When I was just beginning my career in human services, I applied for a position as a youth worker with a community center in a public housing project. The director explained to me that the kids would interview the applicants and make the decision. It was, after all, their staff, he said. About fifteen teenagers who lived in the neighborhood interviewed me and two other applicants. I was impressed with the way they conducted the interview, the quality of the questions they asked, and the respect with which they treated me. They apparently were not so impressed with the way I interviewed. I finished third.
A few months later, I found myself directing a similar community center in another housing project. I developed a position for a youth worker, screened several applicants and checked their references, then rounded up several of the neighborhood teenagers to conduct the interviews. They, too, did a responsible job of interviewing. They selected a young man who did outstanding work with them, helping them raise funds, secure use of a building from the public housing authority, and develop a drop-in center. Unfortunately, the agency changed priorities rather frequently and eliminated their youth programs a year later.
A few years later, I found myself responsible for the start up of a new secure treatment program for juvenile offenders. I hired a few staff to open the program. We admitted four residents the following week and needed more staff, so I decided to try having the residents interview applicants and make the decision. The residents were skeptical. They said that they would just be wasting their time and that I would hire who I wanted anyway. “Just don’t hire any [blacks],” they said (not the word they used). I told them that I very well might hire staff who were black (the preferred term at the time for people of African heritage), since I anticipated eventually having some residents who were black. The only way that they could have a say was if they interviewed all of the applicants. I assured them that I would accept their decision. If no one suited them, we would keep looking. They reluctantly agreed to do the interviewing.
I was more than skeptical. In addition to therapeutic responsibilities, these staff would also be responsible for maintaining discipline and security in this locked facility. These kids could be aggressive and manipulative and had serious histories of running away.
In my opinion, the strongest applicant was the man of African heritage who had been my community youth worker several years earlier. He was rather strict and brooked no nonsense. The rest of the applicants were white, had relevant college degrees, and really wanted to help kids, but I suspected that they might be rather easily manipulated or intimidated by these tough adolescents.
I went ahead, trusting the residents, all of whom were white. They spent about forty-five minutes with each applicant. They chose the man of African heritage over the white applicants. Their decision was unanimous and without reservation. He turned out to be our best staff and continued to be well-liked by residents, even though he never let them get away with anything. And I was firmly convinced of the merits of this procedure for hiring residential staff.
I have used this approach in other residential settings whenever I could convince administrators of its merits. I always make sure that supervisors conduct preliminary interviews and check references. I do not have residents interview applicants who are not qualified or acceptable to supervisors. The test I use is, “If this were the only applicant, would I hire her or him, or keep looking?” If they pass this test, the residents get to interview them, no matter how strongly I might prefer another applicant.
I have found that this approach has several advantages over more traditional hiring procedures. The interview allows residents a formal opportunity to get to know their staff, eliminating the need for residents to test new staff, sometimes mercilessly. When residents assume responsibility for hiring their staff, they have an investment in their new staff. They welcome them and assume some responsibility for seeing that they get off to a good start. They want them to succeed. With more traditional procedures, residents sometimes want new staff to fail and deliberately try to drive them off to prove that supervisors made yet another mistake. Finally, I have never found residents to hire someone whom they do not respect, someone they might manipulate, intimidate, or on whom they can “get over.” Nor will they hire someone who does not respect them. Some applicants do not interview well because they are unable to respond appropriately to residents in this role.
We did make occasional mistakes, but never with the frequency or consequences of those I’ve seen people make using more traditional hiring procedures. And there are some risks. I usually allow the residents to interview in private, with no staff present. In one program, however, the Executive Director stipulated that I had to sit in during the interviews. I was mortified in one interview when a resident asked a young woman about her boy friends. Such questions are inappropriate in an equal opportunity interview. As I struggled with whether or not to intervene, the young woman responded courteously and professionally. Then I realized the reason for the question “the residents were interviewing this woman because a much loved staff had just been married, then given notice immediately upon return from her honeymoon. They were relocating because her husband found another job while they were on their honeymoon. I also reminded myself that handling such personal questions appropriately is a necessary job skill.
The procedure makes residents feel invested in the program, a real part of the treatment team. And it helps new staff to feel accepted and invested in the residents, as well. All of this helps to minimize turnover, which can be extremely high in the US, where both pay and qualifications for such positions tend to be quite low.