"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.
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
Other Aspects of the Interview
Here are some other pointers:
Step One: Joining
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:
Step Two: The Set-Up
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
Step Four: The Close
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 Bunk1.com and can be reached via e-mail at BobDitter1@aol.com  or by fax at 617-572-3373.
Originally published in the 2007 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.