If you've never hired someone who didn't work out, or never had vacancies when summer started, then don't bother reading this. Still reading? Then you already know that finding enough staff, and more importantly, finding the right staff, is the most important task you'll accomplish all year.
We'd all like to think we have a gut instinct on picking the right people, yet we all get fooled.
Here's the most ironic part... Not only do we get fooled by hiring the wrong people, but just as often we say "no" to people that we unknowingly have a prejudice against -- people who aren't quick on their feet to answer our interview questions, people who don't take the time to fill out our long (long, long) written applications, people that don't look or dress like our ideal, and so forth...
We used to say that written applications were easy to fake, so we put more value in references. Then lawyers started telling people not to give job references for fear of being held liable for negative comments. So what's that leave us with, just our gut instinct at an in-person interview?
A government study discovered that interviews are only seven percent more accurate than flipping a coin. And what if you can only talk to them on the phone, as we become more dependent on Internet applicants?
Twenty years ago I discovered the interviewing techniques developed by industrial psychologist, Dr. Paul Green. They were first popularized in a series of training videos appropriately called, "More Than a Gut Feeling." They are still available today from dozens of sources (just Google the title).
His technique of "Performance Based Interviewing" is widely used by the HR departments of major corporations, but little know by the rest of us.
Here's the core concept: "The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior." Most of your interviews are made up of a series of hypothetical questions that all start with, "What would you do if…" and end with things like, "have a homesick camper, need to plan an activity, want to teach a skill," etc., etc. But few of the answers we get have anything to do with what the candidate will actually do, especially if they've never held this type of job before.
So here comes the beauty of the technique: Ask the candidate, "Can you give me an example of an accomplishment you're proud of? It could be something from school, from a job, or someplace you've volunteered." Then give them a chance to think about it.
They may answer, "Well, I was on the prom committee at school, and that came out pretty good." Ask, "That sounds fascinating; can you tell me more about what you did?"
Three things begin happening here. First, the candidate is amazed because you're the first interviewer that seems interested in them instead of the answers they give to your questions. Second, you as the interviewer stay more interested in the process because you're talking about real people and their real experiences. Third, the candidate will become engrossed in describing the details of their past experiences.
Not hypothetical answers, but a picture of how they actually perform in a variety of circumstances.
It may take a few tries before you'll find an accomplishment you can really dig into. But when you find it, stay with it by asking follow-up questions that let the candidate describe their roles, their attitudes, and their performance. You'll get an amazingly accurate picture of how they are likely to act at your camp, and you can decide if that fits with your camp job.
And that's where I've found a great update to the process. In his book, Hire With Your Head: Using POWER Hiring to Build Great Teams, author, consultant and head-hunter Lou Adler lays out a five-point plan for finding, selecting, and closing the deal for the best staff. I'd recommend it to anyone that conducts interviews for any type of job.
Adler points out that most of us have an idea of what type of person we want to hire, but it's usually not based on any analysis of what performance factors that person needs to be able to accomplish. "Outgoing and likes kids" is pretty vague.
What we really want is someone who can get to know kids by name within the first hour, and will actually participate 100 percent with the campers' activities. For a camp counselor's job, you should be able to come up with six to ten factors like that to describe the outcomes you need -- things like planning activities, supporting their peers in stressful times, and helping kids learn self discipline. When you know what you're looking for, it's easier to guide the discussion of the candidate's past experiences to see if they are or aren't compatible with what a successful candidate would look like.
In using Adler's POWER Hiring techniques, I had to look hard at my own shortcomings. Every January I'd require candidates to fill out a four-page application with lots of long essay questions.
I'd do interviews at colleges, but be afraid to offer contracts until I'd interviewed everybody, for fear of missing an even better candidate.
By the time I'd made my choices, the best ones had often accepted other jobs. By June I was out of options and would frantically call all the returning staff and ask them to make recommendations. And miraculously I'd barely find the staff I needed by the day camp started.
I'd long ago learned that most of our new campers came from referrals by satisfied parents. It turns out the same thing works with employees.
We just moved the calendar back and started asking our counselors for referrals months earlier. It's much more effective to recruit a dozen staff from one university than one each from 12 colleges. Your best staff knows who they want to work with.
I learned to ask board members, parents, and even the members of my church for their suggestions, and actively recruited their top recommendations. And by using a rating system based on the job performance factors, I became confident in hiring a capable candidate as soon as I found them.
But I was still losing good candidates to other camps because my application form was so long that those applying by the Internet would opt for camps with a less onerous process. It turns out we could scale the application back to a single page. (The "long form" that our HR department requires could wait until we'd offered them the job.)
Although a standard interview is an hour long, most people will eliminate some candidates they don't like in the first minute or two. You overcome that by committee, giving the candidates you've chosen for interviews at least 30 minutes before you let yourself eliminate them.
By focusing on learning about each candidate through their accomplishments, you keep your unsupported preferences in check. You'll discover counselors that you would have passed over previously that have the character and experiences that predict their success.
The most exciting result is that Adler has found the performance-based interview techniques are just as effective on the phone as they are in person. It seems that what benefit there is from "interpreting body language" is normally negated by inappropriate first impressions of other candidates. What a relief in this age in our increasing dependence on the Internet.
Finally, some of you may be asking, "What if a candidate doesn't have any experiences that they can talk about?" I can assure you that the best candidates have accomplishments that prove they can do the job. Without them, why would you hire them? Gut feeling?
Gary Forster is the Camping Specialist for the YMCA of the USA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.