February 22, 2002

Nonprofit Managers and Recruiters Offer Tips for Interviewing Job Candidates


By Alison Stein Wellner

Every time Cheryl Hurley, president of the Library of America, a nonprofit publishing company in New York, has a position to fill on her staff of 16, she knows she's got a weighty task ahead of her. As she sorts through stacks of résumés, she's trying to find just the right candidate -- a person who can do the job, but also one who believes in her group's mission.

But even the most impressive résumé can only begin to tell the tale of an applicant's commitment, values, interpersonal and professional skills. Ideally, a candidate's true qualities shine through during the job interview, a ritual that requires equal parts grace and diligence from the nonprofit employer who conducts it. To learn more about an applicant, a manager must be prepared to lob both hardball and softball questions, and listen to what lies between the lines of the answers. "I don't just ask, 'Do you believe in what we do?'" Ms. Hurley says. "Of course, they're going to say yes."

The interview is the best chance to predict a candidate's potential future performance. "What you're really looking for is not the answers to your questions. What you're really looking for is insights into the personality," says Malcolm MacKay, managing director of Russell Reynolds Associates, a New York firm that recruits for nonprofit groups. But the interviewer must proceed cautiously, taking care not to step over legal boundaries or invade the applicant's privacy unnecessarily. Nonprofit managers and recruiters offer the following tips for getting the most from the interview process.

Where have you been? It's important to set the stage for a productive interview by putting the candidate at ease. But icebreaking doesn't have to be waste of time, says Susan Reynolds, managing partner at Susan Reynolds Associates, a Los Angeles company that recruits for charities. She prefers to start interviews by asking candidates for a career chronology. This relaxes candidates, she says, since they're talking about what they know well, and it gives her a chance to double-check their résumés.

Can we work together? Next, interviewers will want to assess candidates' ability to work in a collaborative setting -- an essential skill in the nonprofit world. While there's certainly nothing wrong with asking about this directly, recruiters advise asking about a "critical incident" -- something in a candidate's career that he or she recalls with pride, and how he or she accomplished it. While the candidate is recounting the tale of glory, "I'm listening for words like 'we' as opposed to 'I,'" says Molly Hansen, vice president of TAG Executive Services, a Skokie, Ill, company that recruits for charities. This, she says, tells her a lot about a person's penchant for working collaboratively.

What have you learned? Once rapport is established, it's time to start asking some tougher questions. Ask for an example of a professional situation that was less than successful, says Judith Auerbach, president of Auerbach Associates, a Boston company that recruits for nonprofit groups. By asking about a failure, you learn whether the candidate accepts his or her share of responsibility, she says. "It's less about the specific answer and more about the content of the answer."

Depending on what's most appropriate for the position, also ask how the candidate handled a difficult relationship in the past, with either an employer, a colleague, a volunteer, or a donor, suggests Ms. Hansen. "Several months ago, I was interviewing a candidate for chief development officer position, and I asked how the person has handled difficult volunteers in the past," she recalls. "The person said, 'I just really don't take the time for the difficult volunteer, I don't waste my time with them.'" That answer, Ms. Hansen says, lost the candidate the job -- because the chairman of the development committee at this particular charity had a difficult personality, and the candidate clearly lacked the patience to deal with such people.

What do others say about you? One way to gauge the candidate's interpersonal skills, says Ms. Reynolds, is to ask: If I called your boss (or administrative assistant, colleagues, or volunteers), what would they say about you?

What does your boss know? You can also learn about a candidate by trying to determine the relationship with his or her current employer, says Rabia Aziz, chief operating officer for the Economic Opportunity Council of Suffolk, an antipoverty nonprofit group in Patchogue, N.Y. When she's interviewing a candidate to fill a position on her staff of 53, she often asks what the candidate has told his or her current employer about where he or she is at that very moment. She takes it as a good sign when the candidate has notified the current employer of the job search.

Are you committed? If a job candidate's interest in a charity's mission isn't apparent from his or her résumé, it's important to ask about it, says Paula Carabelli, director of the Irvine, Calif., office of Spencer Stuart, which recruits for nonprofit groups. Be direct, Ms. Carabelli says: "Ask, 'What it is about this organization that seems like it would be a good fit for you?'"

Or, suggests the Library of America's Ms. Hurley, be subtle. She gauges commitment by asking questions related to the group's mission but tangential to the exact position being filled, such as queries about personal reading habits.

It's also a good idea to ask candidates where they see themselves in three to five years, says Susan Ellis Goodell, executive director of Forgotten Harvest, a Southfield, Mich., charity that distributes meals to shelters and soup kitchens in the Detroit area. While this may sound like a standard job-interview question, it has particular meaning for charities. "Longevity is very important to a nonprofit because relationships are so critical to what we do," she says. If a charity experiences high staff turnover, donors will not contribute to it, and it will be difficult for it to establish other bonds within its community.

Another good way to assess the person's true level of interest in a particular job and organization is to allow time for questions at the end, and listen to what the person asks, says Judit Ungar, president of the Tourette Syndrome Association, in Bayside, N.Y. "I look for the person to show interest," she says. "Nonprofit managers seek employees as potential partners."

Will you do what it takes? Even if a candidate is committed to the mission of an organization, he or she may not have the ability -- or the willingness -- to put in the kind of hours that a charity expects. The problem is, it's illegal to ask directly about an applicant's family situation or personal commitments. But while interviewers can't ask direct questions about these subjects, they can ask oblique questions that get some of the desired information. For example, Barbara J. Kauffman, vice president of the Chicago office of Kenzer Corporation, which recruits executives for nonprofit groups, will often invite candidates to talk about what she calls "balance of lifestyle" issues in their lives. If candidates bring up their family situation on their own, it's perfectly legal to discuss it further.

Ms. Goodell suggests using what she calls "scenario questions," basing them on real situations the charity has experienced that the interviewer wishes had been handled differently. For example, to find out whether candidates are willing to work long hours, Ms. Goodell will often ask them how they'd respond to a client organization that called up at the end of a long day, after all of Forgotten Harvest's drivers had gone home, requesting the delivery of food. She says she'd expect job candidates to answer that they'd deliver the food themselves. "It is not acceptable in the nonprofit community to say, 'That's not my job,'" she says.

Another legal and common tactic is to ask whether a candidate will have any issues with relocation -- if relocation is a feasible part of a career path at a particular organization. An employer could also simply include time commitments in a written job description and then ask the candidate if he or she would have any problem fulfilling the requirements. "If this is a job where there's going to be fund-raising events every single Saturday night and three nights a week during the peak season, and you're looking for someone in charge of public relations, you'll want to quantify that in the job specifications," says Ms. Kauffman.

Legal Guidelines

Federal and state laws protect job candidates (and employees) from discrimination based on a number of factors. It's a good idea for any employer to consult a lawyer before heading into the interview room, just to make certain the interview questions don't run afoul of employment laws. But a few general guidelines should be heeded.

Federal law prohibits job discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion, ethnicity, disability, or marital status, which means employers are not allowed to ask about those matters directly during a job interview. The only exception to that is in extremely limited circumstances, says David Oblon, an employment-law lawyer in Arlington, Va. A bona fide occupational qualification may be claimed for certain types of employment, he says. "For example, a church can refuse to hire a Jew to be a minister," Mr. Oblon says. "Being Christian is a bona fide requirement for being a minister. However, a church cannot deny a Jew a job as an administrator or janitor because of his or her religion."

It's also illegal to ask about a person's drug or alcohol use during a job interview, although it is legal in some circumstances to test a candidate for illegal drug use. It seems an odd distinction to make, but Mr. Oblon explains that the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects disabled employees and job candidates from discrimination, covers alcoholics and drug addicts. Therefore, the law turns on a very fine point: It protects people who are addicted to these substances, who are being treated for those addictions, or who have been addicted in the past, but not people who are simply using these substances. An employer can ask candidates if they use illegal drugs or drink alcohol, if the answer is relevant to a job, but the employer cannot ask candidates how much they drink, or if they have ever been treated for alcoholism or drug addiction. (For example, Ms. Goodell, of Forgotten Harvest, says she screens all candidates for drug and alcohol usage because her employees are often asked to drive food delivery trucks.)

Because this is such tricky legal terrain, it's wise for nonprofit employers to seek legal advice if they wish to claim a bona fide exception to federal antidiscrimination laws, or if they want to include questions about drug or alcohol use, or drug testing, as part of their employment screening. A lawyer can also warn employers about state or local laws that may affect the interviewing or hiring process, such as those protecting job candidates' privacy on matters like political affiliation, or those banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The best bet for any employer, nonprofit or otherwise, is to stay away from questions that touch on a candidate's personal life, and focus interview queries solely on a person's professional experience and history. Which should, says Ms. Reynolds, help glean the information needed to hire the right person for the job: "The best way to predict future behavior is to look at past behavior."

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