Navigating Workplace Culture [Series]: The Interview

You’ve done your research, written your cover letter, and have been contacted for an interview! But the research and preparation doesn’t stop now. An interview will allow you to directly ask about workplace culture, staff, and other important aspects about a job that could make or break a decision. This article is part of a larger series about navigating workplace culture – how to learn about the culture of an organization, decide what’s best for you, and dealing with negative experiences once in a position. See the first article of this series on researching workplaces and understanding your own values.

For academic full-time positions in the LIS field, one or two day onsite interviews are common. This resource from ALA is an excellent place to start learning about the process. For full-time positions, asking about professional development opportunities including funding for travel and conferences is one way to gauge how supportive an organization tries to be. The rest of this article will focus more on temporary or part-time internships, fieldwork, and jobs for MLIS students.

For student positions or internships, you’ll likely be interviewing with a search committee that includes your potential supervisor. This is a chance to see how the committee interacts with each other and will give you an idea about the work culture. Are they comfortable interacting with each other? Do they talk over each other? Are they making negative comments about other colleagues or the organization? The negative examples should be red flags that the culture may not be a positive one you would want to be in. If they treat or talk about their colleagues like that, you can imagine the type of environment that would be. I’ve been in an institution where staff gossiped and talked down about their colleagues from different departments behind their backs. Because of these interpersonal tensions, the departments barely talked to each other or collaborated together on projects.

Regardless of the type of experience or institution, you should be prepared, going into an interview, with questions. You could ask a direct question – “How would you describe the library’s culture?” – but this might make some defensive or feel pressured to sugarcoat a bad situation. Consider asking other questions to tease out answers such as about individual and institutional challenges and challenges you may face in the position. Also consider asking about the way the organization or department functions including how closely or often various departments work together, the relationship between the specific department you are applying for and the larger institution, and if there are areas of improvement regarding either of these. I also like to ask the potential supervisor about their management style to get an idea of how my relationship with them might be. Asking what about the library or position surprised members on the search committee when they first started working there is a great way to dig a little deeper. Another question I like to ask is what they like most about their job (for internships and jobs where I’ve had great experiences, the answer is usually about their wonderful relationships with colleagues). There are many other questions you could ask, but the important thing is that you ask them!

Finally, if you experience too many red flags during the interview process, it’s okay to withdraw from the search. There are other opportunities as a student for you to pursue and you shouldn’t feel forced to accept the first offer that comes through. There are other places to gain experience with better workplace cultures. Coming from someone who spent a couple of months at an extremely toxic workplace, I quickly realized within the first week that it was not worth it and I could have gone somewhere else and been happier. My mistake was not asking these crucial questions about their workplace and instead went into the position blind.

Featured photo by Drew Hays.


Kelli Yakabu is a MLIS student at the University of Washington focusing on archives. You can follow her on Twitter @kelliyakabu.

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