Operation Smile's Job Interview Process Is Insane

Operation Smile is an international charity group that helps children with cleft palates around the world. It's a worthy cause. So it's too bad the group's job interview process is rather outrageous.

Yesterday, a post appeared on the website Ask A Manager in which a person described a job interview they'd recently gone through for "an entry-level program coordinator position." They told of two phone interviews followed by a 15-hour-long, all-day final interview stage. That's where it got absurd:

When they invited me for the final interview, they made it clear that it would be a whole day affair. A few days before the interview, I asked for an agenda/schedule and was told "All I will share is that interviews will last from 8:30 am to at least 9:00 pm, and you will have individual interviews as well as time to mingle with fellow candidates during the day." When I arrived at the interview, I was given the schedule for the day, which included five individual interviews and said that from 5 pm onwards, there would be a group activity. At 5, they simply announced that our group activity was to shop for and prepare a meal for 40 with entertainment, to be served at 7:30 at the director's house. We were given a budget of $350 and information about food allergies in the group. No other information was given (we even had to figure out the director's address) and they didn't give any sort of reason/context. It wasn't clear if it was supposed to be an evaluation of our skills, but the senior staff spent the majority of the night drinking and dancing. The evening didn't end till 10:30 pm, when it moved to a local bar.

In the comment section of the post, it was revealed that the organization in question was Operation Smile, headquartered in Virginia Beach, VA. And the salary of the job that all of these people were competing for? Less than $25,000 per year.

To recap: after several initial interview stages, 20 candidates for an entry-level job traveled at their own expense to Virginia Beach, VA, where they endured a full day of five separate interviews, and then—to their surprise!—were ordered to shop for food, plan a menu, and cook a meal for the same people that were interviewing them. All of this for the prospect of maybe getting a job that pays an extremely low salary.

We contacted one of the candidates who went through this process and wrote about it in the comment section of the original post. Here's what he told us about his fun team-building experience:

I would just stress that even on the day of the interview no questions would be answered about what the 'group activity' was or even how many positions they had available to fill.

The group activity was not strictly mandatory (at least, I don't think it was - evidence itself of how little information was provided) but our attendance was "encouraged". As I mentioned in the post, we were not told whether or not this activity would impact their hiring decisions. Drinking was optional but I think many felt the pressure to drink to conform to social norms. I left after the event at [Operation Smile founder] Bill Magee's private residence (with his entire family in attendance) ended but many went out with the staff to the bars. This was explicitly optional but, again, I know of at least one person who felt compelled to go for fear of being 'marked down' by the senior staff...

The residence was at least a forty minute drive from the OS HQ and no transportation was provided. I did not drive (I had been dropped off by a friend) and had to hitch a ride with another candidate who had a car.

Again, the interview process took more than four months and deadlines were arbitrarily extended several times. We were told that more than 400 people applied. We were all aware that the salary was what it was before applying...

After the interviews (which took place on a Friday) we were told that we would hear their decisions on Monday. When Thursday came I called their office and asked about my candidacy. I was given the standard "there were many qualified applicants" line. No feedback was provided.

I'd like to stress that I do think the organization's mission is worthwhile and admirable. Their hiring practices, however, leave a little to be desired.

We contacted Operation Smile about this. And it's all completely true! Lisa Jardanhazy, a VP at the organization, told us that there were five program coordinator jobs open for the 20 job candidates in that group. The jobs involve lots of work building and managing OS teams that go abroad to do charity work. She said that the hiring process allows OS to "get a sense of how [job candidates] will respond" to that challenge. Operation Smile, she said, has been using this type of interview process for more than 30 years.

I asked whether the demands of the job interview process might be a bit extreme, given the low salary. Jardanhazy dismissed that concern. "It speaks to the desirability of the position."

For the job candidates, the surprise of being told to cook a huge meal is "one of the most fun things they enjoy about the interview process," according to OS PR director Sabrina Zimring. "It's really fun."

UPDATE: Operation Smile sent us the following statement on Friday afternoon:

Operation Smile is honored to provide recent graduates the unique opportunity to participate first-hand in the work we do to provide hundreds of thousands of children and their parents hope for a renewed and transformed life through free surgery to repair cleft lip, cleft palate, and other facial deformities.

This year Operation Smile received nearly 400 applications for six available Program Coordinator (PC) positions at our Global Headquarters in Virginia Beach, Virginia. PC's are the cornerstone of our medical mission model and essential to its success. They're compensated through their salary, an excellent benefit package and all travel related expenses are covered during the 3- 4 months of annual international travel. PC's are on site and handle all aspects of logistics related to a mission. On any given day their responsibilities vary from coordinating international customs, cargo delivery, managing medical volunteers and hospital logistics, as well as reporting back on all aspects of the medical mission to ensure continued success is met through high standards of medical care.

Given the high demands encountered by these individuals working in a developing country setting, Operation Smile has designed a dynamic interview screening process. In addition to conducting formal interviews, first by phone and then in person, the comprehensive goals of the process are to re-create uncertain, fast-paced, challenging environments and conditions that applicants may encounter in a mission setting. Culminating with an exercise such as planning and delivering a fun, social activity, including dinner, to a group helps identify the applicant's strengths and/or weaknesses in communicating, problem-solving skills and teamwork.

We appreciate the monumental efforts of the Program Coordinators and we recognize this is a demanding, and to some degree, unconventional role within our organization. Recognizing this position isn't a fit for every applicant, we make every attempt from day one to ensure candidates understand the time-intensive interview process, starting salary and requirements of the job.

Through the years, thousands of eager, qualified applicants have completed this process, gained valuable life experiences, ultimately going on to become leading professionals in the medical, legal and international humanitarian arenas. Operation Smile is honored that so many stellar candidates continue to choose our program.