Skip to content Skip to navigation

Interview confidential

The inside scoop on landing your dream job--or dream employee

From Animal Sheltering magazine July/August 2014

While you likely got into this field to help animals, when was the last time one hired you? Whether you’re looking for a job or trying to hire a position, remember: People skills matter. Even if you’re applying for an animal care position, you want your clothes to say “professional,” not “poop scooper.” OK, so you’re crazy about cats—just don’t go overboard in the interview. It’s important to make it clear you work well with humans, too. Call references, fact-check resumes and get feedback on candidates from colleagues. One toxic hire can pollute a whole team.

This is it—your big shot at a job in animal welfare. You’re incredibly excited to get in and start making a difference, and you’re ready to do anything from cleaning a kennel to fundraising as long as it helps the animals. All you have to do is ace the job interview. You take a seat, smooth out the wrinkles in your suit, and face the hiring panel.

“So,” the HR director begins, “tell me why you’re interested in this position.” Your confidence soars as you prepare to hit this softball out of the park.

“I absolutely love animals,” you respond. “In fact, I like animals more than I like people. I would do anything to help more dogs and cats find homes.”

The panelists’ faces fall. In the distance, you swear you hear that sad trombone sound and you wonder, “Where did I go wrong?”

In a field where helping animals often requires deep compassion for people, a passion for puppies is no longer enough to get your foot in the door—and if paired with a statement implying trouble working with people, it may even set off alarm bells.

So how do you land your dream job working for animals?

And what about when you’re the one hiring? How do you navigate stacks of resumes to find the people who will take your shelter from good to great?

According to a 2013 survey by the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators, in 2012, the 174 responding shelters experienced an average turnover rate of 24 percent across all service areas. So if you’re looking, there are jobs available. And if you’re running a shelter or rescue, you will be hiring.

I Brake for Humans

Believe it or not, that opening scenario—a staff or volunteer candidate who openly professes her love of animals over people—is a common gaffe in animal welfare job interviews. Working in animal care, sheltering and rescue can be incredibly stressful, and studies of shelter staff indicate that most of the stresses are caused by difficult human interactions, not animal problems. More and more, shelters and rescues are recognizing the value of “soft skills,” sometimes even choosing interpersonal intelligence over experience.Karel Minor, executive director of the Humane Society of Berks County in Pennsylvania, has seen enough hiring successes and failures to have a solid handle on the qualities he prioritizes in candidates. “I don’t want to undersell the value of animal skills,” he says, “[but] having those great people skills is the thing that empowers us to help animals most directly.” When you don’t have goodwill toward people, it shows. People are less likely to want to come to a shelter where they feel the staff are unfriendly or judgmental.

Inga Fricke, director of shelter and rescue group services for The HSUS, agrees. “We can teach you how to clean a cage, but it’s so much more difficult to teach people skills.” When she worked at a shelter, Fricke far preferred to hire someone who needed to learn a little about animal behavior, but could really connect with people.

What about bringing your current volunteers on as staff? They already know the organization, have a demonstrated commitment to animals, and know some of the staff. In many cases volunteers make excellent hires. (And for those looking for a job in sheltering, volunteering is a great way to get your foot in the door.) However, shelters shouldn’t hire volunteers just because they’re available and interested—they should vet volunteers just as extensively as other candidates.

So where do shelters look for those special people? It depends on the position they’re hiring for. When seeking to fill roles that are public-facing, think of the other jobs that require high degrees of friendliness and patience. Minor has been known to hand his business card to exceptionally friendly waitstaff.

Tawny Hammond, director of the Fairfax County Animal Shelter in Virginia, adds that people with marketing, HR or social work experience can be good candidates. She looks for interviewees who are socially appropriate. “In [the] animal field,” she explains, “we’re dealing with people in crisis quite often, and we’re dealing with emotional situations. I need somebody that’s going to get it right.” To find those people, Hammond pushes her job descriptions out into social media, utilizing Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to attract people from other fields.With all the ways that collaboration benefits the animals and people in a community, more organizations are looking to partner, pooling and maximizing their resources. At the upper levels of the organization, especially, it’s important to find people who can help build those external relationships. Betsy McFarland, vice president of companion animals at The HSUS, says that when it comes to executive-level positions, shelters should be looking “for a really strong leader—someone who’s willing to be collaborative, partner with the community, partner with other groups, bring people to the table. That, in my mind, is by far the most important quality. You can learn the animal stuff.”

The New Face of Animal Welfare

The animal sheltering community has come a long way over the years, following the rest of the nonprofit world’s move toward greater professionalism. So when you’re job-hunting, it helps to know your audience: If you’re interviewing for a position as a coordinator at a small-town rescue, it might be fine—even charmingly kitschy—to show up wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with your dog’s photo. But are you sure it will be read as as you intend it? Get a step beyond that environment and interviewers will expect a level of dress commensurate with a professional atmosphere, especially at the executive level. And even if you’re looking for a job cleaning kennels, don’t show up at the interview looking like you’ve just come from doing that.

McFarland recalls her experience serving on an interview panel for an executive director position at a large county shelter. “People ... in that professional attire immediately got higher marks. I saw it happening, and I could tell the feeling across the table. Their credibility was higher.” She explains that, though even EDs may dress more casually here and there depending on whether they’re in administrative offices or the adoption center that day, dress also “sends a message to your community about where your organization is in [its] evolution.” Interviewers are looking for candidates who understand that.

One of the most memorable ways candidates can distinguish themselves as professional (or distinctly not so) is through their level of preparation for the interview. McFarland recalls that in the same interview process, a candidate asked the panel whether the county had any plans to build a new shelter anytime soon. The organization had just completed one, a fact that would have been easily discovered with a two-minute Web search. “Down the street was a multimillion-dollar facility that was about to open and that it would be their job to run, and they were clueless. ... Do your homework,” McFarland says.According to Minor, interviewees at all levels should ask probing questions that display an interest in the organization’s broader mission and goals and in their potential role in particular. Questions like, “What do you think is the most important challenge facing your organization right now?” or “I notice that you have a new program. Why did you implement it?” show that you’ve cared enough to learn the basics.

Hammond agrees, noting that in addition to knowing information specific to the organization or agency, it’s important to get a handle on broader issues in animal welfare. When Hammond applied for her position as shelter director, she had no direct animal sheltering experience. She asked the advice of an HSUS employee, who told her she’d need to speak the language the panel would expect to hear, showing an understanding of euthanasia rates, positive release rates, intake, compassion fatigue, quarantine, isolation, sterilization, spay/neuter. All those terms would mean something to the hiring panel—and they’d need to mean something to Hammond.

Hammond also read all the sheltering materials she could get her hands on. “I was all over HSUS’s website and all of the sheltering magazines and articles. I pored over documents and guidelines for animal shelter professionals. I knew what the organization I was being interviewed [by] was doing well and what they probably could do better.”

You’re Hired!

Hiring often falls either to one person or to a shelter’s board. Hammond says she never hires alone, but instead creates a panel of two to four people with diverse roles. Minor cautions that, unless they have significant experience with it, boards of directors may not be the best equipped to do the hiring. Especially for top positions, he says, shelters should enlist the help of a headhunter. Many organizations are reluctant to go that route because of expense, but as he sees it, “What is $20,000 compared to someone who will be with you for decades to come and serve you in a high-functioning capacity? That is a really good investment.”

Some organizations, especially those operating under the jurisdiction of the local government or law enforcement, have fairly rigid hiring procedures in place. For example, candidates may all have the same time limit for interviews or be asked exactly the same questions with no deviations or room for follow-up. This type of rigidity can make it tough for the best candidates to shine through, so it’s especially important to have an experienced, well-qualified panel asking great questions. Second- and third-round interviews with select candidates can provide an opportunity for less-structured interaction.

When seeking a new leader, Hammond advises making a chart describing your ideal candidate, listing key qualities and attributes. Those become your non-negotiables. Then, to identify that star performer, ask meaningful questions. “Stay away from questions where people just regurgitate their resume,” Hammond advises. Instead, have conversations. Talking about big issues like euthanasia, behavioral assessment and prevention models allows a lot more depth of response than saying something like, “Tell me about your experience.”

Speaking of resumes, it’s important to check facts. Forbes Magazine reports that as many as 40 percent of resumes contain fabrications. “If they’re going to lie about stuff on their resume,” says Hammond, “you do not want to trust them with your money, you don’t want to trust them with your animals, you don’t want to trust them with the drugs in your facility or your reputation.”

Like resume and background checks, reference checks sometimes go out the window when a candidate interviews particularly well or those doing the hiring are under pressure to fill the position. There are other challenges with due diligence, as well. Previous employers are reluctant to be honest because they don’t want to be responsible for someone not getting a job. But Hammond has found creative ways to ask questions that allow references to be honest without feeling like tattletales. For example, instead of asking whether someone left voluntarily or was fired, she’ll ask if an employee is eligible for rehire at that company—if they were fired, the answer will be “no.”

Hammond notes that she has hired people in spite of less-than-glowing
references, but only when concerns are over performance-related issues rather than ethical ones, and only when she knows that those shortcomings are in areas where she can help them develop. Conversely, she’s occasionally passed on candidates with extensive experience because they couldn’t articulate their vision for the job or why they saw themselves in the role. She emphasizes that it boils down to communication skills. “We have to make ourselves relevant to who we’re sitting in front of.”

Danger, Will Robinson

Beyond “errors” on resumes and bad references, there are several red flags that both interviewers and interviewees should be aware of. A big one is appropriateness. “There are a lot of people who are big animal welfare dilettantes. They’re well-meaning, [but] they should not be in a professional role,” Minor says.

Many people joke about their pets being their children, but you may want to save that kind of talk for once you’re hired and comfortable with your colleagues. There are ways to convey passion and affection for animals while remaining professional; keep in mind that the organization you’re applying at wants to be taken seriously and likely needs to work with multiple and diverse partners. Candidates who talk about “helping the fur babies” might not have the poise and perspective necessary to perform well in a professional capacity, says Fricke. “That may have been OK in the boarding kennel or the day care that they ran,” she says, but it’s never going to fly in a job where you may have to work with politicians and law enforcement.Hammond advises spending time really getting to know a candidate; someone who comes across as extremely polished in an interview setting may act differently after they get the job. She recalled one young candidate who interviewed particularly well, so Hammond had her come back for an informal gathering. “And we were talking and she kind of let her guard down, and she used some slang that’s borderline profane. ... It just gave me a peek at the way she communicates.” She passed on the candidate, but someone else at the organization hired her, and Hammond’s concerns turned out to be valid—the candidate proved “a little too green for that kind of responsibility.”

What about the other side of the table? Job candidates should remember that they are interviewing the organization as well. Things that could signal cause for concern include vague job descriptions and a sense of disorganization about the process. Also, take the pulse of the room and your future colleagues. As Minor says, “If the people seem kind of nasty, chances are the organization is a nasty [one].”

Looking Toward Tomorrow

McFarland and Fricke are among many animal welfare professionals concerned that leaders in the movement aren’t spending enough time looking toward the future or showing younger staffers that there is a legitimate career path in the field. They emphasize the need for developing career ladders within animal welfare organizations, so that staff are more likely to see their work as a long-term career rather than a temporary job. “It really is incumbent on people in the field to help groom others,” says Fricke. “Give them guidance, professional development, to help them move up and show them a potential career ladder.”

Hammond says leaders spend too much time alone together behind closed doors. They need to start bringing more junior staff into meetings with them so they can hear the discussions behind the decisions.

Hammond adds that with each hire, she’s looking for people who can work as a team—who behave morally and ethically, work well together and have each others’ backs. She says organizations should always be looking to build their benches, adding depth and resources that will make them stronger in the long term.

About the Author

Kelly Huegel is a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States.