when you’re asked to critique an employer in an interview

A reader writes:

I had an interview a couple of months ago, for which I wasn’t hired, and there is one part of the interview that I have been going over in my mind ever since. It was for an entry-level type job at the local library and I was asked about how I would get in touch with the local community. As well as other examples, I mentioned that I personally followed the library on Twitter and had found out lots of details regarding book groups and the like.

I was then asked what I thought of their Twitter feed. I actually follow a few different libraries and there is one really famous account (Orkney Library), which is well-known for its quirky approach, use of photos and general sense of humour. I said how I thought this library feed was really good but (as I think you should be honest and not too complimentary in a fake way), it did not have the same “fun” factor as the Orkney one, and that maybe more pictures would be good. The interviewer seemed really offended that I would criticise what is essentially a small part of the library and gave the impression she was the person writing the tweets. I felt terrible but I had spoken at length how I liked to use the library, some of its specific services and its recent renovation — so I didn’t want to back down and lose integrity. I was just so surprised at her reaction but looking back I think I should have just said it was great and moved on.

What do you think? I didn’t get the job and I do actually think this was part of the reason, as well as other obvious factors like other strong candidates, etc.

If your interviewer was offended by your response and held it against you, she sucked as an interviewer. Don’t change your approach to this kind of thing in the future based on one lame interviewer.

First of all, she asked you for your opinion. Asking this sort of thing is a really common interviewing technique — getting the person talking about a real-life thing that would be part of the job and their assessment of what they’ve seen of it so far. The idea is that it’s an opportunity for you to demonstrate your judgment and the approach you might take if on the job. For instance, if I’m hiring a web designer, I’m sure as hell going to ask her what she thinks of the current website and what she might change. If I’m  hiring a communications person, I’m going to ask about her ideas for how we can improve in that arena. (It would pretty weird and negligent to hire for those positions without asking that kind of thing, in fact.)

And good employers are looking for a real answer here — they want insight into how you think. It does them no good if you just tell them everything is fantastic and you wouldn’t change a thing. And that type of answer would make a candidate look either unprepared or disingenuous anyway.

Now, obviously, there’s some diplomacy involved in answering this sort of interview question. You don’t rip the employer’s current product to shreds or give your critique in a contemptuous way. But it doesn’t sound like you did that.

You gave a perfectly reasonable answer, and a reasonable interviewer wouldn’t have given you the cold shoulder over it.

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Also a librarian. I had something similar happen to me in an interview where the hiring manager asked me what I would change about the children’s department. I listed off a whole bunch of things and he said, “Well, we’re not looking to make any changes for at least a year.” I did get offered that job.

    Having been in the field a while, some of us are just too easily offended for people who work with the public and should have thicker skin. Personally, I wouldn’t ask a question like that in an interview if I wasn’t looking for an HONEST response. I suspect that is not an employer you would be happy working for if she couldn’t take a small criticism without getting offended.

    I write our Twitter updates and I’m fully aware that they are boring.

    1. Jamie*

      “I write our Twitter updates and I’m fully aware that they are boring.”

      I love this. I do too (although not for a library) and if someone coming in said they were awesome than they either lack judgement or they are lying. Can only be one or the other.

      1. akaCat*

        If your tweets are informative (and more than “today’s hours are The Same AM until The Usual Time PM”) it’s entirely possible an information junkie would legitimately think your feed is awesome.

        And if your tweets are boring and non-informative — what on Earth are you tweeting about?

        1. Jamie*

          Informative – but dull – but I only have four followers and that are all industry publications I only tweet when we get covered press somewhere. Like when we were on the news, or featured in a leading industry mag.

          It is absolutely the Chocolate Teapot of my job, but the British definition – utterly useless.

          I dream of the day we have a marketing person and I never have to tweet, blast, blog, or post again. :)

          1. Patti*

            You got to use your newly-attained definition of chocolate teapot… I saw that in the previous post. Well done!

  2. AnotherAlison*

    I agree with the response to the OP, but I can think of some reasons why the OP’s response to the interviewer’s question could have legitimately been held against her.

    If your response suggested that you thought this library’s tweets should be more fun, then you might have indicated a cultural misunderstanding. (Say you had suggested some staid academic library – maybe like Linda Hall Library in Kansas City – should take a Twitter approach similar to a fun, community-focused public library.)

    Or, the interviewer is thinking “I’ve got 5 minutes a week to tweet, my budget is nil, and you want me to come up with cutesy photos and quips? That’s about 57th on my list of things that matter.” I kind of doubt that, since the interviewer brought up Twitter, but maybe if you came in with a social media marketing background, and I didn’t want to focus on that, I’d worry that you would be wasting time trying to get me to implement stuff I didn’t want you to do. (Even if you have great ideas that would help the library.)

    1. Another Ellie*

      I think there’s a difference between your scenario A and B. In A, the person answered the question, but demonstrated that they don’t know how to effectively do outreach for a staid institution. Therefore the interviewer is justified in having a negative response. In B, the person answered well, but the interviewer had no business asking how the community outreach or twitter feed could be improved, because she has no plans to improve outreach. The interviewer really shouldn’t be coming up with supposed things that the applicant might plague her about if given the chance, she should be focusing on actual aspects of the job. In the first case, it’s a good question, that elicited a useful answer. In B, it’s a pointless question that elicited a great answer, but the good answer harmed the applicant.

      I think the difference between those questions and the OP’s situation, here she honestly answered what was probably a good question, but the interviewer didn’t actually want to hear the honest answer. So, like the interviewer in hypothetical B, she took it personally, in ways that the applicant couldn’t anticipate. (Also, local library pretty much guarantees that this is a small community library, not the Huntington or the Newberry.)

      1. Elizabeth*

        “the interviewer is justified in having a negative response”

        I agree, but think that a really good interviewer still wouldn’t appear offended. In my opinion, she should make a note that there seems to be a cultural mismatch for the position, but keep her tone of voice and demeanor pretty neutral. I don’t think an interviewer should get visibly offended unless the candidate starts making racist comments or something like that.

    2. Keri*

      OK, I’m usually anonymous, but I’m going to out myself here. I work at the Linda Hall Library, and even our culture has changed and we’re trying not to be “staid.” We have dynamic lectures and exhibitions, and an active Facebook community. Our Twitter feed is admittedly more on the informative side and announces events. This year we’ve implemented a Tumblr for some of our more interesting images, the most popular pic set we posted was a book on dodos (unabashed plug — http://lindahall.tumblr.org).

      That all said, if I had an opening and someone interviewed with good social media skills and ideas, I’d happily put them to work. As with most libraries, we have limited staff and time and any enthusiasm is welcome. The interviewer in this case certainly missed out on a valuable new staff member. Keep those good ideas coming, and the right library will be thrilled to have you.

        1. anon*

          Keri, I’m now a follower! What a wonderful site. I saw the dodo pic set and they were great, but I really loved the aye-aye set! I will be sharing your site. Thank you!

  3. EngineerGirl*

    I think Allison pegged it. And sometimes it isn’t what you are saying, but how you say it. You could say something like – “I feel that the twitter account actually performs its basic funciton well. But if you are looking for ways to enhance it, I would….” Or “I think you may get better engagement from the millenial generation if you increased the “fun” factor. A good example is Orkney library that does…”

    The tweets were adequate so you really want to acknowledge that. Then spin it as taking it to the next level. That way you can praise but improve at the same time. Now if the tweets were lame, you need to say that too, but frame it nicely. Something like “Based on your tweets, I think you could be missing a segment of your target population. If you do X and Y, you may get better engagement from that group.

    Its hard to say things in a way that people will listen. It is really important to say it as a partner that wants the other person to succeed.

    1. JT*

      Another way is to find some element they have that they could do more of. “You posted a few photos a few months ago, which were great, and I’d hope you do more of that.”

    2. ChristineH*

      The OP’s interviewer was wrong in allowing her feelings to show, but I like the way EngineerGirl framed the response. You want to come across like you’re considering the audience in general, not just what YOU think of the Twitter account or anything else you’re asked to critique. Examples I can think of might be ideas for attracting a certain segment of your audience or ways to make information easier to read and understand.

  4. Josh S*

    Some language I’ve learned to use when offering constructive criticism (particularly with my wife) is something along the lines of:

    “It’s really good. And to take it to the next level you could do ______.”

    Too often, my constructive criticism is just, “You should do _______ to make it better.” or “It’s good, but you should also do _______.”

    The former communicates “you’re at a 7 or an 8, and this might help take it to a 10” while the latter examples communicate “it sucks and needs help.” The information communicated is the same, the critique is the same, but the delivery and framing are very different.

    Two things regarding this: Make sure you say “AND” rather than “BUT”–it changes the entire way the constructive criticism is received. And make sure your tone is one of “let’s get this to be AWESOME instead of just adequate.”

    1. TL*

      Oh, I hate it when people do this to me, because I always feel like they’re just trying to sugar coat the truth. (I also tend to mentally dismiss most compliments; I have this horrible mindset of “Yes, I know I’m good at this. I don’t need you to tell me that. Tell me something I can work on.”)
      That being said, trial and error has shown me that the rest of the world doesn’t operate on the same way and Josh S’s suggestions tend to work really well.
      Although I don’t the OP had a phrasing issue based on what s/he wrote it – s/he said that the Twitter was both informative and good before giving the critique.

      1. Ellie H.*

        Maybe I’m just easily manipulated (I’m sure this is true – I’m one of those people who is extremely susceptible to advertising, but actually made happy by the stuff I buy) but this always works on me. I know I’m hypersensitive but it really makes me much more energetic and motivated when something is communicated to me with a positive instead of a neutral/critical tone. I don’t expect the world to cater to this, of course, but it’s always nice to get that positive tone.

  5. Kimmie Sue*

    During my THIRD round of interviews for a Staffing Manager role last year, the CEO asked during my SECOND interview with him, if I had any feedback about my interview process and the company; I told him that it “was the worst candidate interview experience” I’d ever had. I had three site visits (each of them 4 or more hours long while still employed elsewhere) and I was interviewed by many of the same managers, including him, more than once. I was not offered water, coffee or rest room breaks. Although, he apologized and thanked me for my candor, he did push back a bit on the duplicate interviewers. I don’t remember his justification so much.

    I also told him, that if hired, it would be one of the first things I’d move to change in my new role. I was also not offered the job. It was no sweat off my back, but I’ve often wondered if my very direct answer to his question was not what he wanted to hear?

    Anyway, I always try to be direct and candid. Its obvious that was not the right place for me. Way better to find out from an interview process than a few weeks after starting a new job.

    1. Anonymous*

      That doesn’t sound like the kind of answer you give if you want to get hired, but I love that you told them anyway because that does sound ridiculous.

    2. Elizabeth*

      I would have probably phrased it more politically – “Since you’re asking, I would like to say that this has been a rather difficult process for me as a candidate. It’s hard for someone who is working to schedule so many visits to the office; it would have been easier if these interviews could have been condensed into just one visit or some of them could have been done by phone. It also has been confusing to me why I’ve been interviewed by the same people more than once.”

      Calling someone “the worst I’ve ever had/seen” will not endear you to them. It sounds like you’d already decided you didn’t want the job, but that was pretty much burning that bridge.

    3. Daisy*

      “I told him that it “was the worst candidate interview experience” I’d ever had.”

      That was a completey unnecessary detail. You could have conveyed areas for improvement without ranking the experience. It’s one thing to be direct and candid, but in a manager role, you’d likely be expected to provide feedback relatively often and if you’d said this to me, it would have suggested that you don’t know how to do this in a tactful way.

      1. Kimmie Sue*

        I know my language reads and probably sounded harsh, but by the time that the question came up, I knew I didn’t want to work there (based on the process). Although, I’m always honest, I can deliver contrary opinions in a much more polite way. :-)

  6. Meg*

    There’s a good deal of librarians on AAM. Makes me wonder if I’m missing something about the secret world of librarians.

    1. Brightwanderer*

      Don’t tell anyone, but I hid in the stacks under Oxford once and it turns out “Read or Die” is a documentary.

    2. JT*

      I think there’s two reasons a lot of librarians are here.

      One is that the job market in libraries is not great.

      The other is that we’re good at finding excellent information resources :-)

  7. Tina*

    Just a question to the OP- was your interview in the UK? (Guessing because of the Orkney reference) I am not at all surprised at your interviewer’s reaction if you are. A lot of people here, especially in the public sector, have no interest at all in improving or changing, they just want to be told everything is fine. This may be an absolutely outrageous statement to some, but I work in the public sector here, and it is true in many many places.

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