Heartbroken about Hiring: The Second Installment of DEAR KURTZ

Attention Readers: This is the second edition of my new advice column, "DEAR KURTZ."  If you have a pressing question on camp leadership or anything else on your campy mind, please feel free to submit it to me through this anonymous online form.

Dear Kurtz, Queen of the Questions, I've got a real humdinger for you this time around. I have just completed interviewing counselors for the upcoming summer. It looks like we aren't going to be able to hire all of the applicants and I know that some of those not offered jobs will be heartbroken. The thing is, I feel like it is kind of our fault. You see, if someone has been coming to camp for five years, been a counselor in training, and wants to be a staff member, how have we not set them up to be a solid applicant? I feel like we must not be doing our job for this to happen. Am I crazy to think this?   -Hiring Headaches

Hello, Hiring Headaches,

I know how you feel.  There is an ice cream shop in my town that I did not go into for years because I was afraid of running into a longtime camper I did not hire as a camp counselor who ended up scooping ice cream instead.  The guilt and the second-guessing can be crushing as a camp leader, especially when we can’t hire young people who we have known for years and feel like we have had a hand in raising.

At camp, our message is that we value every camper.  We tell them that they are wonderful, interesting and talented.  We pump up their confidence and tell them that they are valued in our community.  This is all true.  The tough part is when they come of age: We still believe everything we told them as campers, but that does not mean that they will be great camp counselors. The fact of the matter is that this job is not for everyone, and that’s OK. 

These two things can be really hard to reconcile.  But remember, part of a good CIT program is helping both the CIT and the camp leadership figure out if the next step for the CIT is to be a counselor.  You would not be doing your job if all of your CITs became counselors.  So try not to worry so much.  You’re giving yourself a headache.

To sort through your feelings, however, you need to do a few assessments of your program and your practices to make sure that you are being fair to all of your applicants.  I honestly believe that you can’t place 100% blame on yourself if not all of your “in-house” applicants are perfect hires.  Actually, it would be weird if they were.  But there are a few things you can look at to see if you’re being fair to all of these people.  Once you are able to be confident in your actions under each of these categories, your guilt should be alleviated and you should be able to stand confidently behind your decisions. 

First, look at your leadership development programs.

You’re right, sometimes when teens are hired as CITs, they (and their parents) automatically think that they are hired for the job of camp counselor the next year.  The first thing you’re going to want to do is go through your application materials to make sure that the emphasis on this program is to grow future leaders.  Make sure your tone emphasizes this fact, and that all teens who participate will leave the program with greater self-awareness, stronger work ethic and enhanced leadership skills.  Also have an explicit line that not all CITs will be hired as staff members in the future.  Even make people sign off on it if you’d like.  This way, you are not making false promises.  I believe you are doing your job if all of your CITs graduate from the program feeling like they’ve learned a lot about themselves, their passions and capabilities.  And that should be everyone's expectation from the beginning.

On top of that, make sure you are hiring CIT directors who believe in this objective.  Sometimes CIT directors can get gossipy and only analyze CITs on their ability to fit in with the staff or other superficial criteria.  Hire CIT directors who are interested in youth development, and helping older youth develop in the context of a work program.  You want directors who can coach, mentor and support.  Once the CIT directors are in place, work with these individuals to develop a comprehensive CIT training program before they begin work.  If you really think too many of your past campers/CITs are not matriculating to the staff level, perhaps the root of the issue is your training practices.

Next, determine the specific reasons why each of these individuals was not hired.

Look at the people who are in the category you describe—the “no hires”.  Think about each one and think about why you have them in that category.  I believe many camp professionals fall into the trap of only hiring outgoing-type counselors.  You know, applicants who are loud, funny and extroverted.  Remember, we have all sorts of kids at camp, and they need all sorts of counselors.  So just because a counselor does not fit into the stereotypical “camp counselor” or “camp person” box does not mean that that person would not be a valuable asset to your staff.  Check that first.

Furthermore, it is also easy to give a “free pass” of “of course we will hire them!” to young people that you would describe as “favorite campers” (don’t deny it, this is a thing).  It’s also easy to hold baggage from past years over current applicants—in no other job do we know that Applicant X wet the bed every night in the summer of 2009 or that Applicant Y struggled with an eating disorder in the summer of 2010.  Make sure your final decisions have not been influenced by your past experiences (good or bad) with these applicants when they were program participants.  Be honest with yourself about the “why.”

Finally, be vulnerable and be brave.

Survey all of your CITs after their summer experience (and maybe even their parents) about their experiences—ask them what they learned, how they felt, and their future expectations. Be prepared for the feedback—good and bad.  And then make changes accordingly.

When you do not hire someone who has had longstanding connections with your camp, be brave and call them on the phone.  Explain your decision and give them some concrete things to work on as well as resources for other opportunities working with children.  Express (if this is true) that you would like to see an application from them in a future summer.  This can be difficult for you, but it’s the right thing to do.

Finally, don’t let yourself feel forced into a hiring decision you don’t want to make, just because someone was a longtime camper or “paid their dues” through being a CIT or what have you.  You are the guardian of camp and the kids in the camp—it is your duty to hire only those who will provide the best experiences possible for those kids.  Even though I walked on eggshells around my town during hiring season because I felt so badly for not hiring some kids, that was a much better alternative to the years I promoted people to counselor too early or for the wrong reasons, only to fire them a few weeks into the summer.  Stay strong, my hiring grasshopper.  And take some ibuprofen.  A little pain now in hiring is much better than the kind of pain that comes later on if you don’t do it right in the first place.

Remember, it's all about the kids, and which applicants are going to make the best camp experience for them!  When in doubt, ask yourself if your hiring decision is the best decision possible for your CURRENT campers.

Remember, it's all about the kids, and which applicants are going to make the best camp experience for them!  When in doubt, ask yourself if your hiring decision is the best decision possible for your CURRENT campers.