Cultural Competency: The Key to Hiring Diverse Staff

by Gretchen Vaughn

The complaint about the counselors came on an otherwise positive parent evaluation: "I have concerns with camp staff that have multiple piercings, dreadlocks, unusual hair cuts or colors, and tattoos. I understand the desire to express one's individuality but believe a person can accomplish that without mutilating their body. These girls are supposed to be mentors to the younger girls, and I believe that type of 'expression' is inappropriate, especially around the younger girls. My younger daughter was 'all eyes' when we dropped off the older one, and she was a bit spooked. She said she doesn't think she would ever want to go to Flying 'G' because the counselors looked 'scary.' (The Tomahawk counselors are 'much nicer!') I would hope that Council would encourage the older girls on staff to portray a more responsible and professional image rather than an image of rebellion or social outcast."

As the Girl Scouts' Flying 'G' Ranch camp director, I knew exactly to whom the parent was referring: Pink, Tank, and even myself, Banana. But that mother could have been referring to a fair majority of American camp staff.

Pink took her camp name after her Spanish name, Rosa, which she used while volunteering at a medical clinic in Ecuador. To match her name, she had dyed her dreadlocks bright pink. A single small spike pierced her lower lip. On her left bicep was a carefully detailed tattoo of a treble clef line of music. It could have been a Bach concerto (she played several musical instruments), but to those in the know, it was from a song by her favorite band—Metallica. She was only one of three on staff that had been a Girl Scout all through high school (which takes an independent thinker these days). Naturally, Pink felt most at home when she was instructing arts and crafts.

Tank received her nickname in high school. She played center snare in the school's marching band. The drum line frequently took on the football team in flag pick-up games after practice. Her first year on staff, she had shaved her head into a Mohawk, partly to see what my reaction would be. "Oh, you changed your hair," was all I said, much to her disappointment. It was one of many surprises for her, one of which was getting hired in the first place. Tank had listed her volunteer work as a mentor for GLBTQ youth at Rainbow Alley on her application. In addition to that asset, she had a brilliance about her when she explained how she facilitated games with kids. She had a knack for learning archery and challenge course, as well as crazy announcements to which the campers actually listened. By the second year, she was promoted to program director.

On opening day, parents and campers would first meet either Pink or Tank on the road into camp. They were our best greeters—knowledgeable about camp procedures, able to reassure parents, and a sign to returning campers that everything was well at Flying 'G' Ranch because their favorite counselor was back for another year.

That year, I myself had a few strands of red and purple in my hair, extensions I could remove when I went back to my cubicle in September. It made sense to have some color poking out of my bandana, and besides, the extensions went with my smiley-face pants. I have no piercings (not even in my ears) because the thought of putting any extra holes in my body makes me shudder. I embrace the right of others to pierce whatever they want to, as long as they don't come at me with any needles.

Last summer, I decided to take a stand on the side of diversity versus the occasional parental complaint. I didn't make Pink and Tank wear baseball hats on opening day as I had in the past. The kids always seemed readily accepting of those who were different from them, even if the parents were not. The Girl Scouts already suffer a declining membership, in part because of a mistaken perception that we are not just traditional, but also old-fashioned and perhaps not for those with hair—or skin—of different colors.

But the Girl Scouts of the USA, as well as many other youth organizations and camps, are working hard to attract a greater diversity of members, both children and adults. Careful attention is being paid to publishing bilingual materials and to ensure that a variety of peoples are represented in marketing photos. Many of these organizations, however, have found that the "diverse" campers aren't returning, or at the very least, the numbers of ethnic minorities and those with low-income (despite full scholarships) aren't growing. When GLBTQ issues arise at camp, particularly with regard to sexually-based bullying, the case may be that most of the staff (most of all administrators) don't know what to do, and try to ignore the uncomfortable problem. One cause for these shortcomings may be a lack of staff who are like the diverse array of campers, or at the very least, competent in understanding the unique cultural perspectives of these highly varied individuals.

Furthermore, a diverse staff is better. Period. A study at the University of California found that while "greater diversity in groups produced more conflict and subsequently more idea generation, these groups unexpectedly experienced less emotional conflict." Studies in corporate America show that the more diversity amongst a company's employees, the more productive and more efficient the companies became (Rasmussen 1996).

The ideal camp staff would encompass people of diverse backgrounds, communication styles, and work methods—working together with a common goal of providing the best camp experience for each and every child.

Despite your best efforts, however, only folks who have traditionally worked at camp (or those who just need a job, any job) are applying to work at your camp. Maybe those who didn't grow up going to camp are just never going to be interested in a camp position. Or maybe it's something else. Maybe the lack of cultural competency in recruiting efforts and interview techniques are driving away diverse staff before they even reach the camp's front gate.

Cultural Competency 101

Recruiting and hiring nontraditional camp employees is a task that requires careful thought and total commitment. First and foremost, you need to work to develop the cultural competency of your organization. At this level of competence, diversity is clearly thought by the organization to enhance "the entire workplace and is incorporated into the organization's mission, goals, strategies, and overall culture" (Shelton 2006).

Cultural competency is defined as an ongoing process and practice that builds the capacity of organizations and individuals to understand, accept, value, and honor the unique contributions of all people, including but not limited to people's: ability, age, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, geographic region, health, language, mental health, race, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and spirituality (The Colorado Trust 2004).

Determine where your organization fits along the cultural competence continuum. The following examples indicate levels of cultural competence of systems, agencies, or professionals:

  • Cultural Destructiveness Practices which seek to denigrate and destroy other cultures.
  • Cultural Incapacity The organization or individual does not intentionally seek to be culturally destructive but rather lacks the capacity to help diverse clients or communities.
  • Cultural Blindness An organization or individual believes that culture makes no difference and that we are all the same. All populations are expected to assimilate and adapt to the services that best serve the dominant culture.
  • Cultural Pre-competence There is an acceptance and respect for differences and continuing self-assessment regarding organizational culture. The culturally competent organization works to hire unbiased employees.
  • Advanced Cultural Competence This point on the continuum is characterized by holding culture in high esteem . . . . The culturally proficient organization hires staff who are specialists in culturally competent practice. Such an organization advocates for cultural competence throughout the system and improved relations between cultures throughout society (Cross 1988).

Culturally competent individuals (those from both minority and dominant cultures) will be most attracted to organizations that value the contributions of a diverse array of individuals from all cultural backgrounds. If one cultural group is openly rejected from your organization (i.e., making sure "homosexuals" or "retards" know they are unwelcome), others may fear that their culture may be the next target, or they are simply unwilling to work for or donate to such an intolerant organization.

More likely, however, your camp is suffering from "cultural blindness." The political correctness movement of the early nineties scared many Americans into a state of "don't ask, don't tell" for anything obviously cultural. For instance, one camp forbids the wearing of any T-shirts by the staff that state any sort of religious belief (i.e., "WWJD" on the shirt pocket). Instead of celebrating the diversity of spiritual traditions represented on the staff, the camp instead chose to completely eliminate all mention of religion. For staff and campers with strong beliefs and cultural ties, such policies can be terribly alienating. A shift in attitude is necessitated by today's world. Instead of following the "Golden Rule" (i.e., treat others as you would wish to be treated), the twenty-first century necessitates the "Platinum Rule" (i.e., treat others as they wish to be treated). Success with cultural competence and
"diversity requires a constant reinvention of ourselves and our camps . . . . The overriding goal is to learn the requisite skills to interact successfully with any demographic group (Shelton 2006)."

Do Your Recruitment Materials Reflect Your Level of Cultural Competency?

The application packet and interview are a continuation of the recruiting process. What mission and values are communicated about your camp in your application packet? Does your interview process convey an image of an innovative, diverse organization or a function of the "old guard," ignorant of a changing world?

When The Women's Wilderness Institute (TWWI) added all-Latina girl programs to their course line-up, they found that the enrollment of ethnic minorities in all of their open courses increased. By offering a program that was sensitive to the needs of one community, TWWI was also passively advertising their organization's desire to be competent in all cultures.

When job candidates are looking at organizations, they are looking for a great place for them to work. Job applicants of all cultural backgrounds tend to look for jobs in the same place. Building a diversity message into your recruitment "brand" will help you to appeal to a wider range of candidates. Your application packet and online recruitment efforts readily convey your organization's level of cultural competency.

In your Web site and print brochure, is the emphasis only on the camp's long-steeped traditions or is there also mention of new and innovative program deliveries? Does the list of benefits to employees include those that show a forward-thinking and culturally competent organization? Examples of benefits that show capacity for cultural variations include:

  • College-credit internship programs for marketing, psychology, business, and equine science as well as outdoor recreation and education
  • Health insurance that includes mental health coverage and domestic partner benefits
  • Diversity trainings
  • International festivals and other ways the camp celebrates diversity
  • Descriptions of work weeks that include policies for those who honor a Saturday or Sunday Sabbath
  • Acceptance of modern variations in professional appearance (See the sidebar "Reconsidering Your Dress Code" above.)
  • Child care assistance and maternity and paternity leave

Even if these benefits do not apply to a particular candidate (i.e., a temporary or seasonal employee), knowing that the organization has considered the cultural needs of its year-round staff may assure candidates that they have found a great place for them to work.

Cultural Competency in Interviewing

Interviewing requires a great degree of skill. It's tricky to find the right staff and retain them once you have them, especially summer seasonal staff who have other lives the rest of the year. It's hard to "guess" who will make the best kitchen manager you ever had or the world's worst head counselor you quickly had to send out the gate in the middle of the night.

From your perspective, you're a great interviewer. You're proud of the fact that at college job fairs, you can conduct interviews and make a hiring decision within the first five minutes. You like to meet with people face-to-face, but have to resort to phone interviews with those out of state (or out of the country). Oddly enough, the out-of-state hires seem to be your best performers. Perhaps it's because they are more committed somehow, since they uprooted themselves to come to work at your camp so far from home. Or, maybe since you can't see an applicant in a phone interview, your subtle biases (the ones we all have) don't come into play.

The Problem With Traditional Interviewing

One way you may be communicating a lack of cultural competency in yourself and your camp may be in the way you interview job applicants. Traditional interviews based on "gut instinct," evaluation of experience and skills, and focused on hypothetical questions test someone's interviewing skills, but fail to predict future on-the-job behavior.

A 1992 Wall Street Journal study revealed that 70 percent of hiring decisions were made on first impressions made within the first five to ten minutes of an interview. Many of these judgments are based on "physical appearance, ethnic background, affability, and intelligence." Telephone interviewing may actually lead to more accurate hiring decisions because it eliminates the "visual aspects of the first impression (Adler 1998)."

Those with "proper" social graces—who are polite, pleasing, and articulate—"appear more highly competent . . . particularly when questions about opinions, experience, or intentions are asked (Cohen 2001)."

After an initial "intuitive" judgment is made, the interviewer will start "selling" the position to the candidate if she likes her or underselling to a highly qualified candidate about whom she has gotten an initial negative impression (i.e., saying "you would be bored in this position" in the hope that the candidate will self-exclude).

Hypothetical questions are then used to justify the initial first impression. Furthermore, these types of questions are misleading because they reveal only what the candidate thinks would be the right action or what the interviewer would like to hear. No one will tell you that they would remain silent if they saw counselors using illegal drugs on the camp property. But there is often a big difference between knowing the right action and actually taking the right action when the crucial moment arrives.

In evaluating answers to hypothetical questions, most interviewers favor applicants who say they would take the same action that the interviewer would. Because we tend to see differences between ourselves and others as weaknesses, traditional interviewing often leads us to favor someone who seems to be like ourselves. Traditionally, assumptions are made about "how well the person will fit in," resulting in a too homogeneous workforce (Rasmussen 1996).

Candidates will detect the bias inherent in traditional interviews. Within the first few minutes, applicants will sense that you are looking for someone with whom you can establish instant rapport—someone who is very much like yourself.

Behavioral Interviewing 101

Culturally competent job seekers are looking to work at a camp that values individual talents and accomplishments, rather than a homogenous set of personality characteristics. A behavioral interview communicates your organization's commitment to evaluate and promote employees based on their actual job performance, rather than personal connections and politics.

In behavioral interviewing, "the focus is on what the person has done in the past—the person's action (Rasmussen 1996)." What a person has done in the past is the best prediction of future behaviors. And behaviors, more than skills or experience, determine overall job performance.

Think of the last time you fired someone. The reason most likely was negative behavior, rather than a lack of past experience or technical skill. Now think back to when you interviewed that person. What questions did you ask in the interview that screened for these behaviors?

Now think of a top performer. What behaviors and values make them a valued employee? Clarifying the "what" makes for an outstanding employee in your organization and will help you in designing an effective behavioral interview. The "X is Xcellent" activity in Michael Brandwein's Super Staff Supervision will help you "reverse engineer" the details of top performance behaviors. Instead of relying on a claim of "excellent communication skills," you will want to look for particular actions when candidates detail their past behaviors, such as making "one-on-one eye contact with campers, even when greeting a group of them (i.e., takes a second to individually notice each one) (Brandwein 2002)."

Behavioral interviews communicate your ability to stay on the forefront of best practices in hiring. Candidates often "judge the quality of a company and the quality of their potential supervisor by the quality of the interviewing process (Adler 1998)." While explicitly communicating your camp's commitment to cultural competency, your interview style reveals whether or not you embrace the diversity of an evolving world.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

After a final, successful summer, we said goodbye to the platform tents and leaky lodges nestled in a mountain valley. Flying 'G' Ranch was closed and sold to another camp organization. Pink, Tank, and I chose not to move on to the new facility, a beautiful collection of lodges and manicured trails, with a commercial kitchen you actually walk around in. I see Pink around town, fetching take-out sushi for her family on her bicycle, wearing her pants she made out of Metallica concert T-shirts. Tank is finishing up her outdoor recreation degree and running her college's program council and applying for Outward Bound internships. As for the last of this band of rebels and social outcasts, I've dyed my hair "copper blonde" (a natural color, I suppose, but not mine) and started my own consulting business from home where the dress code permits pajamas.

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Brandwein, M. (2002). Super Staff Supervision.
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Cohen, D. (2001). The Talent Edge: A Behavioral Approach to Hiring, Developing, and Keeping Top Performers.
Cross, T. (1988). "Cultural Competence Continuum." Focal Point, The Bulletin of The Research and Training Center on Family Support and Children's Mental Health, Portland State University.
DeLuca, M. and DeLuca, N. (2001). More Best Answers to the 201 Most Frequently Asked Interview Questions.
Ditter, B. (1997). Trail Signs and Compass Points.
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Org, M. (2007). "Tattoos and Piercings Come Out at the Office." Wall Street Journal Online.
Rasmussen, T. (1996). The ASTD Trainer's Sourcebook: Diversity.
Shelton, M. (2006). "Leadership and Diversity." Camping Magazine, Nov/Dec. 26-32.
The Colorado Trust. (2004). After-School Initiative's Toolkit for Evaluating Positive Youth Development.

Gretchen "Banana" Vaughn is a professional speaker and CEO of Out of the Mountains, a consulting and training service for camp and youth development professionals. She has thirteen years experience as a day, resident, and medical-specialty camp director and as a volunteer naturalist and outdoor education instructor. Vaughn can be contacted at

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