Career Strategies for Librarians
Becoming a Supervisor: Managing Student Workers
by Jacob Cole

Taking on the responsibility of being a supervisor can be an important step in your career. It can create
career opportunities in the future, and it definitely looks good on a resume. Before becoming a
supervisor, I thought that supervising 20 part-time employees (work-study students) was no big deal. I
quickly became aware of the challenges involved.

Starting Off

The only experience I previously had was supervising a few other associates in retail, and supervising
pages and volunteers in the public library. When I was hired in the summer there were no work-study
employees, but I was told repeatedly what a “handful” they could be. During that summer, the library staff
worked to create an orientation program for our work-study employees. We created a sheet for them to
sign, detailing the work-study rules and library policies. We also created a Power Point presentation, a
shelf-reading schedule, circulation exercises, and scenario questions. We used the LC Easy program to
help them learn to shelf-read and reshelve books.

All started out well. The students came in and filled out the forms we had for them. Our library director
created their work schedules and scheduled them for orientation. The first challenge was that because
each employee had a different start date, we had to introduce each employee to the library individually.
Each work-study student seemed to get a different orientation, depending on which staff member did the
introduction. Another problem I encountered was non-returning students; some workers would show up
their first day of work but would never come back.  

Limitations & Problems

I quickly discovered several challenges in supervising work-study students.  At our institution, we did not
have the power to fire a work-study employee immediately if there were a problem. We first had to
document the problems and try to resolve the situation. If we could not accomplish that, we had to take
the issue up with the Human Resources Director or the administration.

We also had a few employees that we lost right away; they either did not come back after their first day or
they quickly found another job and quit.

Other small problems started to occur: students showed up for work not wearing their uniform or not
wearing it properly, showed up late, missed work days, played games or “instant messaged” friends on
computers at the service desks, or did not complete their assignments.

Some other reoccurring problems were talking to friends at the circulation desk, wanting to change their
schedule, and calling in often to miss a shift. Some employees would offer a different excuse all the time
(friend’s death, car accident, destroyed uniform, overslept, too tired) – and it was usually the same
people each time.  


I tried several solutions including memos, one-on-one discussion, and constant reminders. I found the
latter to be the most disappointing because I thought after reminding them a few times, they would
remember what they were supposed to be doing, but some would still not do their job. I explained to
many of the work-study employees that this was an important part of their experience at school that
would prepare them for real-world jobs. If I were their boss in a “real” work environment, I would view
their performance poorly and they might be fired.

Schedule changes were allowed for valid reasons, but we didn’t want to let employees constantly
change their schedules. If an employee requested too many schedule changes, the director refused
subsequent schedule changes.

I encouraged the idea of an “employee of the month” program, in which the chosen employee’s name
was posted on a sign in our library, and they were given a certificate and a small gift.  

We documented problems and talked to the students about them, which is about the most we could do.
All of the strategies seem to work, but the most important lesson that I learned is that 20 part-time
employees are more work than it appeared at first. I made a few mistakes and feel that I have learned
from them.

Tips for Success

Here are a few tips for dealing with some of the most significant and prevalent issues you will encounter
as a new supervisor:

Plan ahead. It helped us to talk about library policies, create a paper trail, and discuss how we would
react to certain situations.
Put things in writing and have students sign to confirm that they read the policies. This prevents
employees from claiming that you never told them something.
Help them when they are doing something for the first time. This way they can see exactly how the task is
supposed to be done, and you can be sure they know what they are supposed to do.
Explain why the library does things a certain way.  It helps your employees to understand the library
policies and explain them to patrons.
Be sympathetic and try to give the benefit of the doubt without being oblivious.  You need to be
compassionate and understanding, but at the same time it is important to not be gullible. It is
sometimes hard to strike that careful balanced between strict and being too easygoing. When you’re
supervising, every day will be a learning experience with tough decisions that affect other people.

Being a supervisor is a good test of your decision-making ability. I was proud to put into practice the
leadership skills I’d learned in the past. I hope that when other new supervisors read this, they can
perhaps realize that there is more to being a supervisor than they might expect, and ask others who have
had supervisory experience what they learned in the process.  


Here are some books that I would recommend to all new supervisors.

Adams, Scott. Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook. New York: Harper Business, 1996.

Affinity Communications. Supervising and Managing People. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.

Carnegie, Dale. How to Win Friends and Influence People. New York: Pocket Books, 1982.  

Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. New York
: Simon and Schuster, 1990.  

Fuller, George. Supervisor's Portable Answer Book. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1990.

About the Author:

Jacob Cole is a Reference Librarian for Johnson & Wales University’s North Miami campus. He received
his Masters of Library and Information Science at the University of South Florida in May 2004, and is
currently applying for the part-time law degree program at Florida International University.

Article published February 2005

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