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The basics of getting hired as a counselor

March 28, 2016
by Larry Adler
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As the CEO of Serenity Acres, a drug and alcohol treatment facility outside of Annapolis, Md., I am responsible for ensuring the highest level of care for our clients. While much goes into this, the primary goal involves ensuring the quality of our staff, particularly those who work directly with clients.

I sat down to speak with our clinical director, David Semanco, to go over exactly what qualities he looks for when interviewing prospective addiction counselors. The application and interview process for counselors is, understandably, quite rigorous. All treatment facilities will have specific requirements and characteristics that they are looking for in counselors, but there are some “non-negotiables” for most licensed facilities.

The first factor treatment executives examine for prospective employees is credentials. Based on guidelines from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Serenity Acres requires minimally the Certified Supervised Counselor designation, with an Alcohol and Drug focus (CSC-AD). The more credentials beyond this that a particular applicant holds, the higher his/her chances of getting an interview. But education isn’t everything.

Experience plays a critical role in determining employability in this field. Applicants are thoroughly screened for not only the quantity but also the type and quality of their work experience. When applying for a position as an addiction counselor, do your homework. The more your experience aligns with the structure and type of facility to which you are applying, the higher your chances of landing an interview. Addiction treatment, and the approach to clients, varies widely, so most facilities will be looking for someone whose experience aligns with their particular methods.

A residential or inpatient facility likely will be looking for someone whose experience aligns with a therapeutic and caring approach to treatment, as opposed to a more punitive approach.

Flexibility counts

There are other more specific ideals that a reputable treatment center will look for in its counselors. One such quality is confidence and a working therapy philosophy—someone whose approach to addiction, recovery and relapse prevention is synchronous with its own. That being said, the field of addiction treatment is constantly changing, so the ideal addiction counselor will be flexible, and open to new ideas.

There is no one way to help a client achieve prolonged recovery. Each client is different, so addiction counselors must be willing and able to adjust their approach based on the situation. For example, our facility places a strong emphasis on “meeting clients where they’re at,” which takes considerable insight and flexibility.

As a professor of David’s used to say, a person doesn’t have to want help to be helped. Not all individuals entering treatment are enthusiastic about the process, so the ideal counselor will be able to remain open and encouraging regardless of the immediate response.

Further, most treatment executives will be looking for team players. Applicants who show a strong willingness to be a part of a team, and work with others to produce the best results for their client, are more likely to proceed in the hiring process.

Finally, one of the most critical characteristics of a high-quality addiction counselor involves a strong understanding of and adherence to a code of professional ethics and boundaries. Both at work and in their personal lives, counselors are expected to maintain their professionalism. A quality-driven treatment center will show zero tolerance for any sort of impropriety or boundary-crossing in the counselor-client relationship. This is a non-negotiable.

Other deal-breakers

There are also qualities that are deal-breakers of sorts, considerably decreasing a prospective candidate’s odds of getting through the interview process and securing a position. Many of these pertain to the general level of professionalism (or lack thereof) displayed from the outset, such as arriving late for the interview, trying to reschedule the interview at the last minute, or showing up in sloppy or inappropriate attire. (It should go without saying that behaviors such as chewing gum, answering the phone, texting, or using profanity during the interview will pretty much guarantee an instant “pass” by a prospective employer.)

Further, no company wants to hire someone who openly speaks poorly of current or former employers. Professionalism must be displayed not only in one's outward appearance, but in one's general demeanor and verbiage as well. Giving indirect answers to direct questions, or being overly philosophical in responses, raises another major red flag among prospective employers.

Having conducted plenty of interviews in my time as CEO of a treatment center, I am always surprised when potential hires have not done their homework with regard to our facility. It is critical to do some research in advance. When going to the interview, be prepared with the basics and familiarize yourself with the treatment philosophy of the facility to which you are applying. Failure to do so indicates to employers that you are ambivalent about the position, which doesn’t bode well for your commitment to clients and the organization.

The addiction treatment field is more than a business—it should be a passion and dedication to helping people who are struggling. The more of this that comes through in the interview, the higher one's odds of receiving a call-back.

Rehearsing for the job