Avoiding making bad charity appointments

The costs of making bad appointments at a senior level are massive and can be particularly damaging for charities with finite resources.

The Recruitment and Employment Confederation estimates that hiring mistakes cost UK business billions each year in wasted salary, loss of productivity, training and staff turnover costs. In addition to monetary losses, having the wrong person in place, particularly at a senior level can have a huge and negative impact on an organisation’s reputation and staff morale.

This wider negative impact of poor recruitment is likely to be felt more keenly in the charity sector which attracts staff who are concerned with working for causes they believe in. Poor leadership or “the wrong fit” and a sense of the charity losing momentum or taking a backward step can have a widely felt impact on staff. It can result in an increase in absenteeism, a loss in productivity and staff retention and, ultimately, a poorer service for the charity’s beneficiaries.

Precious reputation

The reputation of any charity is incredibly precious. It relies on this to attract funders and, as we have seen in a number of high profile cases in recent months, when it is damaged the consequences can be disastrous. A CEO or other senior team member plays a significant role in the outside perception of a charity. A person with the wrong attitude or someone who doesn’t appear to be up to the job will soon be noticed by peers throughout the sector and potential funders.

Leading a charity is challenging. Each charity is different and will require leaders with specific skills in order to keep employees motivated and happy. Recruitment is not an exact science and mistakes can be easily made. The following tips present some options on how to maximise the chances of getting it right:

THINK THROUGH WHAT YOU REALLY WANT. Take time in advance of the process to consider who you’re looking for. It can be dangerous to fixate too much on the predecessor in making appointments. If you try to fill the shoes of a high performer, you may forget that they left as someone more polished and developed than when they came in.

Similarly there can be dangers in swinging the pendulum aggressively away from what you had in the past. Think as objectively as possible about what it is you really need.

CONSULT WITH STAKEHOLDERS. Speak to your funders, beneficiaries and junior staff about what they’d like to see in a leader and take their opinions on board. You may choose to invite representatives from these groups to be on interview panels or to take part in assessment days. You may want to be clear that it is not a democratic process, but including others, and seeking to triangulate you own perceptions, can be very important.

Different contexts

TAKE TIME TO GET TO KNOW YOUR CANDIDATES. One or two short interviews will not give you an accurate and rounded impression of your potential recruit. Narcissists often perform well in a single interview but could be a disaster for your team. Aim to meet your candidates several times in different contexts including informal and more formal settings, small and larger groups. and one on one meetings.

GATHER INFORMAL INFORMATION. Use your networks to find out more about the reputation of your candidates. Seek out examples of their work in previous organisations and evidence of public speaking and media relations work to gauge their suitability as a spokesperson for your charity.

AVOID GROUP THINK. Interview panels should be diverse and each member should have an equal chance to voice their opinions. To encourage different perspectives, consider using separate sub-panels to undertake short, focused discussions with the candidates about targeted areas of the role.

CONSIDER USING PSYCHOMETRIC TESTING TO ASSESS ABILITIES FOR SPECIFIC SKILLS. Behavioural traits and personality can be hard to gauge during interviews and, while testing of this kind isn’t particularly helpful in isolation, triangulating data as part of the whole recruitment process can give you a much better all-round view of a candidate's suitability.

GUARD AGAINST UNCONSCIOUS BIAS. Unconscious racism, ageism and sexism can have a problematic effect on judgment. Take steps to avoid it by ensuring panel members have taken unconscious bias training and by selecting a diverse panel. This might include having external advisers present.

Using referees

CONSIDER REFERENCES CAREFULLY. Rather than using the reference process as a tick box exercise for HR purposes, consider each one before making your appointment. Informally approach referees who, if possible, are outside the names suggested by the shortlisted candidates if possible, but only at a very late stage of the process.

DON’T RUSH. Build time into the process from the beginning for extra checks and consultations so you don’t feel pressured to make a quick decision.

DON’T MAKE AN APPOINTMENT IF IT DOESN’T FEEL RIGHT. The consequences of recruiting the wrong person can take a long time to resolve. It’s better to go out to market again than make a decision you’re not sure about.

Planned process

The negative impact of making a recruitment error is clear, but a well planned process will not only help you avoid costly mistakes but also increase the reputation of your charity as a thorough and well respected employer and a professional organisation. In an increasingly competitive market for charities these high standards are well worth investing in.


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