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Under the Scrutiny Of the Hiring Committee

THE Hiring Committee is meeting. At nightfall, in a shabby upstairs office, six women sit around a table with a scrolled pedestal. This table is an unbusinesslike piece of furniture - but it was donated, and we're not choosers. Our agency's budget is small. Our clients are homeless women.

The committee members represent staff and volunteers. We all do the same work: haul sacks of potatoes, plunge toilets, wheedle funds, listen to tragic tales.

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Now a staff member is leaving. The ad for her replacement has run for two weeks. This quirky, underpaid work attracts a battalion of applicants, and resumes have come hurling through the mail. We are passing them around, each of us noting yes, no, or maybe, with perhaps a qualifying sentence. The task could be done in complete silence. But the noise we make could paralyze the office mice. We quote from cover letters. We groan at bloopers. We ask loud rhetorical questions. "Could Marion Leslie Pollack be a man?" (Ours is not a man's job.) "I want to reread the mechanic. Who's got her?" "What on earth is expressive therapy?"

Three nos are enough to reject an applicant. Three yeses, and we'll invite her for an interview. The majority of candidates fall into the maybe pile. We grumble. Great experience, but indifferent cover letter. Great cover letter, but no experience. Awfully young. Is the Peace Corps relevant to us? (Answer: marginally.) Is fluency in Creole of any interest? (Answer: yes; we are beginning to see a lot of islanders.) Is this highly trained teacher contemplating a midlife career change or is she enduring a m idlife crisis? We nix the single parent going to law school at night who'd like to take us on during the day. We don't discriminate against motherhood, only against what seems like poor judgment.

And we squirm with guilt. Who are we to judge so fiercely?

At the end of the evening we have five yeses and 50 maybes. The yeses are paragons. But we know from experience that one may bomb in her interview, and another won't want us, and the previous employer of a third will warn us of absenteeism. Our best candidates perhaps lurk among the maybes. I look forward to the moment during somebody's interview when something - her enthusiasm, her common sense, her humor - catches my fancy, like the enchantment of sudden love.

During the next few weeks we conduct small-group interviews. We see a brilliant woman recently out of detox. We see a young summa cum laude whose grandiose ideals make us feel like reactionaries. A queenly personage in a sari who ran her own agency in Bombay. A spike-haired waif who reveals unexpected depth. A comfortable, motherly soul who does not quite conceal her punitive mind-set. A charismatic gay-rights activist who interviews us. And a score of others: no longer names on paper but instead voices,

opinions, nervous laughs, confident shoulders, serious smiles.

On a Saturday morning we meet to compare notes and draw up our short list - the candidates who will be interviewed again, by the whole committee. We are interrupted by phone calls from two candidates. Both wish not to be considered. Immediately they become the very applicants we would have chosen. We swallow the rejections and sift through our notes, and by noon we have made the cut. Five candidates: two from the original yeses, two former maybes, and one low-maybe who, following up on her bland letter a nd resume, happened to call at 6 p.m. on an evening when our 6:30 interviewee had cancelled. "Be here in half an hour!" we commanded. She raced up the stairs at 6:29, her bike wheel under her arm; and we discovered that her blandness was misplaced modesty. A terrific candidate! How many other winners did we fail to pluck out of the pile?

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We schedule the final interviews for Tuesday and Wednesday nights. One candidate cancels. She has taken employment with an advertising firm.

The next disappoints us. We had admired her passion. But at this second meeting she casts aside all reticence and discloses other people's secrets.

The other three are superb. Their references glow, too.

On Thursday night, each member of the committee presents a list of the three candidates in order of her own preference. No two lists agree. We talk. We argue. We advocate. We lean in one direction. We collapse toward another. Everybody modifies her opinion several times.

At last we choose. I telephone our choice and offer her the position. My voice trembles. She accepts!

And she fits like an old shoe. After a month, she seems to have been with us forever.

I'm not really surprised. Through the years, most of our choices have worked out - even the turkey farmer, even the Yankee aristocrat, even the frail dropout who we discovered could forestall a knife fight with a lift of her little chin. Our choices have worked out so well, in fact, that the Hiring Committee sometimes preens a little, sometimes talks of going on the road to conduct workshops in personnel practices.

But we know better. We owe our success to the candidates - women who, determined to work with and on behalf of their less fortunate sisters, ran or tiptoed or huffed up our stairs, allowed us to probe their soft spots, and withstood the glare of our scrutiny; who captured our hearts.

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