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Dos and don'ts of conducting a recruitment process

One of the most important tasks you as a company or chief officer may be put in charge of is the recruitment process. This process affects the future of your organization like no other— it can be argued that the recruitment process is the single most important and most multi-faceted task required of a chief officer.

There are a number of logistical, clerical and administrative tasks that must come together to make the process run smoothly, avoid liability, be objective and be an overall success. The success of the process can only be determined months and even years after it is over by the success of the new recruits that are now a member of your organization as a result of it.

The process is never without problems, but your goal is to reduce the flaws to a minimum. Consistency and objectivity are the keys to a successful hiring process for any organization.

Your department may or may not have a history and standardized format for recruiting new firefighters that is consistent and shown proven success. If your department does have one, consider yourself very lucky. If not, you are not alone.

I hear from many chief officer's who have been put in charge of the recruitment process for the first time who are looking for advice on how to do it right, avoid liability, draw the best pool of applicants and assure that they will select the best candidate(s) for their organization. Here are a few tips I give to them that can also help you to achieve your hiring goals.

Do not charge a fee for applicants to apply
Have you ever seen an ad in the private sector say "Now Hiring. Seeking qualified and experienced candidates to fill vacant positions. Submit your resume and $50 fee by August 1st"?

There is a reason the private sector does not charge a fee to apply for a job. They know the value and importance of hiring the most qualified person for the job and do not want to reduce the applicant pool by slapping a fee on the application process.

The ironic part is the private sector can afford to hire undesirables more so than a fire department. The private sector usually invests much less in new hires and has the luxury of firing inefficient workers at any stage in their career. So why do we feel the need to charge candidates? Because we can? Because the selection process is expensive and we want to recoup the cost? To reduce the numbers? Maybe all of the above.

Yes, the hiring process is expensive, but it's worth every penny. We don't skimp on equipment, so why should we skimp on choosing the future members of our organization? You are choosing the personnel that are going to be driving and maintaining your $500,000 fire engines, living in and maintaining multi-million dollar fire stations and representing your department on and off duty.

These future hires will be trusted with protecting property and saving lives — any law suit against them will certainly, at least in part, hold the department responsible as well for having employed them and trusted them.

There are ways to reduce costs and save money, which I will discuss throughout this article. Charging a fee to apply is not a recommended way to cut costs.

Do not rush the process
Do not wait until your department is in need to fill positions to begin the selection process. Haste makes waste. It is called a selection "process" for a reason. It is truly a process that takes time, money, manpower and energy. Either conduct recruitments on a regular basis and always maintain an eligibility list, or, if this is not possible because your organization is small and vacancies are so rare that you need to hire strictly on a needs-only basis, then do your best to anticipate the need. Do not wait until your department is in dire need to start the process.

You can preplan for the process long before the need arises. Know where you can conduct all phases of the test. Know where to purchase the written exams. Determine your standards (minimum requirements) and way of conducting the physical agility tests or what standard you are going to utilize, such as the CPAT.

Know where you are going to advertise. Plan out the process from start to finish with as many details as possible already thought out. Draft up a job announcement with the requirements, job description, benefits, application filing process and contact information in advance. Have as much as possible ready and in place as you can, so when that rare need arises you are prepared.

Do not accept the first "X" amount of applications
If your goal is to limit the number of applicants, do not do so by putting a time constraint or make it a race to apply and be the first 10, 50, 100 etc. The most qualified candidates are not going to be the ones willing to camp out or drive hundreds of miles to be the first in line. The most desirable candidates have jobs, families and lives. If you want a bunch of kids fresh out of high school who live with their mothers to line up to take your test then go ahead and make it a camp out session.

If you want the most qualified candidates and need to reduce the numbers, simply up your requirements. In some areas a FF-I and EMT certificate requirement may be enough to reduce the applicant pool to a manageable and affordable number. In other areas you may need to ask for some fire science courses, experience, or even an associate's degree. You may not know what will yield the results, but another advantage of not being in a rush, is you can start high and work your way down.

This means if you put out a job announcement with strict requirements and heavily advertise it and find that you are not receiving enough applications, you can always re-announce the position with less stringent requirements. It does not work the other way around. You will be setting yourself up for a law suit by trying to limit the numbers in any way after an announcement has been made.

Do not do a random selection
For the same basic reasons as above, do not randomly select candidates after applications have been received. This is not recommended for two reasons. 1) It wastes candidate's time and 2) It is not giving you the most qualified candidates from the pool.

Even the U.S. Army doesn't reduce their numbers this way. Recently the army has seen a huge increase in the number of enlistees — enlistment is at an all time high.

Basically they have more applicants than they can accommodate in boot camps. So what did they do? They did not randomly select candidates and send them to boot camp. They upped their requirements. As of now for the first time ever in the history of the U.S. Army, they are not taking applicants with a GED. You must have your high school diploma.

The random selection was common in the fire service during the 1990s, but it should not be considered by your organization. You don't want candidates working for you who were randomly selected, and I know the people you serve would prefer that the people who show up to help their family were selected based entirely on their qualifications and testing scores. Not drawn out of a hat.

Avoid multiple interview panels if possible
Creating one objective panel to interview your candidates is the best way to assure that your list will be created in the fairest way possible. Having multiple panels and multiple lists is never recommended, but may be difficult to avoid in large departments that need to fill dozens of positions.

Consider the following: With three separate panels and three lists, it is possible that your number one, two, three, and four candidate from one list are the best for the job. You decide to interview the top three from each list. The fourth candidate on that list will not advance, when in fact they should, and six other candidates advance in his/her place instead.

Make applications easily accessible
Do not arrange for a pick up only. The best way to make applications available is to post them online. By requiring that applicants pick them up you will be limiting the process to locals who may not have the most going for them. If your job announcement is during the fire season, you may be making it impossible for seasonal firefighters to apply.

I have heard this complaint from many qualified and frustrated seasonal firefighters. They have a difficult time applying for full-time jobs because of their work schedule and commitment when departments make them jump through too many hoops.

Seasonal firefighters are amongst the best and most qualified candidates you can find. Make applications available online and allow candidates to mail them back so you don't miss out on great candidates getting their application filed.

Keep the application filing period open for at least two weeks, preferably longer
Longer filing periods give the candidates a chance to find out about your hiring process. Again, candidates such as seasonal firefighters may be working as part of an out-of-county or out-of-state crew and need sufficient time to learn about, obtain, fill out and return the application.

It often takes time for the information to make its way to the candidates no matter where or who they are. Give one week minimum to distribute the information and applications and another week for it to be received. Allow candidates to fill out and file their applications. Three to four weeks is preferred.

Set your testing dates in advance
When possible, (and it's always possible when you have preplanned the process), set the testing dates prior to the job announcement going out and make that information known to the candidates on the job announcement. By having the dates set and the arrangements made in advance, it prevents delays in the process and is helpful for the candidates as well. It allows them to make arrangement to be there.

Remember the ideal candidate already has a job and other obligations and can't be expected to be notified in short notice for a test. It can also save a great deal of administrative work and expense by not having to contact the candidates to notify them of the next testing phase.

Set the dates and state on the job announcement very clearly that they are to report to the exam at a certain time and location and will not receive any further notification. They will only be contacted if their application is rejected--this will greatly reduce the number of contacts your department staff will need to make in the form of a letter or phone call. This can save time, money and make the process more fluid and streamlined by preventing delays and extra work for your administrative staff.

Find what works and stick with it
Test on a regular cycle. How long you maintain your eligibility list will depend on how many candidates are making the list, and how many and how often you fill vacancies. There should rarely be a need to test more than once a year, but do not keep lists active for more than three years.

Find a time frame and overall system that works for your organization and stick with it. You know that your hiring process is working well if you are happy with the personalities, performance, professionalism and overall group dynamic of your organization.

If your department is riddled with internal strife, conflict, morale issues, law suits, grievances and is not operating at the highest level possible, the first place to look and make changes may be your hiring process.

Conduct all testing at the same time
For example, if your department hires both lateral and entry level positions and/or both paramedics and EMTs, conduct one testing for all positions at the same time. It makes sense logistically. Waiting for the need for one position to arise, then testing for it and then testing another shortly after is making extra work for yourself and everyone in your organization. Conduct all testing and establish all lists at the same time. This saves time, energy and money.

Advertise heavily for all positions
You are obligated by law to advertise any open positions in a public forum, such a local newspaper. As a way to avoid the processing of too many applications, many departments limit their advertising. Again, if you want to keep the numbers down, create more stringent requirements — don't limit advertising, and up your requirements.

The idea is to hire the most qualified and the best fit for your department, not to make the hiring process easy for yourself and your organization, or to save a few bucks.

Work with your neighbors
Conducting a joint recruitment with neighboring agencies is a great way to both reduce costs and increase the number of quality candidates. The multitude of administrative and logistical tasks can be spread out, reducing time, energy and costs.

You are more likely to draw a larger pool of highly qualified candidates if there are more opportunities associated with the recruitment process.
Be objective at every stage in the process. This is easier said than done, but can be accomplished by establishing a cut-off prior to the written exam. For example, if you need to limit the number of candidates who are advancing to the next step, make it so the top X candidates based on the written test scores advance to the physical.

Create a well rounded oral board, consisting of a cross section of your department and/or unbiased outsiders. All interviewers should always be veteran firefighters with at least five years on the job with a proven track record of level headedness, objectivity, intelligence and people skills.

There should always be at least one officer at the rank of captain on the initial interview panel. The officer is the person who will be in charge of training and determining if this future hire is cutting it. Do not cut the rank out who has to put his name on the paperwork to pass or fail the probationary firefighter that's being interviewed.

The reality is that many departments already know who they want to hire before the process begins and caters that process to a certain individual. They may limit advertising, or find other ways to keep the numbers down. This is not only unethical and illegal, it's not in the best interest of your organization or the individual who is getting preferential treatment. It often come back to haunt them and have a negative impact on their career. Every new hire should earn the job competitively and be the best person for that position.

Hiring from Reserves or Paid Call members

There is nothing wrong with hiring exclusively from your reserve or paid call firefighters if your hiring process for these positions is open to everyone, advertised properly and fairly, and consists of all the same components as a full-time selection process. This includes a written exam, physical agility test, interview process, background and psychological exam, drug screening, etc.

There also must be consistency if doing so. A department should not pick and choose when they want to hire from their reserves and when they want to go to the outside. Doing so is unfair to the reserve membership and takes away from the validity of the program. If you have a solid reserve program and reserve hiring process and feel this works for your organization, then do it and stick to it, but treat every reserve hire as a full-time hire. There should not be a single individual in your reserve or paid call program that you would not want working for your organization on a full-time basis.

Final appointment
Final appointment should always be made by the fire chief after a chief's interview. At a minimum the chief and any advisors he wishes to take part in the interview process should interview at least the top three candidates for every open position.

The three candidates should be pulled from the list that has been established after a written, physical and initial interview has been conducted. The candidates on the list should at this point all be considered qualified and hirable, and it is up to you to decide which one is the best overall fit for the position and your organization.

Best of luck in your next recruitment process!

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