About the Authors
RICHLAND LIBRARY BUSINESS AND JOB CENTER STAFF includes Chris Barstow, Kris Dempster, Charletta Felder, Sylvie Golod, Janet Hatch, Andrena King, Bland Lawson, Diane Luccy (Business and Job Center Manager), Megan Mathis, Debra Talton, Jennifer Thompson, and Mary Vicks. Contact Diane at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is currently reading The Little Book That Still Beats the Market by Joel Greenblatt.
Originally published in Mar/Apr 2016, PUBLIC LIBRARIES, VOLUME 55, NUMBER 2.
With the onset of the Great Recession in 2008 and the resulting surge in unemployment, public library systems throughout the United States saw increased demand for services related to job searching. The Job Center at Richland Library in Columbia (SC) was established in 2010 with a $438,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. This funding made possible the acquisition of eighteen computers for job search–related tasks as well as the hiring of a career specialist and a job readiness trainer to meet individually with customers for résumé review and advice on job searching
After a few months of assisting jobseekers with résumés and job searching, the Business and Job Center staff realized that they needed to include interview practice sessions as part of their career services. Customers were getting calls for interviews, which indicated that their résumés were effective, but in many cases they were not receiving job offers. It became apparent that they needed to learn how to promote themselves, during interviews, as the best candidate for the position.
In order to demonstrate that there was more to finding employment than simply writing a résumé and uploading a job application, staff members developed a career process model involving the following steps: Discover It, Define It, Present It, and Promote It. Through the process of writing and revising a résumé (Present It), customers would learn where they had been and where they were now in their career (Discover It). Perhaps most importantly, this process would help them clarify their career aspirations (Define It). The résumé would become more than a “marketing tool” to introduce the customer to a prospective employer; it would serve as the script for the interview (Promote It).
The Business and Job Center decided to begin offering weekly interview practice sessions for customers to overcome their fears, learn storytelling techniques to better promote themselves, and gain confidence in presenting their qualities as job candidates. These practice sessions have proven to be one of the most popular services offered by the center.
Many types of job seekers have availed themselves of the interview practice service at Richland Library, as is illustrated by the remarks of a Business and Job Center librarian describing her interview practice experience in the course of one morning:
My first customer was a mature woman looking for a position in a finance office; her dream job was to work for the University of South Carolina athletic department. My second customer had twenty-eight years of experience in medical sales. She wanted lots of direct feedback about everything from the suit she was wearing to how to handle questions about a termination from several years ago and her lack of a college degree.
The next customer was a Hungarian immigrant with a Ph.D. in immunogenetics who was hoping to transfer from eighteen years in academia to a new career in pharmaceutical research. He felt that he was solid with discussing his CV and accomplishments but that he needed some practice with traditional interview questions and with pleasing an HR representative.
Finally, I interviewed a college senior who wanted to work for Barnes & Noble while pondering her application to graduate school. This young woman was the most polished interviewee of the day.
Creating an Interview Practice Service for Less
For libraries that would like to offer more employment-related services for their customers but face budget constraints, the establishment of an interview-practice program is an attractive option. With a little study and training, staff can take on the role of interviewer in practice sessions. The only equipment requirements are a desk and a relatively private area of the library.
The first step in developing an interview practice service is to designate team leaders in order to ensure consistent training. The Business and Job Center’s career specialist and job readiness trainer took on the leadership roles, and soon four business librarians joined the team. Once staff members were trained, they had a greater appreciation of what the interview process involved and became more intuitive about how to advise job seekers.
The team leaders developed a staff training guide identifying topics to discuss with customers regarding interview preparation, the interview itself, and follow-up. Points to consider for preparation include what to bring to the interview and the proper attire to wear. For the interview, the training guide advises staff to address issues such as nonverbal communication (posture, eye contact, and so on), best practices for phone interviews, and the use of storytelling techniques in responses to interview questions. For the follow-up, topics include the importance of writing a thank-you letter and what to do if no response is heard from the prospective employer after the interview.
The staff guide also discusses resources to share with customers, the most important of which is the evaluation form the interviewer completes at the end of the session (see image, upper right). Staff may also consider referring customers to resources such as Richland Library’s vocational databases (Career Cruising and Ferguson’s Career Guidance Center) and O*Net OnLine (an occupational information source sponsored by the US Department of Labor) if it appears they need to gain a better sense of what their career goals are and the kind of job they can realistically hope to obtain.
Richland Library’s Interview Practice
The interview practice area at Richland Library features a desk and chairs donated by a local office-supply store. Mannequins nearby provide examples of proper attire (a clothing-store donation) for the employment interview. Unlike one-on-one career coaching sessions, which require the scheduling of an appointment in advance, the practice interviews are conducted on a first-come, first-served basis, with customers signing up at the reference desk for a half-hour session. These sessions are conducted biweekly on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to noon.
After an introduction, the staff member conducting the interview determines whether the customer has a résumé, asks a few questions about the type of position being sought, and records the information on the evaluation form. The interviewer explains that the purpose of the evaluation is to provide constructive feedback. At the end of the interview, the evaluation is reviewed, with the customer receiving a copy.During the session, the interviewer explains the difference between traditional and behavioral interviewing questions. Common traditional interview questions include the familiar “Tell me about yourself” and “Why should we hire you?” Behavioral questions are designed to allow interviewees to present brief narratives about themselves. For example, interviewees might be asked to describe a time when they had to make an unpopular decision or deal with an upset customer or coworker. The value of this type of questioning is that the responses give the employer tangible examples of a prospective hire’s qualities. As interview coach Deborah Walker has written, behavioral interview questions create “opportunities to sell yourself.” The staff member provides a brief explanation of how behavioral questions can be answered following the STAR method:
Situation: Describe a situation you found yourself in or a task that you needed to accomplish. This situation can come from a previous job, volunteer experience, or any relevant event.
Task: What goal were you working toward?
Action: Describe the actions you took to address the situation with an appropriate amount of detail, and keep the focus on yourself.
Result: Describe the outcome of your actions, and don’t be shy about taking credit for your accomplishments
The interviewer stresses the importance of showing passion and enthusiasm in an interview. Allison M. Vaillancourt of the University of Arizona notes that job candidates often unwittingly come across as aloof before search committees because they don’t wish to appear “desperate,” or they feel that a nonchalant attitude will somehow shield them from the embarrassment of rejection, when in truth “which of the finalists seems to want the job most is often factored into the decision” the employer reaches. A candidate who comes across as uncommitted may strike an employer as a risky hire, since the time and resources needed for training would be wasted if the new employee were to become dissatisfied and leave the position after a short time.
The staff member conducting the practice session also covers issues that prospective employees (as well as employers) should watch out for, such as illegal interview questions. Any question that could come into conflict with Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination in hiring based on factors such as race, gender, age, religion, or nationality, is considered illegal. Examples include “Are you a US citizen?” “How old are you?” and “Are you planning on starting a family soon?” The information sought in questions such as these can usually be obtained legally through rephrasing—for instance, “Are you authorized to work in the US?” instead of “Are you a US citizen?” Business and Job Center staff have found illegal questions to be an important concern: several customers have reported that they encountered such inappropriate questions and were caught off guard by them.
At the end of a practice session, the interviewer completes the evaluation form, highlighting positive aspects of the interviewee’s responses as well as areas needing improvement, and then reviews it with the customer. The staff member may also provide supplemental handouts for further study. These cover issues such as the “elevator speech” (or “elevator pitch”), a pithy summary of one’s experience and abilities. Like the impromptu sales pitch that a salesman delivers in the course of a brief elevator ride with a potential customer, the elevator speech in the context of an interview should quickly convey to the employer the qualities that would make the candidate a promising hire. As Denise Leo writes, it should “give your audience concrete and memorable ways in which you solve problems or help people.”
Customers participating in interview practice are also advised to ask questions during an interview as another way of demonstrating interest in a position. Doing some research on the prospective employer allows the job candidate to ask informed questions, and libraries are, of course, well-positioned to provide the resources for this research. Online reference tools such as ReferenceUSA and Business Insights: Essentials, as well as print resources such as the International Directory of Company Histories, can provide useful information to help the interviewee craft thoughtful questions to ask at the end of an interview.
Customers who have participated in an interview practice session are encouraged to return for further sessions in order to reduce anxiety and gain the perspective of a different interviewer. Staff members have found that interviewees who attend multiple practice sessions generally have greater success in gaining employment. One customer summarized the benefits of taking part in two practice sessions, noting the constructive criticism provided by the interviewer in each case:
1. Provided positive feedback that helped reinforce the things I did well, such as smiling, making eye contact, and answering questions by describing a problem, identifying the actions taken, and stating the results.
2. Advised me to end on a positive note when discussing the reasons I left my previous job.
3. Provided general feedback after every question, so that I knew what I did well and what I needed to improve.
4. Interview practice helped me regain the confidence I had lost.
1.Advised that I state the facts surrounding why I left my previous job.
2. Summarized my main strengths; also advised me to incorporate them in my answers.
3. Advised me to review the bullet points in my résumé prior to the interview, so that I would know how to present myself well.
The six interview practice team members of Richland Library’s Business and Job Center have conducted more than 535 sessions since the opening of the center in 2010. The number of customers served represents a rich return on an investment that chiefly involved only the time required for training. Customers who take advantage of every aspect of the career process model (including interview practice) have a greater chance of finding employment. Libraries interested in establishing an interview practice service are encouraged to contact the Richland Library Business and Job Center at (803) 929-3401.
 Deborah Walker, “Behavioral Interviews: 3 Steps to Great Answers,” PA Times 30, no. 9 (Sept. 2007): 22.
 Allison M. Vaillancourt, “Job Seekers, Don’t Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Chronicle of Higher Education 60, no. 42 (July 25, 2014): 21A.
 Jane Thomas, “Beware of Illegal Interview Questions,” Women in Business 51, no. 4 (July-Aug. 1999): 14.
 Denise Leo, “Finding the Right Words,” California Job Journal 26, no. 1122 (Feb. 17, 2008): 11.