Job Search People
by Ann Crandell-Williams, LMSW
You completed your field placement. You graduated with your BSW or MSW. Maybe you studied hard and passed your social work licensure exam. It should be all downhill from here, right? WRONG! Don’t forget, you still have to find and land that dream job!
You may have heard by now that, overall, the job market for social workers is expected to expand by 19% through 2022, which is faster than average for all occupations (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014). However, competition for many social work positions will continue to be fierce. If new graduates and/or beginning practitioners want greater selection in their career options, self-presentation during the job interview is a critical skill.
Although research has shown that the job interview does not necessarily indicate one’s success as an employee (Barrick, Shaffer, & DeGrassi, 2009), employers in all professions, including social services, continue to depend on the job interview as the primary method for selecting employees. From an ethical perspective, please note that this is not about appearing to be something you are not. Trying to project a persona you believe is an agency’s “ideal employee” will only end in dissatisfaction for both you and the employer, as well as possibly harm your professional reputation. The job interview is about utilizing the opportunity to showcase your strengths to a potential employer.
Although your degree will be required to get you in the door of a job interview in a social work agency, how you present yourself as an overall employee is how employers will determine your worth. A recent study of social work employers indicated that although theoretical knowledge and ambition is highly valued, applicants’ personal attributes pertaining to skills and attitude weighed more heavily in hiring decisions (van Bommel, Kwakman, & Boshuizen, 2013). In addition to the occupational expertise that a BSW or MSW degree provides, social work employers are like other employers in that they are often looking for other, more general skills, such as a good work ethic, overall attitude, the ability to work cooperatively with others, and leadership skills.
In my 18 years of experience as a social work program director, I estimate that I’ve done at least 500 job interviews, primarily for middle management, case management, and paraprofessional social work positions. I’ve also participated in a “mock interview” job preparation process for approximately 300 undergraduate seniors in social work and criminal justice, giving feedback to students regarding their interview presentation skills. I am also a senior seminar instructor at Northern Michigan University’s BSW program, guiding seniors on the job search and screening process.
During this time, I have found that there are certain avoidable mistakes that inexperienced interviewees tend to make. I’ve also found that when applicants use the interview process to showcase favorable qualities and personal attributes, certain factors help them stand out among other applicants, even above those who may have more appealing qualities on paper (such as coming from a reputable university, having a higher GPA, and/or having more experience).
To do well in an employment interview, you first have to get there. The truth is, employers are evaluating you from the second you first make contact until the second they offer you employment. Your writing skills and phone manners are obvious examples. Other examples of how you are being evaluated are how and when you respond to correspondence, making yourself as available as possible for an interview, and how you treat the receptionist in the agency’s waiting room. Be aware that everything you do and say is being evaluated!
Although there may be some variations in skills and abilities that social work employers in different agencies and/or areas of practice may be looking for, there are also many commonalities. In my experience and conversations with other social work employers, there are certain behaviors that may influence employers toward favoring you—or ruling you out. Some of these behaviors may have certain implications that apply especially to the social work field, and some may be applicable to all types of employment. I will discuss these in terms of red, yellow, and green flag behaviors.
Red Flag Behaviors
Certain behaviors may almost instantly cause a candidate to be “ruled out” of a hiring pool. Examples:
Oversharing. Crying, disclosing intimate details, and telling long (unrelated and/or unsolicited) stories about one’s personal life may indicate the lack of an essential social work skill: personal boundaries. This may also lead employers to question your emotional stability. Tip: Think of yourself as a future social worker. Would you tell your client this detail? If the answer is “no,” save it.
Undersharing. One-word answers, poor eye contact, and a lack of facial expression could also cause you to bomb an interview. If you can’t engage with your interviewers, how will you be able to engage with clients? It’s important to let your personality and interaction style shine through, to give your employers an impression of who you are, what your style will be like with clients, and what it will be like spending long hours with you in an office. Tip: Answer the question asked, succinctly yet thoroughly. Unless interviewers ask for more, think of answering in about one to three sentences.
Complaining about previous employers. Social workers come to the job interview with some type of experience in an agency—at the very least, having completed a field placement. Not every previous social work experience is positive. And guess what—not every social work experience you have at this agency will be, either. If you complain about previous employers or co-workers, interviewers may see you as someone who will be a complainer. Tip: If you are asked about prior negative experiences, proceed with caution. When you take on this question, frame the problem objectively and focus on the positive skills you used in dealing with the problems.
Yellow Flag Behaviors
Although they won’t rule you out entirely, yellow flag behaviors could cause employers to re-think their inclination to hire you. Some of these are as follows:
Poor cover letter/résumé. Almost every social work job requires strong written communication skills. Your cover letter and résumé should be prime examples of your best writing. This is an employer’s first measure of your writing skills. Make it good. Tip: There are numerous Internet resources on how to write a great cover letter and résumé. Also use your social work professors and mentors to look over yours and give you feedback BEFORE sending it out. There are many different opinions on the best résumé style. Choose the one that best enhances your skills and abilities on paper.
Not doing homework about the agency. Hiring and retaining employees takes a lot of time and resources that social work employers could easily be spending doing other things. Doing your homework about an agency shows the employer your interest not just in getting a job, but in working for this agency in particular. It also gives you a chance to see if the agency’s values and mission are consistent with what you hope to accomplish as a social worker, which you may have an opportunity to speak to in an interview. Tip: Visit the employer’s website and read the history and mission of the agency. If the agency works with a particular type of clientele with which you have little experience, do some research on that, as well. Most importantly, ask your social work mentors if they know anything about the agency and/or interview process, or if they can connect you with anyone who might know something.
Poor grammar/articulation. Social workers have to work on multiple system levels. This means they may be interacting with any number of different people in different roles on any given day. As you know, verbal communication skills are critical. Tip: If this is an issue for you, there are many ways to improve speaking habits. One is to ask your friends and family who speak well to correct you when they hear you using a phrase or word inappropriately. An articulation tip is to practice reading aloud for 10 minutes daily, taking time to slow down and enunciate each word as you read it. For improvement in public speaking habits, there is always Toastmasters International (http://www.toastmasters.org), a group that helps members who want to improve their presentation skills in a fun and lighthearted setting.
Green Flag Behaviors
Confidence. This is the most frequent feedback I give to students practicing interview presentation skills. Many people are uncomfortable speaking positively about their own knowledge, skills, and abilities. However, candidates are more likely to be hired if they can show confidence in themselves.
Social workers usually have to utilize critical thinking skills and make independent decisions on a daily basis. Although most agencies will have training, there usually comes a moment when your boss will point you to a stack of files or group of clients and expect you to work independently.
The interview will typically include questions to measure your confidence in your ability to think independently and have confidence in your decisions without the need for hand-holding. Many employers have begun to move toward an experience-based interview process, which sounds something like: “Tell about a time you’ve handled situation X in the past.” Tip: Remember, you are your primary advocate during the job interview. If you don’t speak up about your strengths, nobody else will.
Prior to an interview, think of three to five situations you’ve handled well, preferably during your field placement or related employment, but other settings will do. Some scenarios that may be asked about are: a time you received feedback and how you handled it, a time you dealt with a crisis, a time you solved a difficult problem, or a time you resolved a disagreement.
Positive outlook. Think “strengths-based.” Do you have a “get it done” attitude? Are you engaging and friendly? Do you see situations as problems or challenges? The way you answer questions and describe situations throughout an interview will be assessed by your potential employer. Tip: If you have opportunities during the interview to discuss your viewpoint on positive ways you deal with life’s challenges, let them be known! You may also be asked one or more experience-based or situational questions to determine your viewpoint and approach to different types of situations.
Ability to be a team player. I always tell students that their ability to give and receive feedback is critical to their professional success. Other skills here are willingness to go above and beyond and help others out. Tip: If possible, stay away from discussing past conflicts or complaints about colleagues, which could make you appear to be a problem co-worker. You will be asked questions about dealing with others. Emphasize your ability to react calmly and professionally, and to communicate with tact.
Again, let me point out that the job hunt is also about finding the position and agency that is right for you. There are many good articles on the Internet, such as “Interview Questions to Ask the Employer (and What Not to Ask)” at About.com (http://jobsearch.about.com/od/interviewquestionsanswers/a/interviewquest2.htm). Make sure you get a good feeling about the agency and its mission, as well as the treatment philosophy and policies. Do not become so focused on “appearing” to be the right employee that you are not focusing on what the agency offers employees, and whether or not staff there feel supported.
Barrick, M. R., Shaffer, J. A., & DeGrassi, S. W. (2009). What you see may not be what you get: Relationships among self-presentation tactics and ratings of interview and job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94 (6), 1394-1411.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2014). U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational outlook handbook, 2014-15 edition, social workers. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm.
van Bommel, M., Kwakman, K., & Boshuizen, H. P. A. (2014). Employers’ views on desirable theoretical knowledge qualities of newly qualified social workers: A qualitative exploration. British Journal of Social Work, 1-19.
Ann Crandell-Williams, LMSW, is an assistant professor of social work and field placement coordinator at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, MI. She has eighteen years of prior social work experience, primarily as a child welfare agency administrator and a mental health case manager.