How and why to conduct an internal search process 

When faced with a vacant leadership position and an interested internal candidate, many organizations seem to feel that doing a full, open search is the “gold standard” for hiring.  They put out a job announcement containing the ideal skill set for the position, collect dozens of applications, and make an effort to treat the internal candidate just like any other candidate, evaluating their skills against everyone else in the pool.  But is a full search always the fairest or best path to hiring when you have a current employee who is eager to take on the challenge?

I would like to put in a good word for considering a different approach. Before you jump into a full search, first carefully consider the question “Is there anyone already in our organization who may be ready and willing to lead us in the direction we need to go?”  and design a hiring process that can answer that question in a comprehensive and thoughtful way.  This article will describe why and how you might conduct an “internal search process” that will answer that question, and may end up saving you the time, trouble, and expense of conducting an external search.

In Praise of Internal Candidates

Internal candidates bring a lot of advantages to the table when a leadership position opens up. They already know the ropes and the players so they take much less time to get up to speed, they can usually start right away, and you don’t have to worry that they won’t be a good fit in your organizational culture.  Even better, offering new challenges (and a raise!) will usually energize existing employees’ work and deepen their already proven commitment to your organization’s success.  A staff member who is eager to take on more responsibility is demonstrating their professional ambition, their desire to learn and grow, and loyalty to your organization and its mission—all qualities an employer wants to see. The significant amount of time and money that will be saved by skipping a full search can be put towards training or coaching on any new skills they may need help to develop.  If your organization can retain a good employee by providing a new opportunity, all while saving money and time, why would you not at least consider skipping the search?

Your Assumptions Can Get in the Way

The surprising truth is that it is easy to have biases against internal candidates. People usually assume that internal candidates have a big advantage over outsiders (external candidates especially believe this!) but in my experience, the opposite is more often the case. Here are some reasons why we might discount our internal candidates:

  • In any hiring process, there is always a little bit of magical thinking or at least a deeply held hope that we can hire a superhero who will swoop in and efficiently solve all the problems that everyone else has been struggling with for years.  The internal candidate has probably already proven they don’t come with a cape, so hiring them can feel a little uninspiring.
  • Many people have observed that a nonprofit workplace can be a little like a family. Well, you know how hard it can be for your mom to realize you are capable of a lot more now than you were when you were a little kid?  The same thing happens on small teams: we get used to thinking about people in certain ways and in certain roles, and may not take into account their growth potential. It can be hard to see that the person you hired when they were just a couple of years out of college is ready now to be someone’s supervisor, or could even be your next visionary leader.
  • Ironically, people may consciously or unconsciously penalize internal candidates for having been working at their organization for the last several years. Why doesn’t this candidate have a graduate credential or a sexy internship on their resume? Maybe it is because they were spending all that time working hard for you!

Even when these biases aren’t present, the decision makers in most organizations probably don’t know as much as they think they do about the work history, up-to-date skillset, and untapped potential of their current employees.  In fact, it has been my experience that when hiring committees do interview internal candidates as part of a full search, they are more often than not very surprised by how well the candidate does in interviews and how much that person could bring to the table.  It may turn out that the quiet staff member who doesn’t speak up much at board meetings has a detailed vision for the organization’s future that no one has ever bothered to ask about . . . until now.

How to Conduct a Robust “Internal Search Process”:

The good news is that a well-designed hiring process can surface these hidden talents and ambitions, and help you see your employee in a new light. Internal vetting should be done in a professional and transparent way like any good hiring process. This means making a careful plan for what the process will entail, who the decision maker(s) will be, and what criteria they will use to make a decision. The process could include traditional hiring elements such as asking for a resume and cover letter which makes a case for the promotion, formal or informal interviews with the candidate, reference checking both inside and outside of your organization, and perhaps an assignment such as presenting to the board or creating a sample plan of some sort. Once you’ve decided what you will do, communicate your plan to your candidate(s). Being transparent and inclusive about the process up front and then making sure you are actually following the guidelines you set 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.

Although it can feel like you are asking your colleague to “jump through hoops” when you could simply appoint them to the job, in fact there are many benefits for all parties to participating in an intentional discovery process, even if you think it is very likely you will end up hiring your internal candidate.  A process like this will help the ED or hiring committee have a much clearer sense of the candidate’s abilities and professional goals, and that insight will enable them to work better together from the start, including knowing which skills will need to be developed with more training. Similarly, the time the candidate spent reflecting on and articulating their goals and challenges for the new position will help prepare them to hit the ground running. And if they don’t end up getting the job? I believe that when candidates are offered the opportunity to put their best foot forward and be fully considered for a position, they can handle being turned down better; conversely, anger and resentment can happen when the leadership just assumes the internal candidate won’t be a good fit.  When you create a process that demonstrates that hiring decisions will be made intentionally and thoughtfully in a way that honors the commitment of the current staff, it is easier for everyone in the organization to have confidence that the decisions are sound and the outcome will be successful.


Sometimes you do want to open up a full search – how should you deal with an internal candidate in that case? Read this article on tips for managing internal candidates in a traditional full search process.