A colleague sent me this interview question from a library listserv:

Interestingly enough, I had a great question provided by a local HR Manager on this.  She said she didn’t want to use it as first, but she said it was, in concert with the rest of the interview, an eye-opening look at the candidates.

Scenario: You’re new on the staff and we’re having a staff potluck.  What do you bring and why?

She said that answers varied quite a bit.

– “A great new recipe I wanted to try,”

– “My favorite dish so that I don’t mind eating the left-overs,”

– “Whatever my supervisor suggests,”

– “I’d ask around and find out what everyone else is bringing and if there are any allergies I need to know about.”

Some were clearly more interested in what they would want to make/eat/experiment with versus what it would add to the potluck/staff. It’s an unexpected question and shouldn’t be taken out of context, but working with a new staff and the patrons is always an adventure and staffers have to be able to roll with the changes.  It might add to the picture that the candidates’ resumes and responses to the traditional interview questions paint. (I’ve done some editing for grammar.)

It’s also a horrible question.

The more I read about Silicon Valley’s struggle to diversify its workforce, the more I’m reading narratives from People of Color who have been hired or interned there and their overwhelming feeling that they just don’t fit the culture.

I’m not in Silicon Valley, I’m not even in private business, but I do hire staff members and diversity is important to me. I want my library to reflect its community. Why this is a challenge is primarily caused by who goes into public librarianship – we are overwhelmingly white and female; I’m far from the only librarian who is “diverse via marriage” and not through my own demographics.

And I’ve been told by HR that we hire for fit. We ask situational questions: what would you do when… how did you handle this problem…. Hiring for fit is supposed to make it easier to transmit our institutional practices and values. It’s also a pretty damn easy way to wind up with a homogenous staff.

This potluck question, designed to be out-of-the-box and quirky, is dangerous.

You cannot separate food from culture. Very personal culture. How do you score this on an interview? How do you not penalize the person who brings the “wrong” dish to a hypothetical potluck? And how do you make the argument that making and bringing food for sharing is not still a highly gendered activity? How does this question not become how well do you fit in?

At the end of my first public library job interview, I was asked what kind of chocolate goodies I like to bake and bring to work. It signaled “you got the job.” But it also signaled who they expected me to be. I haven’t forgotten that question after nearly fifteen years in public libraries, and I’ll never ask it.