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Hire Education

Tips on Finding Great Employees

Tips on Finding Great Employees

Creating Interview Questions from Resumes
Resumes can be a great source of open-ended questions that will help you learn more about applicants than their resumes reveal.

Asking the Right Questions
These sample questions will help you determine if an applicant has the qualities you seek.

Exploring Outsourcing Options
While not cheap, employee search firms can help you find the right match.

Customer Service Survey:Field Services
If you’ve ever wondered how the public sees your organization, or if you’ve gotten the sense that your staff may need additional training in client service, a survey is a great tool to help pinpoint where your agency excels and where it could use some improvement. This sample survey from the field services division of the Fort Worth Public Health Department in Texas, which oversees the city’s animal care and control, is a great template for developing a questionnaire specific to your agency’s needs.

Do you feel like you are always looking for people to work in your shelter? Are you trapped in the cycle of hiring “warm bodies” just to fill positions? You aren’t alone. Managers struggling just to maintain day-to-day operations often fall into a vicious cycle: they use new hires to try to patch up old problems instead of creating a healthy working environment in which employees can excel and succeed. Even the most dedicated staff members can’t perform their jobs well if they don’t receive proper guidance, says Kate Pullen, director of Animal Sheltering Issues for The HSUS.

“We often feel the solution to problems is to add new people to the situation,” she says, “when in reality, we need to step back, review the process and infrastructure, and make the changes necessary before we bring on someone new. Otherwise, we’re setting them up to fail.”

From accurate job descriptions to targeted training programs to motivational strategies, the elements of recruitment and retention programs must be carefully planned before a shelter even considers bringing new people on board. This first article in an occasional series on human resources issues covers effective hiring practices and interview preparations, but future pieces will examine other aspects of staffing that are critical to successful shelter operations.

Shelters are particularly vulnerable to staffing problems and high employee turnover rates because the work is physically and emotionally difficult and wages are often not competitive in the local employment market. But while you may not be able to change the demands of shelter work or the salaries, you can modify your hiring process to attract the ideal, dedicated employees you seek.

Doing so is critical to moving forward, says HSUS employment manager Nancy Allen. While many shelters cannot afford the luxury of a human resources department, they still can learn from personnel administrators at organizations that have already figured out how to build a better environment for both humans and animals.

“As the hiring manager, supervisor, or member of the hiring team, it is important to recognize that your success at work is greatly influenced by the quality of the people who work with you ...” Allen writes in The HSUS’s Staff Member Guide to Interviewing. “Few functions are more critical than hiring people who will go on to become competent, motivated, and productive employees.”

© Photodisc

At each step in the hiring process—acquiring applicants, screening applications, and interviewing candidates—you can apply simple techniques that will help you hire the best candidate for the job, not just the most available.

Attracting Applicants

In South Florida, where much of the population is transient, a booming job market in recent years made it that much harder for the Humane Society of Broward County in Ft. Lauderdale to find applicants to fill vacant positions. Because placing a small three-line want ad in the local newspaper costs $300 a week, the shelter can’t afford to run an ad every time there’s an opening. So to attract applicants, director of operations Jo-Anne Roman decided to try something different.

For the past year, she’s been posting a sign in front of the shelter announcing job openings. “It’s worked more successfully than we expected; we’re getting more applicants,” she says. “We’ve taken it down when we’ve had no openings, but it’s pretty much out all the time.” Roman estimates that the sign now attracts 90 percent of all the shelter’s applicants.

With less impressive results, Roman has also listed openings in less visible places—on the shelter’s website and in its quarterly newsletter. Website ads have led to a small increase in the pool of applicants, but mostly for clerical and managerial positions. And ads in the shelter’s newsletter generate fewer applications than any other method Roman has tried. Despite the low response, she still thinks advertising in your own newsletter is worth trying because it’s relatively inexpensive. Besides, the ads reach an important target audience: those already interested enough in animal protection to read about it.

Just as job seekers have a greater chance of success when they broaden their horizons beyond the standard newspaper ad, so do employers. When Bob Downey became the executive director of the Capital Humane Society in Lincoln, Nebraska, 19 years ago, he says that one ad in the local newspaper would generate at least 50 applicants. Today, because of an improved job market, Downey is lucky if the same newspaper ad generates five resumes. Like Roman, he’s had to explore additional ways of attracting applicants.

About two years ago, Downey began sending job announcements and descriptions to the career placement offices of six nearby colleges. To date, this approach has been somewhat successful. “Although we’ve hired several full-time employees that way,” he says, “it has worked better for part-time than full-time.” College students are rarely able to work more than part-time, so Downey is not surprised by the results. He’s just pleased to have found another source of applicants.

Sometimes putting a new twist on an old method is all it takes to grab the attention of high-quality candidates. In a recent ad for an animal control officer position, Nicky Ratliff, executive director of the Humane Society of Carroll County in Westminster, Maryland, went beyond listing necessary qualifications. Instead of just advertising the position, she advertised her shelter as a great place to work, with “terrific working conditions with wonderful people.” “If you are a team player,” the ad says, “you won’t find a better team.”

After listing the requirements for the job and its hours, benefits, and salary, Ratliff’s ad highlights the emotional rewards of being an ACO: “Each day brings new challenges and a chance to be a ‘hero.’ ” The “hero” ad reeled in some impressive applicants, including former law enforcement officers as well as several people willing to leave higher-paying jobs just to work at the shelter. Because this kind of ad is usually large and includes an eye-catching graphic such as the ACO arm patch, it costs more to place—but it has the advantage of informing even non-interested job seekers about the shelter’s wonderful staff.

Placing creative ads is not the only tactic Ratliff uses to promote the shelter and its employment opportunities at the same time. Three years ago, a local community college asked Ratliff if students in the school’s veterinary assistant program could visit the shelter and hear a presentation about its services. During the tour, which is now an annual event, Ratliff is quick to let students know about any job openings. However, “because I don’t have a lot of turnover,” she says, “I’ve only hired one employee from the program.” But many of the students have applied for jobs.

Screening Applications

Teaching new hires how to handle animals is easier than teaching them how to handle people, so Brooks looks for applicants who have experience serving difficult customers. At many shelters today, resumes from sales clerks, bank tellers, waiters, and customer service representatives are now being placed at the top of the pile.

When reviewing applications, Christie Smith, executive director of the Potter League for Animals in Newport, Rhode Island, says it is critical to know what kind of employee you want in the position and to keep that image in mind. That image should include all qualities, from experience and technical skill level to ability to communicate and interact well with people.

“[Shelter work] is as much about the public as it is about the animals,” says Megan Brooks, director of adoptions and counseling services for the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria in Virginia. Teaching new hires how to handle animals is easier than teaching them how to handle people, so Brooks looks for applicants who have experience serving difficult customers. At many shelters today, resumes from sales clerks, bank tellers, restaurant servers, and customer service representatives are now being placed at the top of the pile, even if the applicants have little experience with animals. After all, competent and motivated employees can learn animal handling skills through proper training and guidance.

Perusal of cover letters, resumes, and applications provides a chance to evaluate an applicant’s ability to spell, write neatly, and pay attention to detail—all critically important skills for front office jobs. Deficits in any of these areas could do worse than just confuse coworkers: Illegible handwriting could send humane officers to the wrong address. A missed detail could render a lost dog report ineffective in helping identify that dog if he ends up at the shelter. Such slip-ups could even cause the wrong animal to be euthanized. For these reasons, when reviewing applications for office jobs, Smith says, “I look at handwriting. Can I read it? Have they misspelled dog or cat?”

By adding a few extra questions to your application, you can find out much more about an applicant than his work history, penmanship, and spelling skills. For the last ten years, Ratliff has been using the application to find out how well job seekers can express their thoughts in essays. She requires applicants for any shelter position to write a two-paragraph answer to each of these questions: “Why do you want this job?” and “What do you have to offer this organization?”

She likes to see answers that convey an understanding of what the shelter does. “We look for somebody that seems to be realistic,” she says, preferring applicants who “recognize we can’t find every animal a home, but want to make them comfortable while they’re here.” Answers to the second question—”What do you have to offer?”—help Ratliff identify special skills the applicant may possess that might not be noted elsewhere on the application, such as an ability to work with farm animals. Additionally, the essay questions help Ratliff weed out candidates whose animal welfare philosophies don’t mesh well with those of the shelter, which services an area that’s still largely farmland. As she says, if applicants express strident viewpoints considered too extreme for the moderate atmosphere of Ratliff’s shelter, “they’re not going to fit in here.”

Ratliff receives about 200 applications each year and has found that answers to the essay questions also help her identify the public’s misconceptions. If she observes an erroneous idea about the shelter repeated frequently enough in a collection of applicant essays, she addresses that issue publicly—by calling reporters or issuing a press release to clarify the shelter’s policies and philosophies.

Certainly, everyone looks at employment dates to see how steadily an applicant has been employed. Frequent and recent job-hopping is an obvious red flag; however, early-career job-hopping followed by steady long-term employment might not be something to worry about. “If there’s been a big gap in their employment history, I’d want to know why,” says Jane McCall, executive director of the Dubuque Humane Society in Iowa. For example, she says, applicants could have stopped working to take care of a loved one or go back to school. Verifying such explanations is easy enough to do when making reference checks.

Conducting the Interview

If written applications are revealing, interviews are even more so, as long as they are conducted in a way that helps managers determine if an applicant is well-suited both for the job and the organization’s culture. The culture at the Humane Society of Carroll County is one in which everyone loves animals and works hard but also—and this is important—has a sense of humor and likes people. “I do believe you’ve got to be a good judge of character,” says Ratliff, who pays attention to the personalities of her staff and tries to hire people who will blend in with them.

She judges an applicant’s personality not only by what he says but by his tone when saying it. If during the interview an applicant emphatically states, “I’d do this or that” or “I don’t put up with this,” then Ratliff thinks, “Fine, they can ‘not put up with it’ someplace else.” To her, such statements demonstrate inflexibility, something her shelter’s culture won’t tolerate.

If you want honest answers from applicants, Roman says, make them feel as comfortable as possible. Roman has found that simple gestures, such as offering them water, can help reduce their nervousness and lead to a more candid interview. Bob Downey consciously devotes the first five minutes of every interview to helping candidates feel comfortable. Instead of firing tough questions at them right from the start, he wades in with an explanation of the job followed by simple questions, such as “Do you have a valid driver’s license?” Although he will certainly verify the answers at some point following the interview, it never hurts to help candidates warm up with something easy.

For each position, Downey writes a list of interview questions tailored to determine if applicants have the traits necessary to excel in that position. For example, he asks applicants for animal care positions questions about animal body language, such as “How can you tell if a dog is about to bite or a cat is unhappy?” But when interviewing adoption counselor applicants, he takes a different tack, focusing less on animal care knowledge and more on communication skills: “What goes into making a good impression when talking on the phone?” he asks. He looks for answers that include: don’t let the phone ring too long before answering it, be friendly, and always be polite. “The more components they can put into the answer,” Downey says, “the better feeling I have that they could handle themselves on the phone.”

If you want to know whether an applicant will blow up at an angry caller, ask how she’s handled conflicts with customers in past jobs. Human resources professionals have found that past behavior is the best indicator of future behavior, so interview questions should be behavior-based. They should also be open-ended, requiring more than a one-word response.

“Instead of asking, ‘Do you have experience working with difficult people?’ I ask applicants to give me an example of when they worked with difficult people and how they resolved it,” Downey says. Answers indicating they “weren’t able to resolve the situation, did not seek help, and let the customer leave with the problem unresolved” are red flags, he adds.

Exploring the specifics sometimes reveals more than you’d expect it to, as adoptions/receiving supervisor Cindy Johnson once discovered when discussing examples with an applicant to the Animal Humane Society in Minneapolis, Minnesota. To Johnson’s surprise, when relaying the story of a difficult customer, the applicant actually admitted that “they swore and told the person to get out,” she says.

In any job, having good “people skills” doesn’t just mean being nice to the public; it also means getting along with coworkers. Downey asks applicants for all positions to describe how they handled a past “rough relationship with a coworker.” He sees a red flag if applicants say something like, “John and I worked together and didn’t get along, so I just didn’t speak to John.” Downey prefers answers along these lines: “I avoided getting into situations with John that would lead to conflict, but I communicated with John when we needed to perform our jobs.”

Presenting a Realistic View

Do Your Hiring Homework

HSU offers online human resources courses Do you know how to analyze a resume? Design interview questions? Create job descriptions? If not, a free demo course called “Guide to Interviewing” from Humane Society University can show you how—just visit to get started.

An unabridged version will be available on the website later this spring; called “Guide to Effective Staff Selection,” the course was developed by HSUS employment manager Nancy Allen. For only $40, students can learn about background checks, legally acceptable interview questions, and other hiring-related issues—all at their own pace.

For managers who want to learn more about what to do after new employees have been brought on board, HSU is also offering “Basic Supervision Skills,” an online course scheduled to run from April 21 to May 18. Students will
learn how to be successful leaders through effective and legal hiring, motivating, retention, disciplining, and firing strategies. The deadline for online registration is April 18.

Too often, applicants think shelter work is limited to finding homes for animals; they don’t realize how many animals don’t get adopted or how cruel people can be to animals and shelter staff. The interview is an applicant’s best opportunity to find out exactly what the job entails so he, too, can make an informed decision. This means interviewers need to present an accurate picture of the job’s duties, rewards, and challenges. But how can this be done without scaring applicants away? “I try and blend the good with the bad,” says Johnson, who highlights the shelter’s mission in her description of the job.

Once you’ve discussed prior work history and specific situations from the applicant’s previous jobs, you will probably already have a general idea of how she’s handled stress in the past; now’s the time to see how she might handle stresses specific to the environment of the shelter. When interviewing office staff, Johnson and Brooks describe scenarios that include everything from denying an adoption to fielding calls from people complaining about a cruelty investigation.

The moments when Brooks asks the tough questions—“Could you tell someone the animal they are surrendering could be euthanized?” or “Could you tell someone they cannot have an animal?”—sometimes serve as the turning points when she and the applicant realize the job is or is not a good fit.

When Brooks presents such scenarios to applicants, “I have had people cry or get very sad,” she says. “... If somebody breaks down in an interview, and I’m just telling a story, I wonder how they’ll handle seeing the real situation.” But, she explains, becoming upset in an interview isn’t always a red flag; it just depends on how quickly applicants “bounce back.”

After all, as McCall points out, it’s not an inherently bad thing when someone expresses distress over euthanasia and other difficult scenarios—far from it. “I don’t want someone to say. ‘Oh, this doesn’t bother me,’ ” McCall says, “because it should bother them.” Ideally, she likes to hire people who are saddened by euthanasia but who understand why it’s necessary. She also appreciates the honesty of those applicants who have said, “I don’t know how I’m going to feel about it.”

After witnessing an employee and a volunteer struggle with depression, McCall wants to avoid placing applicants or volunteers in jobs they might not be able to handle. Of course, she can’t ask applicants if they have ever suffered from depression. In fact, asking any questions about an applicant’s mental health, explains Stephanie Ragdos, human resource consultant with Dopkins & Company, LLP in Buffalo, NY, would violate rights afforded by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Instead, McCall asks applicants questions about how they would feel being exposed to euthanasia every day. Applicants who keep going back to the topic of euthanasia throughout the interview or who ask questions like “Why couldn’t we foster more?” are likely to have difficulty dealing with euthanasia, says Brooks. And, Brooks cautions, even if the person is being considered for an office position that is somewhat removed from the process of euthanasia, the applicant’s discomfort could still cause undue stress on the new employee and coworkers whose decisions she might question.

Another way to help you and the applicant decide if the job is right for her is to let her do it for a few hours or days, either as a volunteer or for a fixed flat fee. Roman calls these trial experiences “working interviews.” For almost four years, she has been asking clinic applicants to volunteer in the clinic for two or three hours. Although three hours is not a long time, she says, it is long enough to evaluate an applicant’s skills, such as using a microscope to read a sample, handling surgical equipment, and restraining animals for medical procedures.

Working interviews often help Roman “identify candidates that aren’t as skilled as they say they are.” And she has found that employees who complete a working interview stay in the position longer, probably because they know what they’re in for before accepting the job. If you decide to conduct working interviews in your organization, just be sure you’ve already collected applications and checked references before bringing potential employees into the workplace.

Protect Yourself and Your Organization

Before conducting any kind of interview, however, you probably want to familiarize yourself with state and federal laws concerning applicants’ rights and questions you cannot ask. To avoid violating an applicant’s rights, Ragdos advises that you don’t ask any questions regarding “age, marital status, religion, or political status.” (For more information about interview questions you can and cannot ask, visit the websites listed below.)

Human resources professionals recommend contacting references before offering a position to any applicant. But to avoid lawsuits, many companies have adopted policies prohibiting them from commenting candidly about a former employee’s performance; as a result, reference checks no longer provide as much information as they once did. But they still can be used to verify an applicant’s employment history and occasionally still provide valuable information about his performance. At the very least, the one question Kim Snyder, director of shelter services for the Marin Humane Society in Novato, California, always asks past employers is “Would you hire this person back?” “If they say no,” she says, “I stop.”

An applicant’s employment history may not be the only thing you want to verify before making the hire. McCall once interviewed an applicant who impressed everyone at the shelter. But a criminal background check revealed the applicant had seven aliases. Checking driving records has helped Bob Downey avoid hiring dishonest applicants. “I’ve had people tell me their driving record is clean,” he says, “but found out their driver’s license is suspended or revoked.” Some of these applicants actually drove themselves to the interview.

No hiring process is foolproof, but the more energy you can put into attracting applicants and carefully interviewing them, the better the chances are you’ll hire employees who will succeed and stay in the position.

At this point, you may be saying, “This is great, but I don’t have time to do all this.” If that’s the case, or if you are hiring for an executive-level position and need to conduct a broader search, you might want to consider using a human resources consulting firm to assist you. To find out what these firms can do for you, see the article on Exploring Outsourcing Options in this issue.

Jennifer Ericson is a former shelter director and a freelance writer in Pennsylvania. She recently received her master’s degree in science writing from The Johns Hopkins University.

Interview Resources

For information about federal guidelines concerning interviewing in a manner that respects applicants’ rights, visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website,, or call 800-669-4000.

New York is one of the few states with a Division of Human Rights. The agency’s website,, provides examples of how to ask basic interview questions without violating an applicant’s rights. Once on the website, search for the Relevant Inquiries section of the Human Rights Law. Shelters in any state can benefit from the advice presented in this law.


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