Your Colleagues and a Lot of Meetings

When I was interviewing for my first professional position out of grad school, I was always asked what I liked most about the position I was currently holding in my university library’s acquisitions unit. My first answer was always, “The people.” Then, of course, I had to explain why I liked librarianship, and a technical services position too.

Rebecca and former coworkers. Nada Sweid, 2016.

Even though I think I had to qualify more about why I liked my current employment – beyond just liking the people I worked with – I think my immediate response fostered a lot of interest from potential employers. I sounded like someone who might be reasonable to work with; I wasn’t someone who had a better relationship with the books than the person in the next cubicle.

Libraries are looking for new employees who will work at least peacefully with the other staff.

The farther out of graduate school I get, the more I realize that librarianship (and probably most work in general) is more about personality and interdepartmental interaction than it is about hard skill sets like creating purchase orders or hacking away at several lines of PHP or cycling through reference questions. After 5 hours of meetings, 1.5 hours of reference and instruction, and 1 hour of supervising your direct reports, you don’t have much time left in an 8 hour day. (No wonder most of us feel overworked.) That’s basically 7.5 hours of interpersonal interaction. Yep, it’s the majority of your work time. The hard skills might get you the interview (because those are most apparent on your resume and cover letter) but those soft skills are what you need when you’re actually working.

So, an employer and hiring committee that knows what it’s doing will want to find an employee with the ability to work well with others.

This can, I know, become a dangerous path to tread for employers. They want someone deemed “friendly” and who “fits” their departmental culture. “Fit” so often excludes people of color; and ideas of “approachability” and “friendliness” are highly gendered and often eliminate perfectly suitable candidates. And for the many of us who are introverted and nervous in our interviews (or those of us with social anxiety), we know that interviewers want to see these traits – and we are horrified that we cannot live up to those expectations.

My advice is twofold. First, you need to market how you can work well with other people. No, you don’t need to be a social butterfly, the life of the party, charming, arrogant, or anything of the sort. But you do need to have examples ready of how you work with others. I would say 2 or 3 examples as the minimum, so that you can highlight your ability to be a “team player.” And a sort of mini-philosophy of working with others is also a good idea. I would say something like, “I could, if I wanted, work in the library basement and not talk to anyone – but that’s not really how I want to work.”

Then, I want you to know that your days will be filled with meetings and people. (Yes, it is exhausting.) So, you should strive to find people you will be happy working with. When you’re interviewing, pay attention to whether you think you like the people interviewing you. Yes, there can always be a few surprises – but if your instinct says the majority of the people interviewing you, you might have found a good job.


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