Internal Candidate: they are two words that can strike fear in the heart of any nonprofit hiring committee. It’s easy to understand why: small staff teams can feel like a family, and the fear of having to turn down a colleague or even just upset the team dynamic if one person gets promoted over the others can be very real. Plus, will that person quit if you don’t offer them the job? Whether you are an ED who needs to hire a senior staff person or a board committee trying to hire an ED, knowing how to manage an internal candidate without the benefit of a separate HR department can be tricky. What follows are the most important lessons and tips I have learned from all the searches I have been a part of for creating a hiring process that feels fair and balanced to internal candidates, and gets the right person into the job.
As I described in my most recent article, when you know you have an internal candidate it is worth considering doing a careful internal vetting process before you begin a search, as this can save you time and money. But at times there is a need for a full search where you put out a job announcement containing the ideal skill set you are looking for, and compare how your staff member stacks up against all the other applications that come in. When conducting a search that includes an internal candidate, your primary goal is to make the best possible decision about who to hire for the organization: one that does not give an unfair advantage or disadvantage the staff member, while still recognizing that this person has a special relationship to the organization that is deserving of careful consideration. Your secondary but still important goal is to run a search that reduces the possibility for miscommunication and unmet expectations, which can lead to staff frustration, work disruptions, and in extreme cases even legal action. How do you go about doing that?
The 3 Keys to Success: Procedural Transparency, Clarity on Criteria, and Airtight Confidentiality
When I am working on a search with an internal candidate, there are three main rules I live by:
- Share as much as possible about the search process, so candidates know what to expect.
- Be as clear as you can about your decision-making criteria before you start accepting applications.
- Be vigilant about protecting confidential candidate information.
These are important rules for protecting the integrity and fairness of all searches, but with an internal candidate, they should be top of mind. Let’s look at each of them in turn.
Procedural transparency means creating a careful plan for the steps in the process, including decision timelines and who the decision maker(s) will be, and then sharing that information with your candidates. Internal candidates will understandably be concerned about issues such as: who will be present at the interviews? Will a committee be making the final decision or just one person? You should fully communicate your plan to the staff so that everyone knows what to expect and can decide for themselves if they want to apply based on the process. Being thoughtful and transparent about the process up front and then making sure you are following the guidelines you set out will go a long way towards helping people feel that the process was respectful and fair, even if they end up disappointed in the outcome.
Clarity on criteria - your job announcement should include a clear list of the ideal skills, qualities, and credentials you are seeking in this hire. Internal candidates should be told upfront if the fact they don’t have a particular degree or skillset is going to be a significant concern. There’s nothing more frustrating for a candidate than going through a grueling search process only to learn at the end that you didn’t get the job due to not having a credential that was evident on day 1 . . . except maybe deciding not to apply because you were told having that credential was a requirement, but then finding out that the new hire does not have it either! These are the kinds of miscues that make internal candidates (rightly!) feel angry and mistreated. Clarifying the most important criteria early in the process and sticking to them helps people feel the decision makes sense.
Airtight confidentiality when it comes to candidate information is a best practice in any search, but it is of paramount importance when working with internal candidates. It can feel like a big risk for an employee to put themselves on the line by applying for a new position, and they need to be confident that everyone on staff is not going to hear what they said in the interview or why they got turned down. I believe that staff or board members not directly involved in the search should have no idea if a staff member has even applied unless the candidate shares that information. If there will be a staff member included on the hiring committee and sitting in on interviews, it is even more important that strict confidentiality is observed. In this situation, I will sit down with the staff member on the committee and reiterate the importance of keeping all candidate and feedback confidentially within the search committee, both during and after the conclusion of the search. I will also let the candidate know I have discussed this with their colleague on the committee and the expectations are clear. I take confidentiality very seriously because leaks in this area will erode trust in the process, and can come back to haunt you if people are unhappy with the outcome.
Tips for working with Internal Candidates
Below are some tips for shepherding the process in ways that are both sensitive to the special needs of the internal candidate, and fair to them and everyone else in your pool.
Don’t let the internal candidate “try out” the new job while you run your search. It’s so tempting, when you have someone itching to do the unfilled job right in front of you, to let your candidate just try it for a while to see how things go. Don’t do it! It’s not fair to judge a candidate who has not been fully trained and onboarded for that new job, and it can be painfully awkward to take responsibilities away if you end up making another choice; this will very often lead to their resignation. Hire an interim and/or just put certain tasks on hold for a bit while you sort out your search process.
Double check your own biases. As I discussed at some length in my article on internal searches, it is easy to make assumptions about internal candidates that put them at an unfair disadvantage. Try to go into the search with an open mind and a genuine curiosity about the candidate, even if it is someone you already know well. If possible, have at least one person who doesn’t know the internal candidate well be part of the hiring committee, to give the perspective of someone with fresh eyes.
Offer all internal candidates an in-person interview for the job. This is one way that I do treat an internal candidate differently from others in a full search: I believe that all internal candidates who officially apply should be offered a first-round interview with the hiring committee, even if you think there is no chance they will win the job. These employees put their time and talent into your organization every day, and they deserve this as a professional courtesy. People end up hurt and resentful if they feel they aren’t given a chance to at least try, and by giving them that audience you will increase the chance they will feel the process was fair, even if you turn them down. And you never know, they may surprise you!
Play fair. Don’t base your decision on situational factors outside of the hiring criteria. Maybe you’re worried about how you will fill your employee’s current position if you promote them . . .or you’re worried they will quit and maybe even take others with them if you turn them down. It may be easier said than done, but try not to let considerations like these impact your ultimate decision. It’s not fair, and moreover, these issues may be more short-term than you think. Having observed dozens of searches, I am confident about one thing: none of us have a crystal ball, and our predictions about how people will react to our decisions or what will happen next will be wrong as often as they will be right. Just make the best decision you can base on your criteria, and cross those bridges when you come to them.
If the internal candidate is hired:
Make a careful onboarding plan that helps everyone adjust to their new roles. It can feel weird to both parties to have someone go from being a peer to being a supervisor. Talk about it! Acknowledge the weirdness and think through how to mitigate it. Check out Julie’s article on onboarding to see how to do this right!
Invest in professional development opportunities, including coaching. You would never start someone new without help, but it can be easy to forget that just because your new ED already knows everyone’s name doesn’t mean they don’t need support. Don’t skimp on training and professional development for your new hire.
Don’t forget to fill their old position. This sounds obvious, but it happens more often than you would think: an organization will promote an employee who is excited to dive right into their new duties before a real plan has been made for who will take over their old job. What started as a temporary solution can stretch on for weeks or months. This is not sustainable and not fair to anyone.
If the internal candidate is turned down:
Be empathetic. Being turned down for a job at the place that you work can feel hurtful and even humiliating, especially if your co-workers know you applied. I try to explicitly remind people that the search was not a referendum on if they are good at their current job, which they (usually) absolutely are! I also believe that a significant reason internal candidates can end up feeling disrespected is that they have naturally been focusing on the question of if they can do the job, rather than how they compare in a large pool of applicants. So they may be feeling like “I can’t believe the (board or ED) who I thought respected me, doesn’t think I can handle this job!” Whereas the hiring committee may fully believe the internal candidate could “handle” it, but was still not the best choice for the direction they wanted to take. Be aware of this dynamic and be willing to discuss it if it arises.
Support the candidate in the ways that they feel are helpful. Some people will want to hear detailed feedback about why they fell short and how they could improve their skills, while others will end the conversation quickly; be responsive to whichever they choose. If possible, it can be nice to offer a personal day to let the candidate regroup and come back to work ready to roll. Finally, while you can’t offer a consolation prize, if through the search you learned about a candidate’s specific interest or skill, it can be smart to look for opportunities to put that into action in the months ahead. By applying for the position, your employee has indicated they are both committed to the organization and ready for a new challenge, so being attentive to what that could look like in the future is both thoughtful and strategic, especially if you want them to stay.
Maintain strict confidentiality, even in the face of questions. The candidate can tell others in the organization anything they want about what happened in the process; you, on the other hand, will not be able to discuss the rationale for your decision with anyone outside of the hiring committee. But that does not mean others on the staff won’t ask you about it! It is smart to have a go-to answer that emphasizes the process you followed and the criteria you agreed on (way back to Rules 1 and 2!) rather than the conclusions you came to. It can feel very difficult and frustrating to keep silent if the version of events that is going around the break room does not include “your side” of the story but resist the temptation to clarify with anyone other than the candidate themselves. As the saying goes, this is why you get paid the big bucks. ( I know, you wish, right?)
Don’t be surprised if, even with a fair process and a lot of support, they decide to leave anyway. You can do everything right in your search, but the truth is that candidates who were turned down will often end up leaving no matter how well you managed the process. It’s worth remembering that is not just about hurt feelings or sour grapes. One thing that happens in any search is that candidates spend time thinking about what would be most exciting and satisfying in a job, and that self-reflection process itself can lead them to realize they are ready for the next challenge somewhere else. If this realization happens as a result of a well-run and fair search process, that is not a failure. Wish your colleague well and stay in touch with them! They are probably going off to do great things.