Determining Competency: Essentials in Interviewing

by Bob Ditter

"What you have to do is get them talking in such a way that they are unguarded. It could be anything they happen to be into, like their favorite baseball team or a dream they have about doing something. That's where you find out who they really are. By schmoozing in this way, I can tell whether I want someone on my staff or not!"

These words were spoken to me in great earnest several years ago by a respected camp director in the Northeast. This was his secret, if a somewhat esoteric method, for selecting his staff. Forget that he had no follow-up studies to see how the people he picked actually performed each summer; or whether they returned for an encore year. Like most people, he believed his system worked and continued to "collect circumstantial evidence" to support his conviction.

Since then, I have encountered many directors who have their favorite interview questions for determining which candidates will become solid staff members during the summer. "If you could have dinner with anyone from any time in history, who would it be and why?"; "What is your greatest ambition in life?"; "What makes you want to work with children?"; and "What's the last book you've read?"

As colorful as these questions are, the truth is they have no predictive value when it comes to choosing effective staff members for summer camp. Who you might want to take to dinner or what book you've read tells us nothing about how patient you will be with campers, how able you will be to keep things interesting at camp, or how hard you will work long into the season.
Here are the lessons social science tells us about selecting strong performers:

  • The best predictor of future performance is past performance.
  • Hypothetical questions yield hypothetical answers. A hypothetical question is one that asks, "What if . . .?" It usually has the words "would, could, or should" in it somewhere.
  • Most people conduct interviews in a haphazard, fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants manner, so is it any surprise the results reflect that?
  • If your selection process or tool is inaccurate, then no amount of practice with that protocol will improve results.

The Disney Experience

Years ago the human resources folks at Walt Disney World, employer to literally thousands of people who run their concessions, hotels, restaurants, transport systems, and all the supportive services that go into making Walt Disney World operate smoothly, began looking for ways to select employees they could depend on to perform at a high level. Given the sheer numbers of people needed to run Walt Disney World, it simply wasn't efficient to hire people who turned out to perform poorly. They needed an effective way to identify strong performers and weed out people who simply didn't operate at a level Disney needed to make the park a model in the recreation service industry. To help them with this task, the Disney folks turned to the Lou Harris Company in St. Louis—creators of the famous Harris Poll.

What the Harris people did was straightforward: they simply identified the best performers in each category of a job—hotel housekeeper, park attendant, bus driver, cook, etc.—and then catalogued the competencies or abilities those high performers exhibited. In other words, the question was: "What is it these strong performers do that makes them so exceptional?"

Once they had identified these abilities, they devised questions to test for the presence of those competencies in prospective employees in their past experience.

So what if camp professionals could identify the competencies of their best counselors—their stand-out, noticeably best performers—and develop a set of questions to test for the presence of those competencies or abilities in the past experience of prospective staff members? That is exactly what was done about eight years ago with a small group of independent camps and a professional selection company called Personnel Decisions International (PDI). I helped arrange the project and oversaw each part of its development.

Although the specifics of the project are proprietary, the basic approach, something called "competency-based interviewing," also known as "behaviorally-based interviewing," is a widely practiced selection style that no one owns. The basic premise follows exactly what the Harris people did for Disney—identify the best counselors; catalogue their behaviors; summarize those behaviors into "competencies"—and then develop interview questions to detect whether candidates have demonstrated any of these competencies in their past behavior.

The Ditter Approach

The Short List of Essentials
After twenty-six years of working with camps and training staff and evaluating staff performance, I offer my own "short list" of abilities that, for me, are essential for any camp counselor to be successful. These four areas are:

  1. The ability to put the needs of others ahead of your own. Good camp counselors are constantly caring for the youths in their charge. This means identifying the needs of others and attending to them without being distracted by one's own needs.
  2. The ability to do the right thing and take a stand for what is true. Working with children is a privilege, and camp is a special place where campers get to play and grow in exceptional ways. Protecting camp by maintaining certain important rules requires a sense of leadership, and one element of leadership is taking a stand for what you believe, even if it is unpopular with your peers.
  3. Another crucial ability for counselors is conflict resolution. Whether with campers or co-counselors, knowing how to resolve the many inevitable conflicts that arise on a daily basis at camp is crucial to strong performance.
  4. And the last, but certainly not the least, important ability or "competence" is the capacity to work hard for long periods of time. Most camp counselors new to the position don't realize how taxing the work is until they go through a summer season!

Specific Questions
Once I identified these four central areas of ability, I devised questions to "test" for the presence of those abilities in a person's past. You will notice two things about how the questions are worded. First, they always start with the phrase, "Tell me about a time. . . ." The point is each question asks for specific examples from real life, not hypothetical ideas from one's imagination. The other feature of a behaviorally-based question is the use of probing questions to follow up and get more information or more specific information. Here are the four questions:

  1. Tell me about a time when you put the needs of another or others ahead of your own. Probing Questions: What was the situation? What was the relationship between you and the person/people? How did you handle the situation? What did you learn? How did it go?
  2. Tell me about a time when you took a stand for (or stood up for) something you believed in, but that was an unpopular position. Probing Questions: What was the stand you took? What was the principle or who was the person you stood up for? What did you do and say? What resistance or negative feedback did you encounter, and how did you handle it? What was the outcome? Looking back on it, what is your thought about what you did or didn't do?
  3. Tell me about a time when you had a conflict with a friend or an employer or an authority of some kind (teacher, parent, coach). Probing Questions: What was the conflict? Who was involved? What did you do? What was the outcome? What did you learn from the situation?
  4. Tell me about a project in school or something you've had to do around the house or some job you've had or volunteered for where it took much more effort than you originally thought it would. Probing Questions: What was the situation? How did you deal with it? What things did you actually do or say that helped you through? What was the outcome?

Other Aspects of the Interview
Now that you have the "meaty" questions, ones that will help you determine whether your candidate has the abilities needed to perform well as a general camp counselor, you need to think about how to set up your interview. Again, practice and adhering to a formula will give better results.

Here are some other pointers:

  • Get yourself into a frame of mind before you do an interview by slowing down, taking a few minutes to review the questions, and thinking about your approach.
  • Interviewing is like any other set of skills—it takes practice. The more you practice, the better you will become.
  • I have found that one art of interviewing is knowing when to probe for more information, when to move on to another question, and when to quit altogether!
  • Competency-based questions are tough because they force the candidate to reflect and have to think deeply about his or her prior experience. The more comfortable you are with silences and letting the candidate struggle a bit, the less you influence the response and the more reliable it is.
  • This protocol can be easily adapted for use over the phone. There does not need to be a separate procedure for doing phone interviews. The only factor is that candidates who are not physically across from the interviewer tend to max out earlier than if they were face-to-face. Therefore, phone interviews should range between 35 to 40 minutes tops. Getting everything down to that time frame takes practice.
  • The interview questions presented here are based on a "job-competency model" for the general counselor (GC). They do not test competencies for group leaders, division leaders, unit directors, and so on.
  • When you set up the interview by phone, give yourself a range in terms of time. You want to balance the need of the candidate to plan ahead with your need to bail out quickly if the candidate is not worth pursuing. What seems to work well with someone you will be seeing face-to-face is to say, "We will need between fifteen to forty-five minutes." For phone interviews, say that you will need "from fifteen to thirty-five minutes."

Interview Steps

Step One: Joining
The first part of an interview is designed to connect with your candidates and set a friendly tone with them. Explain first who you are and what your role is at camp. Then do a quick initial probe about any past camp experience, how they found out about your program, what they know about your camp, and what ideas they have about how life will be for them at camp if they sign up.

After a short exploration of these questions, give out some specific information about your camp program, like dates, essential responsibilities, and so on, so you can check quickly to see if there is a "fit." If the dates don't work or the program you describe does not work for them, you save yourself the time and bother of going through the entire protocol.

When you give out this information, take time to give a thumbnail sketch of the kids you serve and the daily routine, as well as some details of the job. For example, are you a coed program? Do you have a religious affiliation? Do you observe any particular religious rituals? What is the rest of the staff (I include volunteers in this) typically like? What are the hours of duty, time off, etc.?

Talk a little about the primary roles and responsibilities of staff and volunteers—a description of what people will be expected to do, such as the following: wake kids up; get them to meals and activities on time; help them clean up; make them feel part of the group; resolve conflicts; help them make friends; be on your feet all day; anticipate problems before they happen; recognize the sick, sad, or self-conscious child, and so on.

From this concise but somewhat detailed description, you immediately ascertain whether people are available during the dates of camp, whether they still want to make the commitment, whether what you describe sounds like what they imagined, and so on. It is wise to have this be a uniform description given out by each interviewer. Get it standardized and rehearsed!

Another objective of this first part of the interview is to establish whether the candidate has any preconceived ideas, feelings, or expectations about camp that might affect his or her performance. Remember that candidates can just as easily have unrealistically high expectations about camp as they can have a bad taste in their mouth from a prior experience. If you hear about a past camp experience that was negative, it is important to master the use of probing or follow-up questions, such as:

  1. What are your feelings about that now?
  2. How do you think this will affect your being in camp this summer?
  3. What have you done to resolve your feelings about that experience?

Step Two: The Set-Up
This is a kind of pause where, unbeknownst to the candidate, you have decided the person is worthy of your time to continue. If you do not want to continue, you have options about how you get out of the interview at this point. The first is to be honest: "You know, after listening to you for these last few minutes, I am not sure that our camp would be a good match for you. There are a lot of camps in the United States, and it makes sense to be at one where you have a good chance of being happy and feeling like the fit is good. I just don't think we have what you need or are looking for." This approach works if the candidate is new to camp, and you are sincere about what you are saying.

Another less honest approach is to thank the candidate for his or her time (now about fifteen minutes) and say that there are many other people you need to interview and that you will get back to him or her within a week to ten days. This approach works only if you actually send out a letter saying that you are sorry, but that all the positions for which the candidate was qualified are full. Why bother? The more bad feeling you spread, the more it comes back to haunt you.

Once you decide to go ahead with the interview, you need to prepare the candidate for the competency-based questions to follow. Announce that you have a series of questions that are about the candidate's experience. There are no right or wrong answers, and many people need to take a few minutes to think about their experience before they answer, and that's okay. Also mention that you will be taking a few notes as you go along to help you remember what the person says. Reassure your candidate that he or she will have time at the end of the process to ask questions about camp and the position for which the candidate is applying. Then you are ready to move ahead!

Step Three: Competency-Based Questions
This is the meatiest and longest part of the interview, where you get measures of the competencies or abilities required to do the job. Again, probing and follow-up questions are key to getting better information. You need at least three solid, positive responses in each competency to hire with any degree of reliability.

Step Four: The Close
If you really like the candidate, offer her a conditional contract. The conditions might be as follows:

  1. Finish the application process (complete forms, get references, etc.);
  2. Agree on a salary, if any;
  3. Confirm dates of camp, as well as any training dates, once again;
  4. Make note of any certifications (life saving; driver's license; etc.); and
  5. Confirm how you will get back to the candidate and when.

This is also a time to allow your candidate to ask you any questions she may have about camp, the campers, the program, and so on. Don't hire someone you don't feel good about. My experience is that you will regret it later in the season.

The ideas and techniques I have outlined here are certainly not as colorful or "interesting" as the kinds of clever, creative questions many directors have used over the years to screen staff. So if you are looking to add "character" and "color" to your selection process, the "whom-would-you-take-to-dinner" questions are truly the way to go. However, if you want to hire a staff with a strong work ethic—one that is able to put the needs of campers ahead of their own and is willing to stand up for things they believe in—you might want to opt for science. It may not be as lively an experience during the interview, but it may just lead to a more dedicated, stable, and committed staff during the summer!

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for and can be reached via e-mail at or by fax at 617-572-3373.

Originally published in the 2007 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.