What is your favorite book? (and other stupid interview questions)

shaking-hands-96298_640At some point in your career you will have to participate in hiring candidates. I mean it.  Even if you are not directly involved with hiring, you will have to participate in the process. You might be sitting on a panel or even contributing questions or ideas to the hiring process. Too often, people do a quick Google search for “interview questions” or take out a ten year old list of questions from when they last hired someone and just recycle the old questions. This is a bad idea.

Let me give you some examples of real life interview questions that I have been asked in the past.

Do you like to file?

When someone asked this I thought it was a trick. This was my first interview in a library, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what they wanted.  Was it important that employees like filing? To me, filing is like brushing your teeth. Every job requires it.  You don’t have to necessarily “like it,” but everyone has to do it. I answered honestly that it wasn’t my favorite task in the world, but I will do it and not complain.

Of course every job in the library has aspects that are not fun every single minute. Make sure your questions reflect what you are looking for. I have a feeling that this question was prompted by someone who wouldn’t do filing and probably complained about the task. Unfortunately, most of the complainers in the world will find something to complain about, so this kind of question tells you nothing about skill or work discipline. Try asking what you really want to know and give it some context.  Pro tip: Just because someone LOVES a particular task doesn’t mean they are good at it.

This job has lots of filing. We generate a lot of paperwork, in addition to filing books.  You will spend x% of your workday on these kinds of tasks. Is that something you can do? 

What is your favorite book? 

Just about every library position I have ever interviewed for has asked me this. Again, I have often panicked and wondered what they were really after. Was it fiction or nonfiction? Did it matter what genre? Are they going to hate me if they find out I never read Moby Dick? What if they find out I think William Faulkner is a waste of a tree? Oh my God, what does it say about me that I like Star Trek novels? This is a dumb question for a librarian. If you are looking for collection development or reader advisory skills ask a different question.

A patron that has only read James Patterson is looking for a read-a-like, how do you help her/him?

What is your greatest weakness?

What is the answer?  “I work too hard.” “My standards are too high.”  “I care too much.” I have argued with people that think this kind of question will indicate some level of self-awareness. I think it will only indicate that the person has researched this question. Again, what are you after? Are you looking for an honest discussion of skills and insight into a person’s character? Ask open ended scenarios that allow the interviewee to describe how they would react/handle a situation.

Rephrase the question. If I am hiring a cataloger, I do want someone picky about the details. This type of personality probably won’t be as effective on a reference desk if the rules are a bit more relaxed and soft skills are the priority. If you are concerned about a skill set, ask questions relevant to certain skills. Ask the candidate to describe how they work and situations with co-workers they found difficult.

Strengths and weakness are usually opposite sides of the same coin.  I have laughed at the number of times I have heard people say they want someone who is “enthusiastic and innovative” and then in practically the same breath say this person is always bugging them to talk about technology, programming, future projects, etc.  Understand that what might be considered a positive trait probably has a companion trait that maybe won’t be so wonderful. I am not sure you can have it both ways.

Hiring a new person for your organization is a big deal and it can be expensive if you make a mistake. Before you even write up the posting, take time to really decide what kind of person you want and then design questions that will elicit that information.

By the way, on the favorite book question, I finally started answering that I have so many favorites, I couldn’t possibly pick one. If they insist, I always pick Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. I am sure that selection means I am a reliable, delightful individual that should be paid a lot of money.

One thought on “What is your favorite book? (and other stupid interview questions)

  1. Great advice, Mary. I particularly like your point about every positive trait coming with a not-so-positive companion trait. That’s definitely something I will consider more.

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