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Hire Squirrels

Howard Schultz, former CEO of Starbucks, said: “If your company mission was to climb a tree, which would you rather do: hire a squirrel, or train a horse?”

This has profound implications for co-responder program development. It is not always obvious to law enforcement or even to mental health administrators that one mental health worker is not the same as another in this emerging field. Better qualifications--like more experience, licensure, or a more advanced degree--may seem more important than personality and resilience.

They are most likely not. You can train a horse from birth, license it to climb trees, and it can have decades of tree climbing experience and it still won’t climb as well as a new-hire squirrel.

So how do we separate the squirrels from the horses? Is it realistic to expect to do that from a resume and a one hour interview? No, of course not.

Nonetheless, let's challenge the candidate in the interview. Describe the kind of situation you see on the street, both typical and rare. Don’t just listen to their words; watch their faces.

Check references, of course. Describe how you expect the job to look, and the references can offer input. Still: the odds that the reference has seen the candidate in the kind situation they will be facing are slim.

Look for experienced crisis workers who have spent time in the ER and have chosen to stay in that line of work; collaborating with police is a very different from ER work, but it will give the candidate at least some idea as to what they are signing up for. Ask such candidates about a challenging situation they faced on the job, and how they dealt with it.

But the best method found to date is: arrange a shadow shift, a working interview if you will. Have the candidate tag along. Background checks will be necessary; they will probably need to sign a non-disclosure agreement. It’s worth it.

Watch how they interact with patrol officers. Do they hang back and watch from a distance, or show interest in observing up close? Do they take instructions on-scene immediately and accurately, or are they slow and confused? If they are exposed to action, how do they seem afterward—do they seem stunned and withdrawn? Or, are they overly excited—do you get a sense that they have personal rather than professional interests here? Action junkies with mental health degrees are not exactly common, but they do exist--and it is a strength up to a point, but it can be a liability too. Is this about the community--or is it about their ego?

Now, there may not be any mental health calls during this scheduled time together. Okay, fine. Try to keep the shadow shifts going until you can see the candidate respond on-scene; but down-time gives an opportunity too: observe how the candidate copes with quiet. Are they comfortable interacting with others, or are they shy and withdrawn? Selling this mental health collaboration idea to patrol officers can be a challenge. Friendly, curious, comfortable mental health staff make that sale a lot easier.

Bottom line: if you are constantly hiring and training, you are wasting money. Your veteran staff will be exhausted, and may develop resentments. Most mental health staff are not naturally-born to this challenge, and none are prepared for it in school. So much hassle is avoided if you can attract and retain the right staff! And the program outcomes are significantly enhanced.

Hire squirrels.

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