Eliminate Gossip and Rumors . . . and Create a Fully Unified Staff

by Jeffrey Leiken, M.A.

Imagine a camp work environment in which every staff member lives from a positive approach to life and is willingly and enthusiastically supportive of one another — an environment in which issues that exist are addressed directly — not behind backs. Imagine a summer free from gossip — free from the us-versus-them mentality between counselors and supervisors that seems ever present in so many workplaces, especially in the emotionally charged camp environment where performance standards are more subjective. Imagine this being not just how it is on day one but on every moment of every day of every summer.

Clean Communication

Gossip in camp has a negative effect on the community. It dampens morale and creates animosity and ill will. From a larger moral perspective, staff who gossip — especially camp leadership who gossip — model poor behaviors for the campers. Camps need to learn to operate with "clean communication."

Although this need is embraced by many in the camp profession, some have found the message to be "unrealistic" — claiming that gossip is part of "human nature." Only a few camp directors took the message not just to heart, but to their entire camp community. The results — and their success — have been phenomenal. What follows is an exploration of how one camp director made it happen.

Tiffany Romero, director of Tocaloma Day Camp in Los Angeles, California, knew that clean communication was something she would make happen at her day camp — not something to try — but something important enough to the welfare of the camp to make it a reality. She understood that ways in which staff communicate with one another, especially how administration communicates with staff, has a greater impact on morale than any other factor. It was very clear to her the indirect impact this communication has on the over 700 campers and families who attend Tocaloma Day Camp during the summer and the direct effect it has on the ninety-five counselors she hires each year. Romero began asking the essential question — What would need to be in place for the day camp to operate with clean communication?

Although some answers to this question are more complex to implement than others, all are doable with proper intention and effort. Romero's main solutions were:

  • Employ people already inclined toward clean communication and make it explicitly clear in interviews that this is what would be expected.
  • Get a core group of key people on staff to buy in before announcing it to others.
  • Start orientation with a memorable activity that leaves a lasting impression.
  • Teach essential skills about how to communicate without gossiping.

Romero's experiences provide a good framework for those who might wish to implement clean communication at their camps.

Employ people who are already inclined toward clean communication, and make it explicitly clear in interviews that clean, positive communication is what would be expected.

To accomplish this, Romero had to change her camp's interview process — specifically what qualities to search for in applicants. There is an old adage about hiring employees that states, "Hire for character over skills. Skills can always be taught, but character, a person either has or hasn't." It may be old, but worthwhile in hiring for camp personnel.

Consider learning three primary things about your applicants:

  1. Do they comfortably and naturally operate their lives in an affirmative way?
  2. Are they inclined to be forthright and direct when confronted with challenges?
  3. Are they inclined to be a team player versus a loner?

Answering these questions during the interview process became immensely important to Romero as she searched for applicants with the character and skills she required. The responses were also important, but to her astonishment, she discovered that during the interviews she became increasingly aware of not only what people said but how they said it.

Some typical interview questions:

  • Has there ever been a time at school or in a job where you disagreed with a role or policy and how did you handle it?
  • Have you ever had a teacher or supervisor or co-worker whom you didn't particularly like or care for?
  • Tell me about a challenging situation you've faced in your life.
  • What are things you are excited about in your life?

These questions should be asked without leading to a specific answer. Note how "Tell me about a challenging situation you've faced in your life" is markedly different from, "Tell me about a challenging situation in your life AND WHAT YOU LEARNED FROM IT." The former leaves room for a person to demonstrate his or her thinking and approach to life, the other leads the respondent there.

Applicants' responses should demonstrate that they are positive, mature, and accountable. You absolutely do not want to hire people who place blame on others or identify as a victim. Thus, listen for people who recall challenges they've been through and talk of how they grew from them, rather than how they hurt them. You want to hear about teachers or supervisors the applicants didn't like, but more so, how they moved beyond the dislike, rather than continuing to bear grudge.

As soon as you hear a response like, "Oh, let me tell you about that miserable person. I'm so glad I don't work there anymore," you have vital information. Those who answer your questions in a way that attempts to get you to align with them (e.g., "You understand what I mean"), which takes on an us-versus-them approach, are probably not a match.

Often camp directors respond with something like "Well you won't have that problem here . . . ." almost as if they are trying to sell the candidate on the camp. For Romero, a person who talks negatively about a previous employer in this way is not the type of person she wants.

Romero is looking for those who respond with answers such as: "Well, working with that boss certainly taught me how to stand up for myself . . . ." or "Sometimes I got myself in trouble for this, but my tendency is to speak up when things aren't right."

You should prefer applicants that consider challenging scenarios from a mindset of possibilities. Ideally, they give several potential answers to how they might handle things or make reference to being inclined to get help.

When Romero first implemented this new hiring criteria at her day camp to improve communication and morale, there were many candidates whom she did not hire — candidates who might have been successful previously. This hiring process required more time and demanded that Romero be uncompromising about it. Another old adage bares true here, "Better to be understaffed with the right people then to be fully staffed but have some of the wrong ones."

While the first year required much more time and effort in the hiring process, by the second year Romero was getting potential candidates calling her because they had heard that Tacaloma Day Camp was such a positive place to work! In fact, in a market that averages less than 5 percent return rate of counselors, Tocaloma Day Camp averages a 50+ percent return rate. It may be true that this extensive interview process is easier said then done, but that's the point. Camps on the cutting edge do the things that camps that are not, don't.

Get a core group of key people on staff to buy in before announcing it to others.

Romero knew which returning counselors she would need to get on board with this new approach. She considered the different personalities and groups of staff and selected a core group of approximately a dozen people — most of whom were up-and-coming leaders. Since most of this core group of returning staff lived in the vicinity, Romero scheduled several day-long meetings with them in the late winter and spring. Those who did not live in the immediate area were included in the process with lengthy phone conversations, and a second meeting was scheduled when they could be available.

As the new policy and expectations were presented to this group, each member was both excited and anxious. They knew it meant that they had to have willingness to change some of their ways. Each one was challenged to speak up and express his or her concerns and questions. Each was challenged to commit to working on developing his or her skills and confidence with this. All were told in no uncertain terms that they were either committed fully to this new approach, or they were not allowed back.

When the second meeting was held, each staff member was asked to demonstrate what he or she had learned about how to communicate cleanly. They worked on role playing scenarios as well as real issues that went on within the group.

One of the key issues addressed was the existence of cliques among staff — to which many of those in this core group belonged. Cliques often have the negative effect of creating divisiveness among a staff. While they are comfortable and fun for those in them, they tend to isolate or intimidate those on the outside — especially new staff members who have no history with the old.

Romero challenged this group of staff to show up at orientation and present themselves in a way in which others new to the staff would not readily recognize longstanding friendships and involvements. It meant they couldn't hang out together. They couldn't tell inside jokes. They couldn't sit together at meals. Essentially, they'd have to act as if they were brand new to camp.

The group struggled to make sense of her challenge. Not surprisingly, they responded as most would when confronted with change. They feared their summer wouldn't be as fulfilling for them and argued that their actions would be "phony." Several worried about forgetting and spoiling everything by making a comment that would reveal their secret. They needed Romero's reassurance that it was okay not to be perfect — a reassurance she gave with the understanding that they still needed to try. A mistake was acceptable, but anything less than a full commitment was not.

During this discussion and as a result of the group excitement, Romero had another even bigger idea. Why not make the entire staff behave this way from the very beginning?

Start orientation with a memorable activity that leaves a lasting impression.

Romero decided to implement this new idea. What unfolded was a most unusual first day of staff orientation — a day that has since become a tradition.

All staff were sent a letter informing them of the plan. Whether a ten-year veteran or a first-year counselor, when staff arrived at camp that first day, they were to act as if they knew no one. It was acceptable to speak about anything except camp or people they knew from camp.

When the staff arrived for the first day of orientation, they were reminded again of the policy as they registered and were quickly assigned to groups. They spent the entire day in various groups — doing exercises, getting to know one another, learning to be counselors, etc. The only people they knew for certain were returning staff members were Romero and one of her assistants — the one who had done many of the interviews. Even the camp owner (a former director) acted as if he knew no one.

As the day progressed, the groups were intermixed to give everyone an opportunity to meet and mingle. People chatted with other staff members who they likely never would have spoken with otherwise. The pressure of social status and the awkwardness of approaching groups who already knew one another was removed completely. A level of bonding and cohesiveness was established that exceeded even Romero's expectations — expectations which are already higher than most.

At the end of the evening, they began to reveal "the truth." They asked those for whom it was their first year to stand; then those for whom it was the second year, and on down the line. Many of the new counselors were amazed that they had been socializing with one of the assistant directors all day and didn't have an inkling.

This experience made the people in leadership roles so much more approachable. It established for all staff a different and very special working environment.

Teach essential skills about how to communicate

The final step was to devote several orientation sessions explicitly to clean communication. Staff role played various ways to approach a co-worker, how to use language of accountability, and how to ask for help. While it was understood that no one was expected to be perfect at this and that everyone could and should always feel comfortable asking for help, it was expected that no one would engage in talking negatively about anyone behind his or her back.

Lessons Learned

As the first summer progressed it came to Romero's attention that two counselors were violating this code. Romero confronted them, and when they immediately began to make excuses, she fired them. The overwhelming response from the staff was one of praise and gratitude. Already high morale at the day camp went up even further. Staff members overwhelmingly cheered the decision. Ironically, the two who were fired were the only two whom Romero had had any hesitation about hiring!

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This proved to be a lesson learned. As the following summer approached, Romero became even more uncompromising about her hiring. During the second summer of the new policies, no one was fired. Parents raved about the experience their children had at the day camp. Early enrollment forms came in at a faster rate than ever before. More counselors than ever began planning to return. And most importantly, Tocaloma Day Camp spent an entire summer without any negative interpersonal issues. Any issues among staff were resolved immediately between only those involved.

The members of this camp community were challenged to model mature, clean communication. They were asked to support one another, to have conversations even when they were uncomfortable, and to be honest and upfront at all times. They were asked to trust one another completely and to be people who can be trusted. And they did something which many would say was "unrealistic."

By embracing this staffing philosophy and doing the essential work, you will learn that it is truly possible for your staff — all positively committed toward a single goal — to work together to accomplish clean communication. The results are nothing short of extraordinary.

Jeffrey Leiken, M.A., is a professional counselor who travels internationally training organizations who work with children. He has worked with over 100 summer camps. To learn more about his services, visit his Web site at www.MentorCounselor.com or contact him at 415-441-8218 or by e-mail at Jleiken@MentorCounselor.com.

Originally published in the 2004 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.