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Recruiting and Hiring Peer Support Workers

hiring a peer specialist

Adapted from a Regional Meeting presentation by PeerTAC Co-Director Yvette Kelly

Where do you start?

Given that peer support staff work in a wide range of settings and can serve in diverse roles, it is important to invest time upfront in defining the specific role the peer staff position will fill within your organization. Be sure to create a job description that provides a realistic preview of the position’s core responsibilities.

What does a good job description include?

In order to attract people who have lived experience with a behavioral health condition, the job description will need to include language about the applicant’s comfort with sharing their own personal experience related to mental health or addiction recovery to engage, support, and inspire others who are having similar mental health or addiction challenges.

While screening candidates for a peer support role, keep in mind that individuals who have been through hardships and challenging life circumstances due to mental health, trauma, and/or substance use are likely to be the best qualified candidates to reach the people you serve. They will be relatable to those who are experiencing similar challenges in their lives now. When interviewing candidates, use a range of formats that offer the opportunity for them to demonstrate interpersonal skills and real life problem solving abilities.

Allow finalists to meet with and shadow other peer support workers in your organization in order to get a realistic job preview. Taking steps to provide clarity about the core functions associated with the job will minimize the number of applicants who are not a good fit and expedite the hiring process.

Where does one find qualified applicants?

With a forecasted shortage of peer support workers, employers need to think creatively about how to recruit for these positions.

Individuals/youth/families who are actively involved in the behavioral health system can be a place to start. Ideally, peer support workers have attained and maintained a level of recovery over time, or, in the case of family advocates, have successfully supported a child in navigating the complex behavioral health child-serving system while managing their own self-care.

As they progress in their recovery (or their child’s special needs care) many people move away from the formal, publicly funded behavioral health system where they initially received services. They may become employed and have private insurance that allows them to receive care in the private sector (where the majority of prescriptions for psychiatric medications are written), they may no longer receive treatment or support at all, or they may have shifted the majority of their support to the self-help/mutual support community.

As the demand for peer support workers continues to increase, there will be fewer individuals available to fill open positions. Finding qualified candidates will no longer be as simple as posting the job on an employment website. Employers need to expand their search methods and recruiting strategies to include areas of the community where people naturally spend their time. For instance:

  • Advocacy organizations
  • Community service board (county)
  • Schools, colleges, universities
  • PTA and related parent groups
  • Faith communities
  • Community centers
  • Libraries
  • Self-help groups
  • Peer-run programs
  • Fitness centers
  • Youth centers
  • Colleagues, including those in the private behavioral health and primary care sectors
  • Social media
  • Online community forums

Beyond posting a job or flyer in these locations, employers might schedule time to visit or give a presentation about the peer program and the open position.

Where do you find qualified youth peer advocates?

Youth peer advocates are between the ages of 18-30 who have had experience as a child with special needs in systems of care (e.g.: mental health, special education, foster care, juvenile justice) who are now working with children and youth in those same kinds of systems (Families Together in NYS, n.d.).

When looking for qualified youth peer advocates, a recruitment plan should target places where young adults are prevalent. In addition to locations in the community, most young adults have a social media presence so finding a way to solicit interest in this way may also prove beneficial.

Develop a community recruitment plan that targets youth spaces such as:

  • Schools, colleges, universities
  • Special interest groups
  • Libraries
  • Community centers
  • Online job recruiting centers
  • Job coaching agencies
  • Social media

Be sure to highlight the age and lived-experience requirements in recruitment materials.

Where do you find qualified family peer advocates?

A family peer advocate is the parent (biological/foster/adoptive) or primary caregiver of a child or youth with a significant social, emotional, developmental, medical, substance use and/or behavioral disability which manifested itself prior to age 21 (Families Together in NYS, n.d.).

For the recruitment of families, identify spaces where parents are likely to be or visit such as schools, pediatrician offices, libraries, community centers and other parent friendly places.

Develop a community recruitment plan that targets parents/caregivers spaces such as

  • Schools
  • Daycare centers
  • Pediatrician offices
  • Libraries,
  • Community centers 
  • Camps
  • Sporting events
  • Social media

Be sure to highlight the requirement for lived-experience as the parent or caregiver of a child with special needs who has been in one of the child-serving systems.

Do your hiring staff understand relevant employment laws?

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers from asking disability-related questions at certain points in the employment process. Hiring staff should understand what questions are and are not acceptable at differing points throughout the hiring process.

In spite of the occupational requirement for credentialed or certified peer support staff to have lived experience, it is important not to assume that a person in recovery will require any modification or performance exemption simply because they have or had a behavioral health condition. However, if an employee discloses that they have or had a disability (behavioral health or otherwise), and this disability is interfering with their ability to meet expectations, then they have the right to request a “reasonable accommodation.”

Accommodations can come in the form of time of day when hours are worked, extra or extended breaks, a modification in the work environment, or the use of technology.

Do you offer an array of work schedules?

Employers should also remain flexible in offering part time, full time, and job sharing opportunities. During the hiring process, individuals considering a position as a peer support worker may have questions about how income and change in job status may impact benefits they currently receive, including their health care and disability insurance.

With the potential loss of a candidate’s established safety net, employers should have an awareness of the specific limits to earned income and resource limits that may impact a candidate’s ability to be, or remain, employed on a full time basis while receiving Social Security entitlements. Although it is not incumbent on the hiring committee to raise these issues, it is important to be able to point the new employee to information and guidance on navigating these systems.

This is especially true with respect to disability-based income (e.g., SSDI). There have been many changes made in recent years to provide incentives (decrease disincentives) for people to return to work once they were determined to be disabled.

Ideally, peer support workers should be advised to consult with a local benefits coordinator so that they can make informed decisions about the optimum number of hours to work and ensure after being hired that they have a livable wage and benefits. A list of benefits advisors is available on the front page of the New York Employment Services System (

To learn more about Social Security benefits while working, review the recording of a recent webinar and curated article on the PeerTAC website:

How do you verify someone has a credential or certification?

Peer credentials and certifications are time limited. Even if someone has a certificate to show that they have achieved a credential or certification, make sure renewals have been completed within the required timeframe. Expired credentials are not eligible to bill for services.

For credentialed Family Peer Advocates (FPA-C) and credentialed Youth Peer Advocates (YPA-C) there is a verification tool on the Families Together website. For New York Certified Peer Specialists (NY-CPS) there is a search tool on the New York Peer Specialist Certification Board (NYPSCB) website.

We’ve hired a peer support worker, now what?

Aside from recruiting and hiring adult, youth, and family peer support workers, careful consideration should also be given to creating a positive onboarding experience.

Depending on the person and the job, some peer applicants will have had extensive experience, while others may have had very little, if any. It is important to remember the significant diversity that exists in terms of previous employment experience. Make sure not to assume the existence of skills and instead ensure a thorough orientation to the role, program, and organization. 

What are the essential qualities of the supervisor of peer support workers?

Effective supervision of peer staff contributes to greater job satisfaction, increases staff morale and retention, and ultimately contributes to higher quality care. Ideally, peer support workers are assigned to a program that has a strong supervisor who believes in the value of peer support, is well versed in the nature and benefits of peer support, understand peer values and are equipped with clear guidelines detailing expected functions for providing quality, consistent, supportive supervision.

The supervisor and supervisee should have a collaborative approach to assessing job performance, strengths, growth opportunities, and training needs.

The organization is responsible for establishing clear organizational guidelines and expectations related to supervision, and supervisors are responsible for communicating and implementing these guidelines.

Let us know. Were you able to find and hire qualified candidates?

With the increased demand for peer support workers, it is becoming harder to locate qualified peer support staff. Let us know if these tips have given more ideas and strategies to locate and hire peer support workers for your program.