Q: After working in city libraries for more than ten years (and before that, a work life spent mostly in book stores) I found myself in [moving back home] because of my mother’s advanced age and fragile health. I had three years of Interlibrary Loan experience from my most recent job and I was able to secure a position in the Interlibrary Loan department of the health sciences library at the university.
My work record at the time was excellent and I was very happy to find the job I’d wanted the most. It was a very busy department and I was responsible for lending. I approached my job with energy and enthusiasm and worked hard; I even kept current with “the literature” (Library Journal, etc.) but my boss never stopped casting everything I did in a negative light.
I managed to maintain decent performance reviews by scrupulously documenting everything I did; but in the end, I saw an EAP counselor who helped me to plan and set up meetings with the director, my boss, and other concerned parties to try to bring about a more equitable workplace (as this was affecting my health). After almost nine years at this university, my supervisor wrote an entirely false performance review which despite my response (written at the director’s urging) with documentation to refute her assertions, I resigned after being placed on a disciplinary program that no one in that library’s history had been put on before and the full details of which were not written down anywhere.
No investigation was done. I hired a lawyer and the university’s response to his letter was “the worst thing he’d seen in thirty years”. No reference, severance, or unemployment insurance benefits. I looked for a job for 8 months; customized my resume and cover letter for each position I applied for. Not only was I not contacted, other positions included; when I attempted to contact the HR person, no one called me back.
Since my resignation, the university I worked for has been beset by scandals; ranging from mismanagement of large grants to the dismissal of a student without due process. How does one go about beginning to repair a work history, or “fill in a gap” nearly a decade-wide, that was spent doing excellent work (our borrowing institutions regularly sent notes of praise and, of course, the work was reflected in our statistics!) but is entangled in an institutionally- sanctioned lie?
TA: After reading your question a couple of times, there are a couple of things that come to my attention that I think would be helpful to point out in an attempt to move ahead. First, it’s clear you feel very hurt and betrayed by the situation with your supervisor. It wouldn’t be unusual for someone in the situation you’ve described to feel this way. However, and this is the second thing I noticed, you also seem to express yourself in a way that hints at feelings of resentment, maybe even hostility. Talking about how your lawyer thought the University’s response was “the worst thing he’d seen in thirty years”, but not talking about any successful litigation feels like a worthless jab. The same goes for your reference to “an institutionally-sanctioned lie.”
As an outsider looking in, and with only the information you’ve provided to me, here’s the situation as it seems to me: you worked for many years at an institution with a challenging supervisor and in challenging work conditions. By your own accounts, you had some successes in the position, but when it got to be too severe, you resigned from your position. Now you’re looking for a new position and you aren’t getting many responses. What do you do now?
First, you need to figure out a way to talk about your experience at the University that does not criticize or come across as negative. When you’re describing your work experience in your cover letter and resume, talk about your successes. Mention your increased, and sustained, usage statistics. Talk about successful partnerships and collaboration within the library and beyond. Do not talk about how you managed to survive despite the oppressive supervisor, or the challenging circumstances, or a University “beset by scandals.” That’s really just too much drama for anyone, especially a prospective employer. You may also want to ask a couple of colleagues for written letters of reference that you can attach to your application materials. If you take this approach, make sure they are current letters, and the colleagues speak to your professional experiences and talents. Do not turn these letters into you-versus-them detailed sagas of your University experience. The letters should describe how the colleague knows you, in what context and for how long, as well as his or her description of your work experience, knowledge and strengths.
Second, choose your references carefully. With such a long tenure at the University, it might seem conspicuous to not have a reference from that institution. However, given your relationship with your supervisor and director, you probably don’t want to list them as professional references. You should think carefully about other colleagues, maybe even folks with whom you worked at the University but they too have moved on, and consider if they could serve as a reference for you. And of course, colleagues, supervisors, department heads, directors, etc… from other institutions of employment would be good to include as well.
Third, when you get an interview, be prepared to talk about all of your work experience, including your time at the University. Again, leave out the drama and negativity and find a way to talk in a positive way about what you learned and what you gained from the experience. If you’re asked a reason for leaving, since you resigned, you can simply say that you had been at the University for a number of years, but were also dealing with an aging parent and needed to resign for personal reasons.
Just because the University is still struggling with some issues doesn’t mean you need to be swept up with it. Your focus needs to be on you and your future, not anchored to the past and a very difficult situation.