The Virtual Job Hunt

Here’s how to stand out, both as an applicant and an employer

May 3, 2021

Illustration: Man does virtual interview at home with laptop, wearing shirt and tie with pajama bottoms and slippers (Illustration: Shane Tolentino)
Illustration: Shane Tolentino

Gloria Vela, fresh from receiving her MLIS and earning her Texas school librarian certification, did all the right things when she applied for school librarian jobs. She set up a tidy workspace well-lit for Zoom interviews. She applied makeup, styled her hair, and made sure her 6-month-old miniature Australian shepherd, Olive, was out of audio range. She rehearsed and smiled and made eye contact and sent thank-you notes. But after 34 job applications, six interviews, some close calls but no bites—plus “some good cries”—Vela was burned out.

After a particularly tough rejection, she reached out to a librarian friend for moral support. “She said, ‘You have it, but, by the way, there’s this job that opened up at the last minute in my district,’ which I didn’t know about,” Vela says. “So she put my name in.”

It was Vela’s 35th job application, and she knew she had to change something about her approach. Faced with a committee meeting, which tended to stress her out, Vela decided to create a 15-slide deck to lay out her communication style, plans to instill students with a love of reading, and ideas for library events and initiatives—all presentable in five minutes.

It worked. “This is my dream job,” says Vela, now librarian and media specialist at Good Elementary School in Carrollton, Texas. “I’m so happy. I love what I do, every day.”

As Vela experienced, it’s a tough job market for applicants: “It is well documented that job losses have been staggering in 2020,” Gretchen Kaser Corsillo, director of Rutherford (N.J.) Public Library, wrote in a December 29 article for Public Libraries Online. Corsillo, who was on both sides of the job market in 2020, noted that she had not seen so many part-time applicants since the 2008 recession.

Here are tips for both job hunters and recruiters on how to make the most of a job market that has been forever changed by COVID-19.

For applicants

Clean up your social media. Catherine Hakala-Ausperk, an Ohio-based writer, library trainer, and consultant, says you should assume that hiring supervisors will look you up on social media. “It’s a window to the kind of person you are. If I look at your Facebook page and you’re supporting one [political] party or another, fine, that’s America. But if you’re calling one side names or are being vile? Next.” Hakala-Ausperk advises job applicants to review at minimum the last 100 posts on their social media profile, if it’s publicly viewable.

Use your network. Lean heavily on your library network throughout your job search. Former classmates, colleagues, and online buddies can help commiserate over the discouraging days, provide job-hunt or interview ideas, or, as in Vela’s case, share news about openings. “I wouldn’t have known unless I had reached out,” she says.

Do your pre-interview research. With COVID-19, you can no longer spend hours in a library doing field research before an interview, so bone up on the library’s website, social media channels, and press coverage. Does someone from your network know someone who has worked in this district? If so, says Hakala-Ausperk, “you can get an honest description. Is it stuffy? Is it rules-oriented? Do they appreciate the staff?” Hakala-Ausperk says that reviewing board minutes is another way to get details on the library’s culture. “What is it focused on? What are the goals of the library?”

Niemah Verdun, HR coordinator at University of Michigan Library, says that smart job applicants review an institution’s strategic frameworks and narratives, which are often posted in job descriptions. “Prepare ideas on what you can bring to the role that provide solutions to issues related to the mission goal,” Verdun says. “If you can place yourself within our strategic framework and let us know you come with solutions and ideas that are in alignment with our goal, that can make you a standout candidate.”

Prepare for a committee meeting. The stress of virtual group interviews made Vela feel like she wasn’t presenting her authentic, friendly self. The slideshow helped her focus and felt less like “all eyes were on me,” she says. Vela also found that sharing the well-rehearsed presentation cut down on instances of her saying “um” when nervous.

Another way to prepare (and demonstrate preparation) for a group interview is to request the names of those who will be sitting in on the interview, says Verdun. Then, she advises, research what they do and who they are within the organization. “Get the best sense of how the people on that committee are going to interact with the job you applied for,” she says. “They’re on the committee for a reason.”

Next, prepare questions for those particular people related to how you’ll interact with them on the job. Verdun says that approach is “a hallmark of a really great committee interview.”

Do a test run and show up early. Before an interview, run through a tech rehearsal with a friend or bored family member to make sure you are well-lit, audible, and familiar with the virtual platform. “If someone logs onto an interview 10 minutes late because they couldn’t figure out how to start Zoom, that doesn’t tell me that they’ll be super prepared in a library setting helping patrons with technology if that’s part of the role,” says Corsillo. She likes seeing someone’s name show up indicating they’re early for their meeting. “I knew they were prepared, and I didn’t have to sit there worrying, ‘Are they going to have a connection issue and put the whole thing behind schedule?’ ”

Corsillo has seen some applicants so dimly lit that she couldn’t tell what they looked like. Also, the world is a stressful place, but you should still dress up for the job interview. “Candidates dressed the way they would for an in-person interview seemed a little more confident and comfortable,” Corsillo says, adding that she has seen—and has questioned the judgment of—applicants who showed up in loungewear. “Even though this is virtual, it is still a professional situation.”

Sell yourself in the interview. Practice reiterating your real-life achievements at work. “You have to go overboard more than you would face to face,” Hakala-Ausperk says of discussing how your achievements match the job’s requirements.

Prepare examples of how you can be flexible during a pandemic—and beyond. “This last year was one of the first times where things were changing on a daily basis,” says Corsillo. “I would look for employees who can roll with the punches.” Corsillo became director of Rutherford Public Library at the end of 2020, when the library had pivoted to virtual programming, debuted curbside service, reopened, and gone fine-free.

Hakala-Ausperk agrees, saying job applicants should display an attitude of “Whatever you need me to do, I’m here.” She says: “Be part of the flexible solution. When this is over and hiring supervisors are looking at internal promotions, they will remember the people who said, ‘Don’t apologize; just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.’ ”

Verdun suggests raising questions about the softer aspects of work, like parking, commuting, and the post-pandemic environment. “Ask about the fun things that the team does together. Try to get a feel for whether this is going to be a good place where you’re going to feel comfortable. Is this something that’s going to work for you?”

It’s also fine, says Corsillo, to inquire about COVID-19 safety. “If the library is handling things in a good way, they should be pretty forthcoming with that information. If the interviewer was not forthcoming, that’d be a red flag.”

Corsillo says that one way to stand out from other applicants is to show your enthusiasm. In the hiring she has done since the pandemic began, “everyone who was able to show that they’re still excited about this—even though maybe there isn’t that much to be excited about in the world right now—really showed that they wanted the position and they were willing to learn.” Additionally, Corsillo says, if you’re a humorous person, let it show. “Within reason, injecting some levity into an interview is good. Not necessarily telling a stand-up routine, but little jokes here and there,” she says.

Take a breath. Vela would sometimes find herself flustered on the committee calls, in which case she tried to remember to take deep breaths, even if it felt like it was taking up time. “It feels like an infinite amount of time sometimes, but … the committee realizes that this is technology and that gaps like that are okay.”

Corsillo agrees: “If you encounter a question you need to think over, it’s perfectly fine to say, ‘I need a moment to think about that,’ or ‘Let me gather my thoughts for a moment.’ ”

And even if the dog barks or the screen freezes, take heart. “These days everybody knows that everybody’s going through crazy things,” says Hakala-Ausperk. “It’s not going to deter anyone from hiring you if all of a sudden your doorbell rings or your child’s there, as long as it’s not overwhelming.”

For hiring managers

The subtle signs from body language, eye contact, and style choices are now less apparent in the interview process. Here’s how to make the most of your hiring search.

Cut through the wave of applicants. Before you post a job description, create a profile of your perfect candidate, advises Hakala-Ausperk. “With your hiring team, go over what characteristics, skills, experiences you’re looking for. Make a clear picture in your mind of what your ideal candidate is.” You should create a profile that is at least half informed by community needs, she says. “What kind of puzzle piece is missing from your team? Then, stick to that,” says Hakala-Ausperk. “Use that profile to create your advertisement, to create your interview questions, to create your scoring grid, and to guide your final decision.” This type of distinct profile, she says, can keep you focused on what you really need rather than being distracted by attractive traits that are not must-haves.

Drill down in interviews. Ask candidates to provide examples of how they can meet your particular needs. “Some places will begin a very generic, wide-ranging interview,” Hakala-Ausperk says. “Like, ‘Tell me about yourself.’ But if I’m looking for somebody who can pivot, who can run this department and maybe that department, if someone else calls in sick, I need to ask my questions so they’re pointed enough to determine the skills I’m looking for.” Ask how the interviewee prepared for the interview. Pointed questions, she says, will save time. “I don’t want the applicant to end up in a job that makes them unhappy any more than I want the library to end up with someone who’s unhappy with the job.”

Lead with empathy. Vela says that interviewers who smiled and bantered helped put her at ease. From the recruiter’s perspective, it’s a good idea to ask applicants “something to take their mind off the interview for a second,” says Verdun, who recommends beginning an interview with an icebreaker. “What are they going to do to blow off steam after the interview? There’s so much tension sometimes. I remember when I was interviewing, and I’d think, ‘I can’t wait to get some good food after this.’ ”

Mentioning the extraordinary times we’re currently facing can be a clue to your library’s culture, says Corsillo. “It’s okay to acknowledge that everyone is feeling very stressed and it’s taking a toll on everyone’s mental health. It’d be helpful [for interviewees to know] that they’d be working in a compassionate environment and they’re not going to be left to fend for themselves.”

Post-pandemic lessons

Virtual job interviews are not going away, predict Corsillo and Verdun, who see them being used at least as a screening tool even after the pandemic. This has prompted Verdun’s office at University of Michigan Library to research, review, and revise its recruiting practices, particularly with regard to how diversity, equity, and inclusion are considered in its hiring. Not everyone has easy access to a quality computer camera or a quiet, well-lit room, for instance. “We are really into finding the best practices to make recruiting more inclusive and making sure we’re reaching out to everyone we can,” says Verdun.

Corsillo says that librarians’ natural ability to manage change makes them “uniquely equipped” to adapt to the altered job landscape and to make the best of it. “Librarians have a pretty long history of doing more with less and figuring out creative ways to offer the services we need to offer with fewer resources. I think that makes us predisposed to being flexible.”

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