Interviews: What you should ask a prospective employer

It's important to find out what you're letting yourself in for, writes Stephen Cook

Most people who want to work for a charity - although not necessarily all of them - want to do so because they believe in what the charity is trying to do, whether that is helping refugees or saving the whale.

There may also be a more general motive of wanting to work in the not-for-profit world, where the transactional values of the marketplace are subordinate to ethical, humanitarian or environmental considerations.

Such motives are often accompanied by a willingness to accept lower pay and less attractive benefits or working conditions than staff would receive working in a bank, for example, or at Marks & Spencer.

But there may also be a tendency among charity employers - sometimes unwittingly - to take advantage of such motives among staff and pay insufficient attention to how they treat people. The consequences of that can be loss of motivation, poor morale, high staff turnover and, ultimately, a deteriorating service to the cause or the beneficiaries that the charity tries to serve.

So how to strike a balance? When applicants to a charity have established that the values and the cause area are right for them, how can they discover what kind of employment regime they are letting themselves in for?

We asked Frances Hurst of Birdsong Consulting, who has run Third Sector's Charity Pulse survey for the past 10 years, for a checklist of questions that job applicants might ask, and what those questions might reveal.

How does senior management communicate, take account of staff views and opinions and recognise staff achievements?

"The purpose of these questions is to gain an understanding of the overall role of senior management in the charity," says Hurst. "Do they see themselves as a team providing a healthy platform for the charity to flourish, or are they more focused on a command and control approach?"

How well do different departments work together?

Charities can be prone to working in silos, with fundraising and finance departments in particular operating in relative isolation from front-line or policy staff. "Classically, this is one of the most challenging areas for charities, and gaining an understanding of what the charity see as its main issues in this area can be helpful," says Hurst.

How does the organisation value staff well-being?

Hurst says this question encompasses three general areas - physical aspects, such as desks, chairs, nutrition, exercise, location and access to amenities; emotional considerations, such as a supportive culture and social interaction; and the purpose and meaning of work, which would include space and opportunities to flourish, and respect for personal values and beliefs. "Any one individual may value each of these areas differently, with a greater emphasis on some aspects rather than others," she says.

Have there been any major organisational changes or redundancies in the past 12 months?

The purpose of these two questions, says Hurst, is to understand whether you are joining a stable organisation - which would typically have higher staff satisfaction - or one undergoing change, with the resultant uncertainties that may bring. But change need not be seen as negative, she adds: "Joining an organisation undergoing change can be attractive for some applicants."

What are the opportunities for personal and career development?

The smaller the organisation, the fewer the prospects of career development and training are likely to be. Nevertheless, many charities are large enough to need proper HR departments and make choices about the resources devoted to them. "Many charities are currently under financial pressure and training and growth can be directly impacted because of this," says Hurst.

How well do systems and processes work here?

This question is designed to elicit how efficient the charity is. Hurst says experience shows that greater efficiency makes for more rewarding work: "Generally, more efficient charities are more effective across other areas that impact staff satisfaction."

Are you a good person to work for? What is your management style?

If you are being interviewed by your prospective manager, Hurst says these rather direct questions might be useful. The response might be defensive or predictable, but she says open and self-aware individuals will not have any problems answering these two questions.

Depending on their focus, some candidates might also want to ask about gender and diversity balance or the charity's approach to managing its impact on the environment. But the general message to bear in mind during the interview is that working in the not-for-profit world does not exonerate charities from being good employers.

What do you think of your employer and working conditions? The annual Charity Pulse survey is online now and takes five minutes to complete. To take part, go to birdsongsurveys


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