Sunday, February 25, 2007

Orientation and Training

Yale's site is quite impressive; much to click and learn, and a fairly comprehensive "initial directions"-type page that must save the HR department and others involved in new employee orientation tons of time. I wonder how much time some HR department employees spend typing out directions and filling new people in on procedures via email and telephone. One problem with the Yale site though is that pages like start.htm represent something of a "dump truck" philosophy of orientation and general web design; everything is on the page, and it would be hard for a new employee to know exactly what of the content linked there would be expected of them to know. Nevertheless, this kind of initial-hire website seems a very important resource for any large organization that spends time doing much hiring. The "For Supervisors" page is incredible, and really could be useful for any organization; standardizing this process and providing a checklist is really useful.

The USDA site's checklist for employees, complete with time expectations, does a great job of streamlining and outlining exactly what needs to be done.

The Outward Bound-type team building really does work if members of the organization are not dysfunctional or dissociated from one another in advance. It's odd that team-building activities would require some initial buy-in, but I think that after a certain point, the ship might have sailed on the idea that we're all in the same boat. My experience has been that getting outside of a workplace environment and trying to accomplish an activity really helps people to learn about their coworkers and themselves, with their human strengths and weaknesses, rather than just the person who executes their particular job functions. Hopefully, upon returning to the workplace, in addition to the almost inevitable building of trust and camaraderie, employees will have learned a little more about the different kinds of roles that their colleagues can play. Getting people to participate in these programs is easy; simply make it mandatory. Motivating your employees to actually prefer doing this over the work they'll eventually have to do once they get back may be another story, but I think the best way to encourage people to be enthusiastic is just sort of to insist that it will be enjoyable and stay positive about the activity. It also might be helpful to schedule team-building, non-work essential activities outside the times of the year when work tends to pile up.

I have found that as far as skill-related training is concerned, I have a strong affinity for cross-training both as a manager and as an employee. As a manager, allowing employees to train each other is useful for distributing the workload, and can decentralize the entire training process. It also allows employees to collaborate more effectively in project work, and to be more interchangeable in cases of short- or medium-term personnel shortages. As an employee, I tend to enjoy the opportunity to learn from someone as they perform their craft and to feel like I'm really learning from a practitioner; as opposed to sitting through presentations and demonstrations about processes. I also find that the informal, collegial environment that cross-training allows is quite ideal for team-building and for learning in a low-pressure environment.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Work-Life Balance and Motivation

The Egg example is buzzword-laden, and seems to argue that they achieve maximum motivation by doing things companies should just do anyway, namely using previously learned management theories to do extraordinarily non-revolutionary things like providing a clean work environment and actually providing its employees with achievable targets and goals. By acting like any of this is somehow a new thing, and repackaging it in this "Egg DNA" format, they're revealing that they're out of touch with their employees (who could not care less on a daily basis about Theory X) and that they have no real new content to bring to the table here. The argument that "we listen to what our employees say and want" is just not particularly convincing, especially if their entire motivational program consists of just talking a whole lot about productivity and achievement.

I am more impressed by La Rosa's program, which seems relatively uncommon among food service (speaking from experience) and at least attempts to treat employees with actual respect and allows them to evaluate the performance of their superiors. While such trappings as the "chief people officer" are a bit silly-sounding, it's nonetheless the case that empowering employees in the often-dehumanizing and very top-down world of food service can really have a positive effect. This is especially relevant, I think, when a primary differentiating factor between your business and your competitors' is customer service.

Speaking as a potential future supervisor (likely in an academic library setting, which is quite fortunately an environment that allows for much personal contact and a great deal of "soft" management), I believe that the best motivational tools are primarily based on personal relationships. Workers, like people in all facets of their lives, desire approval and appreciation as well as the knowledge that they are supported as humans and as workers. There is nothing worse than working and not being acknowledged for creative and interesting contributions. Such contributions, especially if they are innovative, deserve praise. Along with that praise should come trust, and greater freedom and independence. I intend to provide those whom I supervise with a sense that they are truly valued. How?

-Initiate discussions in which I mention the ways in which their work has made a positive difference in the library, and the ways in which their contributions have been uniquely their own. I believe people truly need to feel ownership over their projects; like it was as good as it was because they did it, not just because it got done. An appreciation of unique value is ideal for a supervisor.

-Provide independence in the form of flex time and a general sense that work and life can compromise with one another. Getting errands done, and having a family, are difficult given the work schedules some places require nowadays. In libraries, some significant percentage of the work tends to be done alone and with little requirement that it be done within a certain time of the day. Allowing some schedule flexibility, and evaluating the body of work rather than the hours someone was visibly "at their desk," tends to work well in this kind of environment. I believe employees are more motivated and feel more positive about coming to work if they don't feel like they must be there at the expense of the rest of their lives.

-Provide opportunities for improvement. People feel better about work if they feel that those in their organization are trying to help them improve. Allowing and encouraging employees to attend seminars and conferences, and allowing them to share these outcomes in their work, reduces the drear and gives employees a sense that their vocation and improvement is valued in addition to the work "getting done."

-Listen. There is nothing worse than working for someone who cannot or will not hear feedback in the opposite direction.

-Learn. Employees, especially librarians, love to teach and to show. A willingness to learn new techniques and new ideas from employees increased the "family" environment and generally improves morale, motivation, and a sense of collegiality that is truly motivating.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Hiring, and Unit One Reflection

The final unit on hiring sparked me to consider a new issue. As we move through the hiring process, the level of individual attention and respect that each candidate receives seems to increase. During recruitment, it is important that the organization represent itself well and professionally, but only with respect to the job ad itself. While assessing resumes, employers must deal with faceless documents and come up with a way of ranking candidates that accounts for their individual differences but does not particularly target individuals. During an interview, it is important that the organization represent itself well to candidates because when the best person is identified, we want them to be working for us. Finally during the hire itself, it is important that the organization truly offer the best of itself to the candidate so that they will accept the position. At each stage of the process, individual respect increases and must increase in order for the organization to find the best people. Hiring can and should be an increasingly human process, not the dehumanizing process it is often made out to be.

During my reflection on the various issues that have arisen in Unit One, I've learned some simple and complex things about the hiring process. I've also solidified my opinions about various elements of this process.

Key things I have learned and thought about:

1. There are illegal interview questions that people ask, regularly.
I am a bit offended by the fact that many employers have been asking interview questions that are illegal. I was under the impression, as I believe most Americans are, that questions about such topics as whether one is married or has children were not banned but simply dubious in terms of being perceived as "appropriate." The fact that most people seem to be only vaguely aware of what an illegal interview question might be underscores something very clear about the hiring process in general. While employers may have a written policy about whom they will hire and for what reasons, that policy will not be followed as Gospel in most organizations. Nebulous concepts like "fit" and subjective views about whether most of the people involved in the hiring process "like" you will matter a great deal; the hiring process is likely to be unfair. This probably is not one individual's fault, or something worth blaming organizations for; but it is important to think about how it could be made more fair and equitable, as well as aboveboard legally.

2. Employers operate with limited information about candidates. A resume is not a whole person. A resume plus references plus the version of a candidate you meet in an interview is not a whole person. Employers cannot assess who the "best" candidate is with perfect accuracy; they can only use many measures to get as close as possible to a strong estimate of who the best person will be. To improve the likelihood that the best (most qualified? most potential-laden? easiest to work with? cheapest?) candidate will be hired, employers should use every piece of data that they have access to. They must call references; they must review resumes with a system, ranking key criteria against merely interesting ones. Otherwise they are doing themselves a disservice, and will overestimate and underestimate the value of individual candidates.

3. Employers should not overestimate themselves or underestimate their future employees.
It seems to be the case that employers require potential employees to jump through many hoops to be considered for a position. This ensures to some degree that they will only receive applications from individuals who are truly interested in working for their organization. But it also creates a dynamic where potential employees may not be impressed with the organization. Hiring itself is part of recruitment and part of corporate culture; employers should not labor under the misconception that the best people want to work for them always. In posting job announcements, creating online applications, and generally moving through the hiring process, employers must be willing to accommodate their potential employees; they may lose the best candidate otherwise.

Sunday, February 4, 2007


As a member of, or head of, the search committee for the Head of Collection Development position at University of Texas-San Antonio, my thoughts about the interview process are as follows.

1. Make sure a wide variety of people from many different departments, including people that this candidate would eventually supervise, are present at the interview.
While it's not right to simply pick a boss or department head that employees will like, it is important to make sure that a wide number of people are present to give their views on how they feel about interacting with the eventual hire on a regular basis (if a future subordinate or close colleague) or even an irregular basis (if a member of another department). A broad swath of organizational representatives also allows the committee to solicit a variety of feedback about how the candidate will fit into our image of how UTSA is structured, what kinds of people fit our leadership model, and what kinds of people can move UTSA forward in productive directions.

2. Make lots of time for the candidate to meet with different people.
This position is not entry-level, nor is it the kind of position that can be filled by someone who lacks the ability to interact productively with different kinds of groups. A long interview, possibly with multiple components and multiple different groups of people, is probably necessary for this high-responsibility position.

3. Ask questions that will test different job-related skills.
The Head of Collection Development will have to exhibit strong skills of leadership; possess a large amount of field expertise, but also the ability to think and work across disciplines at least in terms of planning; communicate well across departments and within departments; be willing to represent their department's interests; among other skills. Asking questions that elicit responses that can demonstrate these different abilities, and which give a picture of how the individual thinks and organizes their thoughts, is very important. Hiring committee members should be alerted to these various qualities in advance, so that they can "score" the interviewees accordingly. The questions below represent at least the beginnings of an attempt to test various key skills that will come into play in this position, as well as solicit in-depth information about the posted job requirements. I am not certain that these questions "go in this order," but I would be inclined to ask questions in a slightly random order in any case, to keep the interviewee a bit on her or his toes and provide something of a challenge...preserving the order for each candidate, of course.

Questions are listed with a short statement about what they would be testing.

1. As a supervisor, tell us about the most difficult decision you have ever had to make. How did you arrive at the right decision?
(Predictable question about managerial abilities; want to see how they define their decisionmaking process, though, even if the answer will likely be idealized. Also looking to make sure they can identify a truly challenging situation.)

2. Your advanced degree in [Insert Advanced Degree Field] certainly makes you qualified to deal with collections in that area. As head, what would you do to ensure that all areas of our collection receive their due support?
(Again testing leadership, but this time it's a question about trust and the ability to work with others who are more knowledgeable than you in their field but also your subordinates. A question about collegiality, too.)

3. What area of library services would you say you know the least about? Because of your interdepartmental responsibilities as head, how will you approach dealing with this department when you do?
(Another question about "weaknesses," but which asks to see how they will address their "weakness" in the communication arena.)

4. What do you enjoy most about working in collection development?
(Obvious and open-ended, but it offers the candidate an opportunity to talk about what they love, which I have often found to be quite telling about people. Enthusiasm for the discipline is important in a leader, and the answer here should allow the committee to see how "infectious" the candidate's enthusiasm will be. Also lets you see how much their "likes" fit UTSA's own collection development philosophies.)

5. What are the top three qualities you would look for in a new hire in your collection development department?
(This question has two purposes: assess their ability to think about hiring, which will presumably be part of their responsibilities as department head; and assess whether these qualities seem to match the group of people they will be supervising.)

6. As a manager, what do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
(The "best thing I've ever done" isn't always apparent from a resume; again, gives them a chance to stress something amazing about themselves, which would increase comfort level for someone who has something amazing to talk about. If they don't have anything amazing to talk about, then....)

7. What is the most troubling problem facing academic library collections today?
(A standard question, but it allows you to get a sense of how much they think about the big picture. That's relevant for a person in this kind of position, where "getting the work done" isn't really the point of their job. Gives them a chance to give an original answer, or at least an original interpretation of a common problem.)

8. How do you improve your management and leadership skills?
(Not probably a question everyone will expect; do they read and stay current, do they go to institutes? How much do they know about leading? A good worker takes their position seriously, and a department head will need to be aware of techniques and methods by which to improve themselves.)

9. Why are you interested in coming to UTSA?
(An obvious question, but it will assess how much the candidate has prepared for the position; a question to which you can expect many people to respond with smoke-blowing...which is easy to see through. There are clear good and bad answers here.)

10. How has [insert subject area here] changed over the past decade? How has your collection model change to reflect that shift?
(A question with a lot of meat. Gives you a sense of their ability to adapt to changes external to the organization. Gives you a chance to see how well they talk about their own discipline to (probably) non-experts. Gives you a chance to see how much they know about their discipline, too, if you have someone who can evaluate that).