Q: A few months ago, I went to my supervisor to tell her I was unhappy with my job. She is the branch manager and I am the assistant manager. About a week after that she and her supervisor put me on a performance improvement plan. I have been doing what I need to do and I own that I needed to improve in several key areas. I hope I have shown that I’ve improved. I am still unhappy. I feel I am not suited for management and would like to move into the part of the library world that will allow me to better help people access information–which is why I got into the field in the first place. I do not feel like a successful supervisor, leader or manager. I am starting to research jobs and my biggest fear is that when I apply, the prospective employer will call my current supervisor and find out all about the PIP. Have you got any suggestions about how to handle any questions?
A: There are a few things you need to do here. First, you need to have a candid conversation with your supervisor. Talk with her again about your job, but not in the context of “I’m so unhappy”—YOU are in charge of your own happiness, not your boss. You should frame the conversation in terms of your career aspirations, or, as I tell others, what you want to be when you grow up. If you really do not enjoy management positions, tell her that. Tell her that while you were honored to be named Assistant Manager, you want to refocus your career on dealing more directly with the patron, and reposition yourself to be more on the front lines. Now, you must know, that if you have an MLS, it is likely you will be in charge of people at some point in your career…it’s a natural progression of responsibility, especially with the extra credentialing.
And that brings me to point number two: You may want to consider training opportunities that will develop and strengthen your management, supervision and leadership skills. Even if it’s informal management of a project team, supervising volunteers or leading a library-wide committee, you will need these skills throughout your career. Don’t shy away from it just because it’s uncomfortable. Work hard and it will serve you well.
Point number three: If you have a very open relationship with your supervisor, and she is a supportive and understanding person, as part of your career aspirations conversation with your supervisor, let her know that you will continue to work hard in your current position, but that you also realize in order to make some changes, you may need to look for other positions. And while you are applying for other positions, you will need someone who can give you an excellent employment reference. Ask her what you can do now to earn her trust and confidence, and an excellent employment reference when the right position comes along.
If your supervisor is not a very understanding person, then you may not want to tell her that you are looking for work elsewhere. This can be a very tricky situation and if you do not find a job in a timely manner, the knowledge that you are looking elsewhere (and intending to jump ship) can cause tension and resentment. And this, in turn, can create a stressful and unhappy work environment.
If a job application requires that you provide references up front (some will and some will not), then do not use her name. Once you get to the interview stage and you have a good feeling about the position (i.e., you would take it if they offer it to you), then you can approach your supervisor to see if she would give you a good reference. Potential employers will understand if you do not use the name of your current supervisor on your reference list, and you can explain why in your interview with them. They will still, however, most likely want to speak with your most recent supervisor at some point, so so be prepared to have the conversation with her (see above).
And I’ll conclude with your final question, How do I handle questions from prospective employers about my job performance? If they hear from your supervisor that there were performance problems, a lot will depend on how she has conveyed the information (which is why it’s really important to have a good conversation with her. See points 1 and 3). What you need to do is be honest, direct, brief and positive. Try to convey what you learned from the situation. And never, never, never disparage your current institution or supervisor. For example, if the situation involved supervision of other staff (perhaps you were too lenient), what you would say in response is something like: “I acknowledge there were some challenges with supervision in my current position. I was new to supervision and wasn’t really comfortable telling employees with more experience what they could or could not do. I am working with my supervisor now to improve these skills, and feel I’ve made a lot of progress in this area. Additionally, I’ve taken a couple of management and supervision training classes through Human Resources and really feel like I’ve strengthened my knowledge of management styles and approaches, and gained some confidence with supervision.”