As winter break approaches, college students come home and (maybe?) start thinking about warmer days and what to do. It's time to think staff hiring.
As a former camp director, a social worker, and as someone who has lots of contact with camp directors across North America, one of the common themes I hear - and I know - is that some staff who seemed "fine" on interviews show up at camp without a good grasp of what they have gotten themselves into. The results of these situations vary, and are often less than appealing.
There will be some situations where this is unavoidable. The key is to pay more attention to what is in our control when hiring. If you ask the right questions, you'll get informative answers.
During the hiring process, camps should always provide applicants with a complete job description that includes language around flexibility, the need to fulfill other duties as asked (within reason), and anything else that would be helpful for them to know. [For sample job descriptions or to discuss the ones you have, email email@example.com.]
To start out, explain that camp is one of the best things they can do – it will give them incredible leadership skills and wonderful new friends. It’s a community like no other.
Now, make sure you describe the reality of the job. No matter whether you are an overnight or day camp, the staff are, in effect, the parents or caretakers for each of the kids in their cabins/groups. The kids will bring lots of fun and humor, but they will also argue, complain, tease each other, or leave each other out. There may be kids with hygiene issues that they will have to deal with. There will be multiple kids who get upset or anxious over certain things. There will be behavior that will frustrate the adults who work with them. Assure applicants that the camp has supports in place to help them, but underline it: this job is DEMANDING.
Lean into the parts of the job that are overwhelming and stressful. Too many camps try to gloss over this and ignore applicants’ answers that might be sending signals that this is not a good fit for them. The consequences of this are that staff show up to camp and then leave early, or barely manage to get through the summer without lots of hand-holding, or cause issues for other staff and campers. The more real you are with them, the more real they can be with you, and then you can make an informed decision as to whether they will be a good fit.
Along with your usual interview questions, think about adding some or all of these:
What do you do to decompress/for self-care? How would you use your free time for this? (Be sure to explain that their time off will likely look different than it would in a "typical" job.)
You will feel overwhelmed at some points. Everyone gets overwhelmed. What happens to you when you get overwhelmed? How do you communicate this to your coworkers? How would you deal with this at camp?
How do you keep going to finish the day's work when you feel tired or not excited?
How might you react/what would you do if a camper gets in a fight with another camper in your care?
Tell me about what parts of the job you might imagine make you feel stressed out. What might be the most difficult thing for you? What might be the easiest?
At the end, to ensure they understand the job. Ask them: can you reflect back to me what this job is?
Items to look out for that either need more conversation or mean that this job won’t be a good fit:
• A lot of the components of the day overwhelm them just hearing about it
• You can tell by their facial expression that they feel overwhelmed listening to the true aspects of the job
• They say they can’t do several of the main components of the job because those things make them feel uneasy to the point of being unable to care for a child they’re responsible for (e.g., they shut down completely, they need to take care of themselves before anyone else, they feel out of control, they need to consistently hand off the job to someone else, etc.).
Flexibility and ability to work as a team is of the utmost importance at camp.
You want to make sure they are alright with being flexible. Explain that at camp, sometimes schedules and other things change at the drop of a hat (or some rain). You want to tell them that their schedule may say "soccer," but that might mean another counselor runs soccer while they comfort a homesick or upset camper. You want to get a sense of their work ethic and their expectations. You want to know that they understand that your camp has a chain-of-command, and explain why you have that chain - safety, camper and staff well-being, multiple checks & balances.
Be sure to tell them that camp is not a utopia. Say something like, "We want to know about issues so that we can properly address them. How do you communicate with a) coworkers and b) supervisors if you have an issue?”
What questions are they asking you? Are they already challenging the camp’s policies or the job description in a way that makes you uncomfortable? If so, these are signs that they will continue this behavior at camp, which can cause difficulty. Not everyone will be the right fit. Be sure to listen to what your gut tells you.
Wishing you a hiring season full of wonderful camp counselors!
Now, I want to hear from you: what are some great interview questions that you ask prospective staff? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and I will share them out.
*It is important that employers be familiar with ADA, reasonable accommodations, and employment laws in general. Consult an attorney if you need to learn more.