How to Avoid Hiring a Nightmare Counselor Employee

Counseling practices struggle with employee turnover. Sometimes high turnover is a product of poor working conditions or low compensation, and sometimes turnover is high because the hiring party does a poor job of determining whether a new applicant will be a good fit for their company. This article will focus on the latter.

Turnover is an issue in many fields, but in counseling private practice it presents a unique challenge. It is bad for clients, bad for a practice’s reputation, and very difficult financially because of the investment clinics put into their new staff: training, credentialing, and the high cost of building a counselor’s caseload. Unfortunately, when counselor turnover occurs, often the vast majority of a clinician’s caseload is lost.


What is a Nightmare Counselor?

What does it mean to have a “nightmare counselor” on your team? Ethical issues and clinical aptitude aside, here are some of the most common counselor traits that can be a nightmare for an employer.

  • Won’t Complete Notes
  • : The counselor’s notes are often behind schedule, or incomplete, which creates a hassle for medical billers, and increases the practice’s liability.

  • Poor Client Retention
  • : The counselor’s clients don’t stay long, and many clients are gone after their first or second appointment.

  • Want More Money
  • : The counselor isn’t happy with their compensation, and he/she constantly tries to re-negotiate wages. Note: this doesn’t mean you pay poorly, sometimes clinicians just want more!

  • Refuse Admin Work
  • : The counselor refuses to complete the simplest of administrative tasks. He/she won’t print a form, make coffee, or turn off a light, because “that’s not my job.”

  • Co-Pay Issues
  • : The counselor complains or refuses to accept their clients’ co-pays, stating that doing so creates a “dual roll” that gets in the way of the therapy relationship.

  • Practice on the Side
  • : The counselor opens their own practice on the side, which cuts into their availability, and fosters a lack of loyalty to the company.

  • Debates Everything
  • : The counselor thinks that he/she can manage the company better than you, so he/she argues every administrative decision.

  • Makes Everything an Ethical Issue
  • : The counselor demands you accommodate their personal preferences and soapboxes by claiming they’re “ethical issues.”

  • Won’t Follow up with Clients
  • : The counselor is too shy, timid, or lazy to follow up with clients with whom he/she has lost touch.

  • Technologically Unwilling
  • : The counselor won’t commit the time or effort to learn technological procedures that are important to how your practice operates.


Finding a Rock Star Counselor

When it comes to the problem issues above, you want to do your best to make sure that an applicant doesn’t possess those characteristics. However, hiring an excellent counselor isn’t just about finding someone who isn’t a problem, it’s about finding someone who is a great fit for your company. With this, every practice is different.

Consider what are the four most important characteristics for a new employee to succeed in your practice (e.g., clinically experienced, gentle, firm, flexible, customer service oriented, connected in the community, extroverted, kind of weird, nurturing, follows instructions, technologically savvy, able to work independently, able to work in a team, able to multitask, a focus on personal growth, etc.). Interview for these characteristics.


  1. Situation-style Questions
  2. To survey whether an applicant has the characteristics you require, try a situation-style interview question. For example, to inquire if an applicant is clinically strong, instead of asking “Tell me about your clinical experience,” you can ask, “Tell me about a time when you were in session with a client, and he or she presented a very challenging problem. What was the problem, how did you attempt to help, and what was the outcome?” A situation-style question will help you to better assess whether the applicant truly possesses the characteristics you are seeking.


  3. Check Supervisor References
  4. References, if checked at all, are often poorly checked.

    It is important to not just check references, but also to do it well. First, only accept a professional reference from an applicant’s direct supervisor/report. Co-workers are often friends, and are biased. Conversely, if a reference is too high up the food chain (the CEO), he/she won’t have any direct insights into the applicant’s work.

    Next, ignore the accolades, and ask the reference to tell you where the applicant is weak. Sometimes a reference won’t want to provide any weaknesses. In this case, you’ll need to level with the reference and say, “We all have areas where we need to grow. As a potential employer of [applicant] we want to make sure that we provide an environment that will set up [applicant] for success and that will foster his/her growth. It is important that he know [applicant’s] weaknesses to do that.” If the reference still won’t provide any weaknesses, it is a bad reference. Ask the applicant for a new reference. This brings us to our next strategy…

  5. Hoops
  6. Most employers want team members who can problem solve and overcome challenges. Test this during the interview process. Interviews don’t need to be easy! At our company, we’ll often ask an applicant to meet with us over Skype for the first interview. For many applicants, this poses a challenge. If, at the time of the interview, the applicant’s computer isn’t working, or if they have a poor Internet signal, that’s a “red flag.” Also, applicants are interviewed at least three times. You will be shocked at how much you’ll learn about an applicant by the third interview that you didn’t know at the end of the first interview. This brings us to our final strategy…

  7. Watch for Red Flags
  8. Keep an eye open for red flags. Here are two that I’ve learned to look out for. The first: The applicant is overexcited about the company. One might say, “I’ve looked at your website and I love, love, love your company! I know this will be a great fit for me. Yea!!!” This person might seem like a great fit. However, hire this applicant, and he/she will turn on you the second things aren’t exactly how he/she thought they would be.

    Second, pay attention to the applicant’s phone impression. If you reach a voicemail message that sounds rude, crotchety, if the message isn’t in line with your brand, or if it takes the person 15 seconds to hang up the phone after recording a voicemail greeting, beware! Also, if an applicant answers the phone and is rude before he/she learns who you are, beware!

It’s Worth It

Hiring well is one of the best things you can do for your company. As my ability to hire has improved over the years, my team has improved. Today, I am proud and amazed by my employees—both their professionalism, and how they represent our company’s brand. On more than one occasion, I’ve had people join us for lunch, or visit a peer supervision meeting, and they’ve commented, “Wow! Your team is so happy and positive. How did you do that?” My answer, “Oh, I didn’t do that. They came like that! I only hire really happy people.”