Employee Engagement

HR Matters: 3 Tips to Ensure You Are Asking The Right Questions


Hiring soon? Here are a few of my favorite interview questions for you to customize during your next round of interviews. Making the right hire is the single most important job and sometimes we rush the process because we are stressed about the timeline or the work not getting done. But a good hire will pay you back dividends. So take a deep breath and slow down your process.

Tip #1: Ask neutral questions that don’t guide your interviewee to respond in a way that you want…

“Tell me about how this position fits into your future career goals.”

“What qualities in a manager work best for you?”

“If you could dream up the perfect job for yourself right now, what would it be? What would the responsibilities be?”

Tip #2: Ask them about what they have done in the past, not what they would do in the future. We all have the ability to dream up how we might handle a hard situation or approach our work in the future, what really matters is what they actually did.

“Tell me about a time you had to manage multiple deadlines for a team of people. What worked? What didn’t? How did you adapt when something changed last minute? How did you keep your team on track?”

“Your resume says that you have experience with database management, can you tell me more?”

“Tell me about a time something didn’t go the way you wanted it to go. How did you work through it? What did you change so it wouldn’t happen again?”


Tip #3: Focus on the emotional skills and personality traits that would be the best fit for the position, not simply the specific skill the job requires.

“Tell me about a time you received feedback that was hard to hear. How did you process it? What did you do to address it?”

“What do you need from your colleagues to do your very best work?”

“If I asked your past supervisors to tell me about their experience working with you, what would they tell me?”

Most importantly, have a game plan going into the interview. Curate a set of questions that give you the full picture. It’s not uncommon to bring someone in for a second interview so it might make sense to create two sets of questions. Asking someone too many questions in an interview is a common mistake—you can find out a lot with a few carefully crafted questions. Finally, make sure you allot time for them to ask you questions—it’s only fair and you can learn a lot based on the types of questions someone asks.

We understand hiring is a significant investment and finding the right person is important! If you have any questions about upcoming interviews or could use a little help with the process, we would be happy to chat with you.  


HR MATTERS: Creating the Very Best Job Description to Shorten Your Hiring Process and Find the Ideal Candidate

hiring and job search consulting.png

In a previous job, I spent a lot of time hiring people - because of growth and turnover it felt like we were constantly hiring.  Since then I’ve consulted many people on hiring. As a result, I’ve written and read a lot of job descriptions and I gotta tell you, most of us could use some improvement in this area. If the goal is to have the best of the best apply for your jobs and have a relatively seamless interview process, you have to create a strong job description.

5 Tips to Writing The Very Best Job Description

Describe yourself and the workplace. Future applicants want to see how you describe yourself, you might not want to simply copy + paste your “about” section from your website. Anyone worth interviewing will do a search on the internet before they apply so use your job description as an opportunity to use your internal office voice to describe the impact you make with your work. 

What’s the job?  This is the nitty gritty of the job you are hiring for, be concise but don’t skimp here. What will this position be doing? Feel free to categorize and break down responsibilities. What are the non-obvious aspects of the job that would be important for an applicant to know, examples might include travel, atypical schedule, supervisory roles etc. Be realistic. No really, you are setting everyone up if the job is impossible to do.

In my experience this is where most job descriptions are the strongest. It’s important to paint a clear description so applicants are very clear what they are applying to do.

In order for this new hire to be successful what do they need to walk in the door with? Fair warning, this is where I’ve seen lots of applications fall short. I’m going to be upfront—unicorns don’t really exist and you can’t have it all. Be clear with yourself about what are absolute musts and what would be an added bonus and make it crystal clear on your description. If you are hiring for an administrative assistant, experience in Excel might be non-negotiable, great, make sure you make that clear in the post. On the flip side, if you can envision a scenario where you hire an applicant who has every single other thing on your list besides Excel, it’s not a requirement, it’s a desired qualification. It’s okay to have mostly desired qualifications.

A good rule of thumb is that if you read the required qualifications and start to feel incredible dread in your gut because finding the right person seems impossible, it probably is and you should either cut down your list or plan to hire an outside consultant to do your outreach and hiring.

Sell yourself. Why would I want to apply for your job? Do you offer great benefits? A fun workplace? Remote working? Free meals? A discount? Non-profits, I love you, but “working for a good cause” is not enough! You want the very best applicants to apply to work for you, be competitive in your description.  You are selling them as much as they need to sell you.

Be transparent about the process and salary up front. Save yourself time and energy and just tell people how much you plan to pay and how they need to apply. How many interviews have I sat through where I wasted my time and the applicant’s time because we were on totally different pages about salary? TOO MANY. Let’s be honest, we work for pay, why wouldn’t you be up front about that from the very beginning?

As you can tell, writing job descriptions takes time and requires review before you post them publicly. A thorough job description can serve as the base for a work plan once your new hire is onboarding which will save you time and ensure your new hire hits the ground running. It’s worth it to do the work upfront—it will save you time in the long run. I promise!

We’re experts at writing winning job descriptions at The Spark Mill and delight in helping our clients find the very best person to hire. Contact us for all your hiring needs.

*This blog post is the first in a series about hiring—look out for the next installment discussing how to put equitable hiring in practice. If you have a topic you want to hear about, let us know!




Being Black in White Spaces: Lessons for Nonprofit and Government Leaders

Breaking Down Racial Barriers: The Importance of Embracing Stories and Sharing Ownership in Predominantly White Spaces: 

The Second in a Series on Belonging

I was born in Harlem, NY and raised by a single mother in a working class household. We didn’t have a whole lot, but my mother loved my brother and me dearly and never hesitated to stress the importance of getting a good education - she saw this as a way to access more opportunities. She was right. My passion for learning and my mother’s relentless search for educational opportunities throughout NYC opened my world up in unimaginable ways, including allowing me to traverse class boundaries I don’t know I would’ve had the opportunity to do otherwise. At age 11, I was admitted into a top private school in New York for gifted, low income students of color. At age 14, I began high school at a Quaker boarding school in West Chester, Pennsylvania. I can honestly say these were some of the best years of my life (although by senior year I didn’t think so – courtesy teenage growing pains). I met my lifelong girlfriends and the school’s Quaker values helped to cultivate my passion for social justice issues.

After graduating from the Westtown, I was awarded a full academic scholarship to the University of Richmond, one of the top liberal arts institutions in the country. Admittedly, I struggled at UR my first year. Academically I was fine, but socially, I had a hard time adjusting. It wasn’t just the fact that UR was a predominantly white institution; the class differences amongst my peers and me were palpable. They appeared to have few worries, while I was constantly burdened with having to balance schoolwork and on-campus jobs so I didn’t have to ask my mother for spending money. So, there I was, a black 18-year-old girl from inner city New York having to manage how to exist in this overwhelmingly wealthy and extremely white space.  

Was I the only black person in the room? The only woman, the only black woman? How do I look? Look people in the eyes, act like you belong here. Be 10x better, and even if you don’t know something, act like you do.

The reality is, for most of my life, I have existed in white spaces. At school, at work, and in some social settings depending on where I choose to go. These experiences have been met with a great amount of racial anxiety, which I learned is actually a thing thanks to TMI’s Unconscious Bias Training. When I walked into rooms, I’d scan them and my mind would implode with a series of concerns. Was I the only black person in the room? The only woman, the only black woman? How do I look? Look people in the eyes, act like you belong here. Be 10x better, and even if you don’t know something, act like you do. These are just to name a few, the point being, I was constantly in my head, as I know many black people are in these types of spaces.

As I have gotten older, with more confidence, spending more time reflecting on who I am and embracing this era of Black Girl Magic, the racial anxiety has lessened tremendously, but I’d be lying if I said it has gone away completely. When I think about the types of workplace environments that have allowed me to feel more comfortable, they have been those where coworkers, especially my white ones, acknowledge and are willing to engage in conversations about their privilege.  Where they are aware of the experiences I can potentially face when I walk outside of the office even if they attempt to offer a safe space at work.

It was no surprise that I am the only person of color at The Spark Mill.  When I first joined the team part time, I was clearly aware of this fact, but quite frankly used to it.  When I first sat down to speak with Sarah, the firm’s founder, she was as aware of the team’s lack of racial diversity as I was.  We talked about the need to build a team that was more reflective of our clients as well as the clients they serve. I was intrigued, not because I was willing to accept being a token, but because our conversation felt genuine. She was interested in getting to know me not simply as the black woman she wanted to bring on her team, but as Mariah, the masters in urban and regional planning student, University of Richmond graduate with a passion for black people, cities, and urban planning.

The reality is nonprofit and government organizations have a tremendous issue with diversity, including those whose core clients are in fact people of color.

In 2012, CommonGood Careers published a study called the Voice of Non-Profit Talent. This report revealed that while many nonprofit leaders express a commitment to diversity within their organizations, few organizations actually do enough to attract and retain people of color. And when they do, people of color are often tokenized and forced day in and day out to deal with the micro aggressions that are symptoms of larger systemic issues of race. The reality is also that nonprofits and government agencies are not the only ones who suffer from this problem and that many black people like myself have managed to cope with working in predominantly white spaces.

Giving Equal Power to People of Color

In the meantime, where a system may be slower to change, there are ways for organizations to help decrease the racial anxieties experienced on a daily basis while also working towards organizational change that gives equal power to people of color.

  • Recognize that a person of color’s job is not simply to be the person of color in the room. We have a voice, lived experiences, and most importantly, the hard skills necessary to advance and lead work within organizations.
  • Understand that for people of color working within organizations serving vulnerable populations of color, this work is extremely personal, and on a regular basis we are forced to balance a professional and personal lens. Double consciousness is real and sometimes extremely difficult to manage. However, when people of color are accepted for being themselves, when we feel as though who we are is embraced, and when our personal stories and voices coupled with professional expertise are trusted and welcomed throughout an organization, walls begin to be broken down. Breaking down these barriers may look different depending on your organization.

3 Questions to Ask to Help Break Down the Walls: 

  • How might you be more intentional about understanding the personal stories of your employees of color?
  • How might you work to better understand their experience being in a space built, owned, and operated by individuals who do not look like them?
  • How might you think about your approach to making them feel a part of your organization by sharing ownership of the spaces you both occupy?

All of these ideas are rooted in a 21st century view of community engagement. As a firm we have been reminding, nudging, and cajoling clients to think differently about belonging. To own their bias in the historical development of the programs and to commit to doing it differently going forward. 

Overwhelmed? We can help. 


Creating Employee Centric Policies that Reinforce Your Values and Brand

 Wilder and Dax at 5 months the week before I returned. 

Wilder and Dax at 5 months the week before I returned. 

My Maternity Leave Story

When I told Sarah (founder and CEO of The Spark Mill) that I was pregnant with twins she screamed with delight and congratulated me profusely. At that point it was early in my pregnancy and too early to make any sort of concrete plans for what this news might mean for my future at work but if I’m honest, I was sweating it big time. There are a lot of unknowns with twin pregnancies and on top of a then one year old at home I felt like I wasn’t exactly the poster child for the best kind of employee to have working for you.

In that moment I went from feeling like a liability to an intricate part of a well-functioning team that respects the balance that comes with being a full-person at work.

During a drive to see a client Sarah and I both were talking about our lives and families and of course the twins and she looked me in the eyes and said, “Take the time you need, you’ll always have a job here.” In that moment I went from feeling like a liability to an intricate part of a well-functioning team that respects the balance that comes with being a full-person at work.

The team at The Spark Mill took my pregnancy and impending maternity leave in stride, we were optimistic but also realistic. We made sure I had coverage for client-facing work, and we were honest and up front with our clients about the transition that was going to occur. I documented as much as I possibly could.

And then, at 31 weeks, I had my babies. Fast and without any warning. Much, much earlier than we were anticipating. It was a traumatic birth and my babies were in the NICU for five of the hardest weeks of my life. Right after giving birth there was no way for me to have a phone conversation with my co-workers and I had no brain space to give to work in any way. Sarah and I had a few back and forth texts and then I was done. Instructed to not worry about work at all—Sarah even emailed me an out-of-office response for my email, so all I had to do was copy and paste. And, guys, we were busy at work when I left. We are generally hustling hard but we had A LOT going on, losing someone unexpectedly had to be extremely challenging.

My co-workers all checked in on me, brought me meals, sent me texts letting me know that I was missed but that everything was thriving in my absence. They even hired someone to come in temporarily to pick up some of my slack and kept me in the loop enough to feel completely confident and excited about this person (and lucky for me, Mariah was so awesome she is sticking around now that I’m back).  I took just over 5 months off from work.  That’s a long time!

My loyalty to The Spark Mill grew 10x over through this process and I know I am a better team member because of it.

When it was time to come back to work, I was offered more time, a flexible schedule, and the ability to come back slowly. They gave me flowers. They asked about my babies and how I was doing before we dove into work. And because they had given me the space and time to really unplug and focus on my babies I was more than ready to come back to work. My loyalty to The Spark Mill grew 10x over through this process and I know I am a better team member because of it.

I’ve worked at a lot of places in my tenure, and I would say that I’ve been luckier than most when it comes to working in an environment that values their team being balanced (probably in part because I’ve worked really hard at culture change everywhere I’ve worked). But I consider myself incredibly privileged to work somewhere that has such a healthy attitude toward their team members thriving in their work and home life. I wholeheartedly believe this makes us better at our work, because our clients are real people who have to find their own balances in their everyday lives.

Culture Change is an integral part of all of our work whether you are navigating change, plotting new programs, or embarking on a new brand. It was amazing to see our values and brand at play during my leave. 

If your organization is searching for a way to bring more balance to your work and create a culture where your employees feel backed up and supported, schedule a time to talk with us.