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Submitted by Dani Martin on


I'm a big believer in setting the bar high when hiring per the recent 'cast. I'm starting to get a little concerned, however, that I may be setting the bar too high particularly for entry-level positions. How do you know if that's the case?

For example, I see a lot of casual dress for interviews (dockers and polo shirts -- untucked, even). The vast majority of candidates are very unprepared for interviews. They don't even bring a copy of their resume and have a lot of difficulty answering questions. I live in the "Bible Belt" but I'm still surprised at how many candidates talk openly about their religion and will use church experiences to answer behavioral interviewing questions.

I realize that I'm interviewing for entry-level jobs, but these are positions that require a lot of public interaction with all types of people (hence my concern about the church/religion comments), communication and organizational skills. Is it because I work for a non-profit -- do candidates take non-profit positions less seriously? Sometimes it seems like it to me.

I would say no to at least 95% of the candidates I get... is that too high? Our acceptance rate when we do make an offer is low (it seems to me). Five out of the last 7 candidates have said no because of pay. Even after offering an extra week's vacation! Do I need to lower my standards?


juliahhavener's picture
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Lowering your standards would lessen the quality of your work. Are the positions such that you can afford to take a lower quality at the front end if the new employee is one you can mold to fit your needs?

I have hired someone who had 110% of the attitude I needed with less experience than others and been extremely pleased with the result. I doubt your standards are too high. It means interviewing more, and leveraging that network to get the right people in the door. Hiring is hard. It's much easier to hire the wrong people than it is the right least that has been my experience (as a trainer for those hired and manager for those hired by others - my most recent experience with a group hired by other people proves that if the bar is high and the focus right, you will get the right people with a little bit of time).

I just know I'll read this in the morning and it won't make a lick of sense. Sorry for posting right before bed!

WillDuke's picture
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I feel for you. My business is in a small town, and the labor pool is rvery shallow. (Sometimes it seems impossible to even get your feet wet.) I have hired a lot of people hoping to improve them. That hasn't been all that successful for me. I'm not sure if M&M said it, or implied it, but hiring the wrong person is so painful and expensive, you're better off with nobody.

I like what Julia said about attitude and experience. Hire for attitude and add the experience yourself.

Finally here's some hopefully useful advice. Spend some time profiling the perfect employee. Look at your current staff and identify what's working well for you.

* Is casual dress is symptomatic of the perfect employee?
* Are people drawn to non-profit work typically devout?
* How are people hearing about the job?
* Where did your great employees hear about the job?
* Where is the perfect employee going to hear about the job?
* What is an incentive to your great employees? (It sounds like it ain't money!)

Obviously we don't know enough about your business or staff to answer these questions, or even to ask all of the right questions. But you do.

wendii's picture
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Hi Dani,

I do think that you create more problems for yourself when you don't set the bar high enough. I often say (far too often for most of my hiring managers!) that it's better to have no-one in a chair than the wrong person.

That said, I do understand how hard it can be when that chair is empty to keep your standards high, that you begin to doubt the process and your standards.

I also think that you need to be careful about where you keep high standards. Will's comments about profiling the perfect employee are spot on - is it necessary that the candidates are well dressed? If it is, then keep your standard. If you will provide a uniform, then perhaps it isn't.

Some other thoughts: if the candidates are being asked behavioural questions and arn't able to give a work related example but can give a church related one, then I wouldn't necessarily hold that against them. After all, the skill is there, it's just been used in a different context - unless the context is very important?

Finally, if pay is an issue then you need to address it. We've had a similar problem in a role we're trying to recruit and have instead decided to advertise a package -including things like the value of the pension and bonus to give a better comparison. Would that work for you?

Some random thoughts, but I hope they're useful.


Dani Martin's picture
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Will, Julia and Wendii -- Thanks so much for the reassurance and suggestions. I suppose I was just needing a gut check. Will, you said it perfectly... the pool is shallow indeed in some parts of my territory. It's difficult to stay strong about hiring the right person when volunteers are breathing down your neck to get someone... anyone! :wink:

I love the list of questions you suggested, Will. In fact, I'm going to ask some of my top performers for their thoughts, particularly on what is their incentive.

I'd like your opinion on the religion question. Wendii's comment gave me pause -- "if the candidates are being asked behavioural questions and arn't able to give a work related example but can give a church related one, then I wouldn't necessarily hold that against them. After all, the skill is there, it's just been used in a different context - unless the context is very important?" Excellent question -- it forced me to more specifically define why the comments concern me.

I don't have any problem with church related examples per se. My concern is in how the question is answered using these examples. Specifically, during the course of answering a question, I've had candidates directly ask me if I go to church and if so what church. I would estimate 99% of candidates (really, no exaggeration) tell me about their faith, what church they were brought up in, what church they attend now, etc. when answering the "tell me about yourself" question. Statements include "I'm a Christian" or "My belief in Jesus as my saviour is very important to me." I'm concerned with what I perceive as a lack of social propriety and the possibility of seriously offending those of other faiths. We work with people from all different backgrounds, both in fundraising and in delivering our services. I worry about one of my staff talking about their faith to a patient we are helping who is Jewish or Muslim or even a different Christian denominiation. It could seriously impact not only our fundraising, but more importantly, prevent others who need our help from coming to us because they perceive us as being non-inclusive or intolerant.

What do you think? I'm not trying to start a religious debate, honest. :wink: As I said earlier, I live in the Bible Belt and culturally people are much more open about their faith here than anywhere else I've ever lived. For the most part, it makes for a much more pleasant and generous community. :) I'm still somewhat taken aback, though, when it's shared so openly in professional settings. Maybe my entire thought process says on this says more about me than about them. :wink:

Thanks so much for your thoughts!

WillDuke's picture
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So when they tell you about their faith in the interview, ask them how they would feel about working with people of other faiths. If they ask about your faith, tell them. Watch how they respond. Or, better yet, pose it as a role-playing scenario. If they can express their beliefs and not offend you, you're set.

I'm not from the bible belt, but I'm assuming that everyone that is will be familiar with the attitudes. It might not turn away your patients or sponsors at all. Because you're not from the area, you might be the most sensitive person in town!

If you're lucky, you're the only one that has a problem here. :)

rthibode's picture

Dani, fascinating thread.

I hire entry level all the time, though I'm fortunate to be in a university where the talent is high and the job pays relatively well.

Still, I see a lot of things in interviews that make me cringe. I think it's mostly inexperience on the part of candidates. I've had a few people answer behavioural questions by referring to their religious activities and I'm in CANADA! We are much less inclined to share our religious views with strangers here.

As a result, I've started providing a bit more guidance about the behavioural interview format. (I know this is not M&M's advice, sorry.) I tell them to try to keep their answers related to school, tutoring, or coaching, which are relevant to this job. I also say that examples from your personal life can be acceptable, as long as they're not "too personal." Then, if their judgement of "too personal" doesn't fit with mine, I don't hire them. Or, I provide feedback after I've hired them, detailing what is too personal for this workplace.

I wouldn't judge entry-level candidates too harshly for not being interview-savvy. Maybe they haven't had much experience or opportunity, and that's why they don't know that they should bring a resume to the interview. I prefer to have my admin spell out these expectations when she's booking the interviews (e.g., dress as casually as you wish, bring contact information for two references). Then if the candidate doesn't follow those instructions, we've got a problem.

As for the acceptance rate, I'm not sure what's going on. Have you listened to the podcast on making the job offer? I realized after I listened to it that gradually over the years I was putting less energy and enthusiasm into making the offer.

Let us know how it goes.


wendii's picture
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I've been thinking some more about this. My last job was with a council. Equivilent to your county maybe? They sort the schools, roads, hospitals etc on a local level.

Anyway, when I went to work there I'd lived abroad, so I thought I was a fairly liberal person who didn't discriminate against anyone. Working there was a complete shock. For a start I didn't realise there were people who I shouldn't discriminate against that I hadn't even thought about, and ways of discriminating I'd never thought about either.

I'm wondering if your candidates arn't a bit like that too. If the enviroment they have been in up to now, finds it normal to behave that way, then they are guilty of ignorance, not insensitivity.

If one asks, what church do you belong to? is that an opportunity to say: The people we serve come from many different backgrounds and some may be churched in the same way you are and some may not. In order to be inclusive we do not ask about their religion or other sensitive subjects. Your religion is obviously important to you. You don't have to decide now, but if working here and not discussing it is difficult for you, please feel free to decline any role we may offer you.

Does this help in any way?


Dani Martin's picture
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Wendii -- As we say in the South, "Dadgum, you're smart!" :D I really like the phrase you used about the people we serve coming from many backgrounds. Observing how they respond to just that gentle statement would provide some great data. Thanks!

R -- Thanks for your input. Your response made a lightbulb go off in my mind about possible probing questions I could use if church-based experiences weren't strong examples. Thank you!

Will -- Thank you for the reminder... look for the solution in larger and larger concentric circles around your own desk as Mark says. :)

Thanks for the help! I've got some great ideas for my next interview. And lucky me, it's on Monday!

tomas's picture


Not hiring people because they talk about their faith in an interview sounds awfully like discrimination on the basis of religion, unless the core issue really is that they lack appropriate work experience to satisfy your hiring criteria. It is a fine line, and only you can realy know the answer to that question.

To put it in a different light, suppose you interviewed someone and in describing themselves they talked about being jewish. If you made the decision not to hire them because they might talk about their faith and their religious festivals to other workers in the lunchroom, that really does smack of discrimination.

The more important question is whether they are willing to behave professionally and be respectful to people of different creeds and religions. Does talking about church necessarily exclude that possibility? I am not particularly religious myself, and would really never talk about religion in an interview. Just trying to give you an outside perspective.

PierG's picture

every time I say "ok, I'm not 100% sure BUT may be I'm asking too much .... " I am wrong!
That's my experience.

thaGUma's picture

Dani, if 99% of applicants are open about their church and ask about your church, then church is a factor not to be ignored - what church is the correct one? :twisted:
You are in bible belt - if you can't run then you need to work with it.

Dani Martin's picture
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Thanks for your insight, Pier!

Tomas -- Wow! I thought I was pretty clear that my concern had nothing to do with their faith but with a lack of awareness of when and how it's appropriate to discuss one's faith in a professional setting. Obviously I didn't based on your response. Sorry about that. If a candidate would ask me about my faith and church during a first meeting (interview), my conclusion is that he/she would do the same with our clients and volunteers. I don't think that's appropriate because it may make people we serve feel uncomfortable coming to us when they need help, especially if their faith is different from the employee's.

Donnachie -- I'm sorry but I don't understand your question or comment.

thaGUma's picture

Sorry Dani, my biggest failing is lack of clarity. It shows carelessness and a lack of respect for others.

You say you have a high proportion of applicants where church is a significant part of their thinking. It should follow that, regardless of the facts, church is a factor to be considered in any applicant.

If an applicant is non-churchgoing, is there going to be antipathy from the majority?
Is the applicant from a minority church that may get less action from others than those from a majority church? Not PC, but given the easy route ...

While church or non-church should be a relatively low level issue, you can see what Salmon Rushdi has created. Impact in almost inverse proportion to the quality of his work.

When in Rome...

douglase's picture

As donnachie indicated. You have to work out how to incorporate religion and how their behaviours (not beliefs) would assist or prevent them from doing the job you are hiring for. What religion they are from is irrelevant, it's their client interaction skills and other relevant behaviours that matter.

Being as you work in part of the world known as "the Bible Belt" I would say that you definately need to work out how to question them (good examples by others here) and run them through scenarios to ensure that they will approach clients in the way your business needs them to.


tomas's picture

[quote="Dani ACS"]

Tomas -- Wow! I thought I was pretty clear that my concern had nothing to do with their faith but with a lack of awareness of when and how it's appropriate to discuss one's faith in a professional setting. Obviously I didn't based on your response. Sorry about that. If a candidate would ask me about my faith and church during a first meeting (interview), my conclusion is that he/she would do the same with our clients and volunteers. I don't think that's appropriate because it may make people we serve feel uncomfortable coming to us when they need help, especially if their faith is different from the employee's.


I understand the distinction, I'm just pointing out that it is a very fine line between what you describe and just plain discriminating against people because they express a view about religion.

Your assumption appears to be that someone who mentions their religion in an interview is incapable of acting in a professional manner. I'm just wondering on what you base that assumption and whether you aren't passing over candidates who could be effective employees. Given that you are in the bible belt and, according to you, 99% of candidates discuss their religion with you in an interview, aren't you kind of limiting yourself by automatically disqualifying them? I'm not sure that is the same thing as "keeping the bar high".

stephenbooth_uk's picture

If I'm hiring someone I'm probably not going to be fussed if they got a particular experience at work, in their Church/Masjid/Synagogue/Temple, through a volunteer group or whatever so long as they can evidence that they got the experience.

On the talking about their faith and asking which church you are in, I've never come accross that. Maybe it's a function of living in the Bible belt, as you've said that 99% of people do it. If a candidate did do that in an interview here then it would probably throw up major red flags, if it's normal where you are then wendii's suggested response would probably be best.

When you hire someone the idea is that they will generate value for the organisation, either directly themselves or by supporting/facilitating the value generators, whether that value be measured in $, good will, lives saved/improved or whatever. If how they choose to express their faith (it's not the faith that's the problem, it's their behaviour at work in relation to it) is likely to negatively impact unreasonably on that then I think you are wholly justified in declining to hire them and freeing them to find sucess in an organisation where their method of expressing their faith will not unreasonably impact negatively on their ability to generate value for that organisation.