explained that it was so because the all-day interview process provided plenty of observation opportunities. More on the others in a moment, but I'd like to point out that if you read the answer to the previous question, 17.5% of respondents not asking personality questions, to mean that 17.5% of respondents don't attempt to assess personality, you'd be a little off. The two that said irrelevant? Probably they don't assess, but that's only 3.5% of our respondents. The three that said it's unnecessary with no other explanation? They could go either way. Either they don't feel it applies to the job or they agree with the one who said it was unnecessary because they could assess personality through other routes. For the remaining three, one noted that s/he does try to gauge personality somewhat but tries not to let it influence decision-making much since that could be unfair, one said they were watching out for legal restrictions, and the last said that they assess, but not by direct questioning and talked about the other types of questions in the interview that can provide this information like problem-solving experiences and so forth.

Not a one of our respondents--even the one that said in the comment that s/he felt it might be unfair--took the opportunity to check the survey response of "it's unfair." Bottom line? Your recruiters don't think it's unfair to assess personality. Even if you do, you're probably stuck here. Best to accept that you're going to have to deal with questions like this, no matter what your opinion of them, and figure out how to deal with them instead of letting yourself be surprised by them.

But let's look quickly at those that said they do ask personality questions. Here's the options I provided:
  • To ensure the candidate can work with the public, donors, or others outside the immediate department.
  • To ensure the candidate will fit in well with co-workers in the department.
  • To ensure candidate responds well to supervision.
  • Other
Respondents could select as many as they liked. And boy, did they ever. 86% of them said it was to ensure the candidate can work with people outside the department. A slightly different 86% of them said it was to ensure the candidate can work with co-workers (and one of those stressed the value of teamwork), and 76% said it was to ensure the candidate responds well to supervision. Most people chose more than one answer, and the vast majority chose all three. Three of those that chose all three decided to add some more information as to why else they might ask such questions: to see if the candidate can handle criticism and face complexity, to see how the candidate might fit with the institution, and last, to see if the candidate is passionate about the subject focus of the institution.

One respondent added a comment which I'd like to follow up on. "I don't think questions targeting personality are successful. Better to catch demeanor, ask for experiences with donors, coworkers, etc." Honestly, that's why when I ask the "use one word to describe yourself" question I'm not actually looking for the answer. Unless the person describes himself/herself as rude, or obnoxious, and then I might actually pay attention to the content of the answer. That's why I ask questions like "tell us about a time when you worked on a collaborative project" which is, essentially, a question about experience and I do want to know the experience, but I also want to know how you did with that kind of experience: how do you do in teams? What role do you play? And so forth.

So chances are, that your interviewers are going to be looking for personality information. How much this will figure into their decision-making is going to vary.

So what role does personality play in the hiring process? Obviously, it matters to our recruiters. But how much? Tough to say, not just because I failed to ask. I won't hire somebody just because they've got a great personality. But if I have two semi-equal candidates and it's clear that one is going to fit in really well in the institution and the other isn't, it may very well work its way into the hiring decision. And if I have somebody who isn't going to get along with anybody else, isn't going to take direction or isn't going to be able to work with others, no matter how good their experience and credentials, I'm probably not going to hire them. I have the ability to bring that into the search because of the nature of the positions I have. All of mine are faculty and to be faculty means you have to participate in the university and community, usually via committees, and if you can't deal with others you can't function well on committees. If you can't meet the service obligation of your workload, you're not going to make tenure or past the reviews along the way to tenure.

And again, if these things are important to the job: working well with colleagues, a service mentality, the ability to take direction, if these things matter to the job and they're not things you want to deal with, this is your opportunity as a candidate to assess whether or not this is the right job for you. If they're asking a string of questions that you don't feel are at all relevant to the position and are maybe indicating that these people are a little weird? Perhaps it's time for you to pull out of the search.

I'd also like to point out that a lot of the personality I'm evaluating for--and apparently so are our survey respondents--is based around how well you function with others. Other personality traits? Not so important. I don't care if you're shy, if you have an obsession with Lost (though please, don't subject me to the blow-by-blow plot descriptions: you know who you are), if your sense of humor runs toward Little Britain instead of Jeff Foxworthy. Not so important. Are your co-workers going to feel comfortable working with you? Are they going to be able to rely on you to be fair, to hold up your end of a joint project, to ask the right questions because they're the right questions not just because you enjoy being contrary? Can they rely on you to be flexible and maybe cover a ref desk hour or two that wasn't on your schedule because they've just had a family emergency? It's little stuff, often heading toward intangible, but it matters in the workplace.

And although it's impossible to predict exactly how somebody will fit within an institution--personality-wise--the recruiters still assess this because sometimes it is possible to see how a person won't fit within the institution. And then the recruiter has to figure out if that matters and if it does, how much.

Next up: something a little more straightforward. The standard interview questions (or what I thought were the standard, anyhow.) What are the questions you can expect to be asked?


  1. Could you give some examples of personality questions? I am sure I have been asked them, but I don't recall anything specifically.

  2. Megan: you'll see some coming up in the next few postings amongst the standard questions.

  3. Anybody else have any favorites they'd like to share?