update: hiring externally when staff expect an internal hire

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer who was planning to hire externally when their staff expected an internal hire (#3 at the link)? Here’s the update.

As some commenters guessed, I work at a library. We have a lot of part-time positions and some people will absolutely apply for positions they don’t have interest or experience in just to move up to full-time.

I know some of the commenters were worried that I was preemptively rejecting people without knowing their skill sets, but we have a fairly small department (fewer than 20) and I’ve worked on projects with almost everyone on staff. Only a handful would have been eligible for the position, and as I said in my letter, my director agreed that they weren’t a good fit for the position. There were reasons other than the lack of experience working with children — that lack was just the easiest to immediately point out.

One of the things I didn’t mention originally is that when internal candidates are interested in an open position, my department doesn’t even do interviews with them. They have a meeting with the potential supervisor who lays out the new pay, schedule, and duties and that’s usually it. They start the new role on the next pay period.

This is not how I wanted to find a new youth assistant. So I took the following approaches to normalize my decision with staff.

I focused on selling the message that we were taking both internal and external applicants at the same time and making it clear that internal applicants would have to go through the same basic process as external. (With some planned tweaks to the interview, since they had already been hired in our department.)

Whenever someone brought up the position, I just stated that we would be opening to internal and external applicants simultaneously. A few long time staff were shocked and one person (who wasn’t even interested in applying) attempted to correct me, basically saying that current staff got first dibs on newly opened positions. To which I simply replied, “Not this time.”

My director announced the decision to open to both external and internal applicants at our management meeting and gave me a chance to explain why to my peers. Having her support helped staff more readily accept the change. And as I pointed out to them, since we normally only hire for part-time positions, opening up this full-time position to external applicants gave us a more diverse applicant pool. Yay!

I was given the opportunity to rewrite the job description from scratch. We were originally going to edit the existing document, but soon realized that starting over would make a lot more sense. I had free rein to completely redo the job description, duties, necessary skills, and experience requirements. I focused on being clear in the descriptions of what the job entailed and making sure the experience requirements were relevant to the job and made sense to require of applicants. I also redid the interview process so that it focused on skills and experience that are meaningful to the position, especially those related to children’s programming.

Once I’d revamped the job description, I sent it to staff with an email that clearly stated the primary job duties and necessary experience for the role. Those who had initially expressed interest in the position chose not to apply after being presented with this new job description. So all in all, it was less of an issue than I worried it would be, but I’m hopeful that all of this will help staff be more open to the idea of external hires when needed in the future.

During our hiring process, we received enough qualified candidates that I was able to focus on applicants who had both experience in our field and in working with children. Our eventual hire was someone who was doing almost the same exact job part-time at another library. They seem to be a great fit so far – they have an understanding of the philosophies and mission of our field, enjoy the parts of the job that the last youth assistant found frustrating, and are currently working on a degree in our field, with a focus on youth services. I don’t know how long they’ll stay, but since I no longer have to worry about their interactions with children and families I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts. And hopefully the next time I have to hire, it won’t be quite as stressful!

Thank you so much for your advice and for this website. The management aspects of my job are my least favorite part, but reading this column for years has helped me feel a little better about what I’m doing, and at least I knew where to turn when I started spiraling during this hiring :)

{ 49 comments… read them below }

  1. RetiredAcademicLibrarian*

    Sounds like you ran an excellent job search for your new position. Congratulations!

  2. Lurker*

    Great job on your new employee! Hopefully your new hiring method will catch on and continue to attract more diverse and qualified employees.

  3. Mockingjay*

    This is a lovely update!

    This post is an excellent example of “How to Hire Correctly,” because of all the work done before an interview ever took place, including thoughtful role definition, a clear job description, buy-in from management to support a standard hiring process…I could go on. Instead I’m going to bookmark this post for easy reference.

  4. Happy*

    I did not realize the expression was “free rein” rather than “free reign.” Thanks for the education!

    1. Ally McBeal*

      The only reason I know the difference is because I took an occasional horse-riding class as a kid (and read so, so many books)! XD

    2. Filosofickle*

      Fun fact: That’s an “egg corn”. I am fascinated by this phenomenon, and by how adept our brains are at finding words that makes sense for the context. Many of them are so common, like rein/reign, that it’s more likely to be used incorrectly than correctly. (Which one can argue makes it correct, as language evolves.)

      noun: egg-corn
      a word or phrase that results from a mishearing or misinterpretation of another, an element of the original being substituted for one that sounds very similar or identical (e.g. tow the line instead of toe the line ).

      1. BubbleTea*

        Trolling the internet for information rather than trawling is another (of course, trolling is also a thing but it’s different).

      2. UKDancer*

        “Toe the line” is an interesting one. I saw on a documentary that it comes from the days of capital punishment in the UK when there was a chalked line on the trapdoor and the condemned person had to put their toes level with the line. I don’t know if that’s true but it was interesting.

        We have a disturbingly long list of sayings dating from that period including apparently “money for old rope” which dates from when the hangman used to sell used rope as souvenirs.

        1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

          “Toe the Line” was from the days when boxing operated under London prize ring rules – where a boxer had to toe a line in the middle of the ring before the next round would begin.

          “Come up to scratch” – same thing.

  5. OrangeCup*

    I have a friend who is a tween librarian, and she tells me the child librarian at her library hates children (openly complains about having to deal with them) which honestly -I do not understand at all why you would ever want a career dealing with kids if you didn’t really enjoy them every day. He should have been an adult reference librarian or something. I accidentally walked into a kids music class at my library one day when I had to print something (small town, adults and kids library in one building) and wow – can’t imagine doing it if you didn’t love kids!

    I think OP did a great job at changing a long standing hiring policy in a really good way!

    1. FricketyFrack*

      I also don’t get that – I thought I wanted to be a teacher when I started college, and then after thinking about it, I realized that I don’t want to teach elementary school, middle schoolers are straight up demons, and I don’t like high schoolers enough to be around them all the time, so teaching probably wasn’t the profession for me. So I changed my major because why would I do a job that sets me up to be unhappy?

      I actually DO like kids, and my current job involves a fair amount of interaction with them, but it’s all in relatively short bursts and I’m never actually responsible for them in any way. But I would never ask to switch to, I don’t know, the youth sports supervisor job at the rec center next door.

      1. Trina*

        And it’s not even a career that pays that much! (Both teacher and librarian) If you’re not here at least partly because you inherently enjoy the job, why??

        1. FricketyFrack*

          Seriously. If you hate it, you might as well go find a job that pays more and maybe sucks equally.

      2. Chirpy*

        Yeah, I love teaching kids…when they’re on a field trip or chose to be there. I think actual school teaching would be exhausting.

        I had several teachers as a kid who clearly hated their jobs. Kids will know. It’s horrible for everyone involved, I really wish people who don’t like kids/teaching just….wouldn’t.

        1. Lydia*

          Yes. I grew up in a very small rural town during the 1970s. Looking back all these decades later, I realize that some of my most hated teachers may not have wanted to be teachers. But between the times and the rural area, they didn’t have a lot of job choices.

          1. Chirpy*

            I grew up in a (smaller) city, so mine should have had other options. (one actually told us he didn’t have money to retire yet though.)

    2. AnonMouse*

      It’s a mixture of how hard it is to find a library/librarian job and underestimating how much work and skill working with children can take. I felt for the OP’s coworkers (even though OP was right to handle it how they did) because it’s sometimes impossible to find FT work unless you’re willing to take anything that opens.

    3. Ms. Murchison*

      Librarians can be very long-tenured. If you’re at a public library, there’s just one for your county, so where else are you going to go? That children’s librarian may not have had any other opportunities for advancement.

      1. Artemesia*

        True and it is why the process used by the OP is so important if you want good people in those positions, not just anyone who wants a full time job in a library.

      2. OrangeCup*

        In my friend’s colleague’s case it’s a city library job with a union, so sort of a government job, i guess? Very few people give up jobs like that!

        1. Ms. Murchison*

          To be in that position, they likely chose librarianship as their profession and got a masters degree in order to qualify for these positions. There are probably limited job openings in their city, it’s mainly whatever is in the public library district where they live. Leaving would not just be giving up a “job,” it would be giving up their career and their investment in higher education.
          And library staff should be unionized. If you doubt it, go look at the state of the industry, what they have to deal with.

          1. Rachel*

            Occasional vents after a particularly hard day are fine.

            Consistently disparaging the population you serve is unprofessional and indefensible.

            1. ?*

              Librarian jobs are notoriously difficult to get; library schools have churned out more MLIS’s than there are jobs available for them.

      3. olevia*

        I grew up in Pennsylvania, lived in New York, spent my library career in Ohio. Can’t speak for every state, but most counties have multiple, separately run public libraries.

      4. Cj*

        this must be vary a lot by area. granted, it’s one of the larger counties in our state, but the one I Googled has 41 libraries in the county.

        I know not all of the staff members would be librarians, but I would be willing to bet a good share of them have their MLIS. possibly even more than one at each Library, as I know that they have reference librarians, children librarians, etc at at least some of them.

        1. AnonMouse*

          Most library staff jobs are not librarians, and in most libraries a lot of the non-librarians (and some librarian positions) are part time. Paraprofessional jobs (that don’t require an MILS) are not easy to come by, and you’re severely limited if you can’t go to grad school and work in libraries with opportunities. There’s a difference in how many librarians they have (mine has several) but those jobs do not open often. And when they do, they are often internal hires, as implied here. Which is not always a bad thing! Hiring people who have worked hard for you and have the skills is a good thing! It’s just doesn’t make it easy to find a job.

    4. fhqwhgads*

      Wait, isn’t adults and kids library in one building the norm? I’ve lived in small cities and big cities and never encountered otherwise.

      1. Ms. Murchison*

        A big enough library system with have many librarians with different areas of specialty, and separate sections for children’s books and young adult books.

        1. fhqwhgads*

          Right, I’m not saying there aren’t separate librarians or separate sections within a given branch. I’m saying they’re not separate buildings (or separate libraries entirely). The post I was replying to suggested their local library only had adult books and children’s books in the same library because it was a small town. That’s what I found confusing. Other than university libraries, I’ve never been in a library – regardless of the size of the town/city – that didn’t have children’s books over there, adult books over here, etc.

          1. Lexi Vipond*

            The ‘main’ library in my UK city has adults in one building (with very separate spaces for general borrowing, general reference and local interest), and children next door,, but I think that’s unusual – the other city’s central library that I know fairly well is just arranged over the floors of one building.
            (One of my local libraries, in a modern building, has upstairs/downstairs, the other is everything in one open room.)

      2. Yet another Heather*

        The last two places I lived had very segregated spaces for youth & adults. One had separate buildings and one had two levels, one floor for children and teens and one floor for adults. I see a few staff working in both places (Floaters? Covering for sick days?), but most staff were consistently in one location or the other.

      3. OrangeCup*

        I grew up in a larger suburban town (40,000 people vs the 18,000 where I live now) and we had two separate buildings for adults and kids, so that’s my frame of reference for libraries! Although the buildings were connected by a corridor. Or I’ve seen them separated by floors sometimes in multi floor buildings.

    5. NotAManager*

      It’s extremely common for librarians to stay in a position long after they’ve lost their interest in their patron base (either because they’re burnt out or their services priorities have changed) and/or accepting a job that isn’t a good fit for them just because it’s the only one opportunity that’s come their way in literally years that’s full time or has benefits after working multiple part-time positions.

      1. Alternative Person*

        Yep. I don’t like it, but I get it (and I hope if that was ever me, I would hide my frustration better). There’s been a considerable erosion of the hierarchy in many companies in my field, along with stagnating pay, meaning you get people throwing their hat into the ring for things they’re either only so interested in or are definite stretch positions (as in experience, qualifications aren’t an issue).

        I heard through the grapevine last year that upper management were quite put out so many people were applying for a skip level role but what are people supposed to do? That was the first promotion in that division to become available in five-plus years.

    6. Zee*

      I do not understand at all why you would ever want a career dealing with kids if you didn’t really enjoy them every day. He should have been an adult reference librarian or something.

      I work for a library system in a major metropolitan area (not as a librarian). The library staff have very little input into where they end up. It’s a government-run library and you can be moved around to any job with the same classification (such as “Library Assistant 3” or “Librarian 1”). Could be any department and any branch, county-wide. They also only do periodic hiring. So, right now, there may be an opening in the children’s department at Branch A, when you want to work in the special collections department at Branch B. But they’re only collecting applications this month and will only look at those résumés for all openings with the same position classification for the next 6 months. So you apply for that Branch A children’s position even though you don’t want that job, and if you get offered you basically have to take it in order to get your foot in the door for the future job that *might* open up soon.

      …it’s a really bad system.

  6. KTB2*

    I love both this update and your original hiring process. I love that it’s straightforward for internal hires to get promoted into new positions and I love that you created a clear, transparent process for when you specifically need a new skill set. Bravo all around–what a great example of how to structure a career path for others.

  7. Lydia*

    Well done, OP!

    This way you avoided another reader’s experience, having to drop several excellent candidates after the initial interviews. Only after those interviews did they realize the former employee had wildly overinflated the job duties and experience level needed, therefore the salary. So they had to revamp and reduce the job description and salary to a more accurate level.

  8. Ms. Murchison*

    Good job being clear with your colleagues and prioritizing the needs of your patrons, LW.

    Does your library district refuse to give raises, by any chance? I could see the situation you described arising in a district which refuses to ever give raises, so the only way for staff to move forward in their careers (and continue to pay their bills) is to change positions. And if the district gives first crack at new positions to current staff, then hiring costs less and there’s the illusion that you’re able to move forward in your career, though you’ll probably make yourself miserable by moving through poorly-fitting jobs just because you need to make more money.

    (I was given the “we don’t do raises here” line at a first annual review, after being hired for peanuts during the Great Recession. As a subject specialist, I had nowhere else to go within the system.)

  9. NotAManager*

    I know that this all sounds pretty standard for those outside the field, but from someone inside the field: CONGRATULATIONS THIS IS AN EXTREMELY BIG DEAL!!! Imagine shower of confetti accompanying this comment. I just want to give major kudos to you and your boss for reimagining the position in a way that works for your library and best fits the needs of your patrons.

  10. Mmm.*

    This is the least toxic library work environment I’ve heard of in a long time! Kudos all around!

    (I’m very pro-library. My friends just work in ones with too many admin and too much drama.)

    1. Kay*

      Gotta be honest – I have worked in a number of libraries over my career (in an adjacent/overlapping field) and every single one has had over-the-top drama. I love them as places! And also, wow, is the proportion of flailing-to-actual-problem WAY out of balance. So – kudos to OP for supporting a good environment. But I would say that your friends’ experiences track with mine as the norm rather than the exception.

  11. Batman*

    Just reread the original letter and this update is just a master class in advocating for the population you serve (as well as your own needs in having someone qualified in the position!) and in communicating your choice clearly and effectively to your coworkers. I hope your new hire continues to thrive in that position for a long time.

  12. LadyHouseOfLove*

    I really believe a lot of toxicity that can happen in public library workplaces is because they move up librarians and library workers to leadership positions they’re not suited for. People would move up for better pay (which is valid) but thought they could do it because they were around for a long time (not valid).

    I was supervised by someone like that and it turned me off so much that I switched from public libraries to academic libraries. That is not to say to that academic libraries do not have their own issues but public libraries are their own specialty. I do miss being a public librarian but there are reasons why many are leaving that field.

  13. GythaOgden*

    Well done OP for navigating this. I’ve interviewed as both an internal and external candidate and I know that in my sector — public healthcare — because you can’t simply promote someone directly without the whole hiring rigmarole, there are workarounds that exist to bump someone up into a particular position. I won’t explain what they are, but generally speaking I’m in a kind of ‘win some, lose some’ mindset — the really important times I’ve been in that actual position, I’ve either generally done well in the interview anyway and accepted that there was something concrete that the person hired had over me or been the beneficiary because of the networking I’d done prior and how I actually did still have to convince the people interviewing me that I was robust enough in certain skills to argue my case in a proper interview. (I was given feedback at the same time as the verbal offer — they were very keen on me joining their team but they just wanted to see how I’d hold up under pressure and if I’d be able to successfully argue my case when, for instance, they needed me to chivvy people along to get stuff done or I needed to be persistent enough to get information out of people, because on reception I’d been quite quiet and not had to do that, and I know in another side job the chief piece of feedback I’d got was that I needed to be more assertive with clients to get them to pay their bills.)

    I definitely think you were right to want to diversify the workplace. The other thing is that diversity in general — in addition to identity grouping and developing a public face that resembles your constituents a bit better — is about different people coming in with different skills developed in different environments to bring different mindsets to the job. Diversity is strength: my team on reception was three white women, but we were all very different people. I was the nerdy bureaucrat, my supervisor was Rosie the Riveter personified, and my colleague was genuinely the office mum, and we lasted ten years together because underneath our outward appearance we complemented each other. It was our job to: dot all the is and cross all the ts in the paperwork; make sure all the screws were tightened and nothing was going to fall apart, and make sure the staff were catered to (I still work with the maintenance guys who look after the building and they all praise my colleague for having coffee or tea ready for them when they get to us. No-one goes away lacking a hot drink!). If I were hiring for one of those roles I’d be looking to see what niche I needed to fill rather than just looking for whose turn it was.

    Bringing new practices into the public sector is really important, because that ten year thing is the key to many of the problems: it’s easy to stagnate and hard to move up. My husband’s cousin works in the public sector elsewhere and experiences the same problems — and she’s HR! The stability gave me a niche when I needed it but it became a straitjacket when I couldn’t easily add to my job portfolio because the system was so stratified and dependent on permissions and one of the people I asked for help on that told me it would be favouritism if she tried to get me additional access so I could take some work off her plate. Unless you’ve got a really robust manager willing to be creative, you’ve got very little chance of actually getting any more experience than your current role permits, and with all the red tape around promotions no wonder most of the people I started working with in 2014 are still there in (virtually) 2024.

    One of the orgs I work with is trying to streamline the promotion process in order to attract and keep new talent. I definitely think that my manager did the right thing by giving me a proper interview; she was right to be concerned about a lack of assertiveness on my part and wanted to see me in some kind of action where I had to persuade them to give me the job. But the fact that people need to resort to chicanery to promote anyone into another role or that it’s somehow favouritism to give a bored and willing employee more work to do is just symptomatic of a rather frustrating attitude to begin with. It’s also not conducive in the long run to getting the best administration staff possible for a health service that badly needs some creative thinking.

  14. Emmy*

    I was glad to see this post and update. I’m about to go through a similar experience myself.

    Our Chief of Police is set to retire soon, probably next year. The department already has expectations on which Captain is the “heir apparent.” However, the culture within that department is no longer aligning with the culture of our Town and they are blatantly resistant to any changes we are making to operations to align with the growing population.

    The executive team (including myself, the town manager, and mayor) have already had discussions about opening the position up internally and externally. The Captain would bring more of the same bad habits and poor leadership that we are trying to change, as he was trained from the beginning of his career by the current Chief. We have already had several examples of this since he was a lieutenant.

    Also, I’d love the opportunity to see if we can get some diversity into the leadership team in the police department, which currently has all white males in their leadership positions. The only females in the department all have 2 years or less experience, so it will be a while before they are eligible for the higher leadership roles.

  15. Lucia Pacciola*

    The whole “we have to interview internal hires” thing never made much sense to me. The whole point of the interview is to try to get a sense of what they’ll be like on the job. It’s an imperfect tool, but it’s not like hiring managers have a lot of options prior to making an offer.

    If they’re already working for you, then you already have the best possible information on what they’re like on the job. You already know if they’re a culture fit. You already know their work ethic and level of attention to detail. You already know if they’re hip to the dress code and the work-hours expectations. You’re already well past the point where they tell you they’re good with all that, whether it’s true or not. At that point, an interview just seems like a waste of everyone’s time.

  16. EmmaPoet*

    I’m glad you were able to rewrite the job description! It sounds like that eliminated a lot of people who didn’t want to/couldn’t do what was needed for it, and meant that people who did apply were hopefully on board with what you wanted.

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