How to Interview Internal Candidates

"So, do you work here?"

It was the first question the interviewer asked me, so I knew then that I wasn't a serious candidate. My employer had assigned a newbie to interview me and she wasn't bothering to make it look legitimate. She rattled off the usual questions, always returning to whether I'd pay relocation expenses for the job, which would require moving from the Midwest to Manhattan. No matter how many transferable skills and examples I cited, she barreled along as if she'd rather be somewhere else. After 15 minutes, it was over. The message had been sent, loud and clear. The company had someone else in mind. No matter what I had accomplished for my employer, I was just a formality. I was someone they had to interview because I worked there. They went through the motions. They couldn't care less about me.

For many companies, interviewing internal candidates is a common courtesy. It reinforces an image that the playing field is level and everyone has a chance to move up. Even with the best intentions, most companies can't escape a precarious dichotomy. Most employees join companies hoping for something bigger. They make sacrifices, believing they'll eventually be rewarded. Deep inside, they measure themselves against that career clock, wondering if they've fallen behind. Conversely, employers have a role to fill. Mistakes are costly and companies lack the time, expertise, and support systems to help an emerging talent grow into the role.

Even the most fair and transparent process risks causing a previously stellar employee to grow disengaged—or lash out. Your own department may never see that employee's performance suffer. It's someone else's problem, you think. Don't kid yourself: It'll blow back on you soon enough. How can you mitigate the potential fallout from a failed internal candidacy? Follow these five tips.

1) Come prepared. "They didn't respect my time." That's the worst statement any job candidate can make about you. Chances are, internal candidates will care enough to do their homework. Do the same. Review their resumés and portfolios beforehand. In fact, invest a little extra time in preparing for them. Don't shortchange them because you're busy, inexperienced, or biased.

Certainly, you don't want to relax your standards. Apply the same questions, expectations, and process to internal candidates, but give them the same shot as your top prospects. Sure, your malcontents will badmouth you on Your goal is something else: keeping your top performers from seeding doubts about the company among their (and your) peers.

2) Follow up. It can be like a first date. One side may feel he or she is making a connection, while the other is looking for a dignified escape. It's cruel to give false hope to a mismatched candidate. But leaving him or her hanging afterward is even more callous. No one intends to ignore a candidate. Sometimes processes, timelines, priorities, and structures change. It's natural to dread picking up that call to deliver the bad news. But it's always better that an internal candidate hear it from you instead of via a peer or a company announcement.

The decision may not reflect on you. Delivery does. Over time a candidate will accept the rejection but never forget the treatment. Internal candidates have patrons, too. People believe in these candidates and have invested in them. Most likely, these patrons will perceive you through the rejected candidate's experience. Even more, they probably have the ears of key members in the organization. So give extra care to internal candidates. It'll eventually catch up to you if you don't.

3) Provide advice. We're all afraid of being sued for saying something wrong. Nonetheless, it pays to step outside your confines and give internal candidates some direction. Outline the technical abilities and areas of experience where they fell short. Suggest alternate roles that may align with their interests and talents. Provide interview tips if they displayed glaring tendencies such as failing to stay on message. Put the burden back on them. Share information about internal and external programs through which they can overcome limitations.

Like all applicants, internal candidates deserve one thing: a fair shot. Feedback demonstrates that you cared enough to take them seriously. Who knows? Your pointers might help them in their current role, too.

4) Refer them. Is their interest sincere? Do they show potential to be groomed? Do their career trajectories align with this role or something similar? Maybe you should think long-term and open some doors for the candidate. Tap into your connections and give them additional exposure. Tout their abilities to potentially interested parties and arrange meetings. You might introduce candidates to mentors who will prepare them for the next job openings.

At the same time, think about just how closely internal candidates stack up. If they're borderline, don't dismiss them immediately. Give them an assignment to test their abilities and (more important) commitment. Distribute their resumés to other stakeholders as well; they may have views that differ from yours. Bottom line: Your internal candidates are likely going above and beyond their current roles. Return the favor.

5) Understand the risks. For internal candidates, this is their big shot to apply underutilized skills, earn more money, or get a fresh start. Sure, the field is competitive and the decision difficult. Ultimately, you're probably sending them back to dead-end jobs under clueless bosses with bullying clients, impossible workloads, and red tape. The runner-ups' hopes will be dashed and their pride shaken.

The question is: How soon will they snap out of their disappointment? Some candidates will bounce back with an "I'll show them" mind set, working even harder to regain their self-respect by proving you were wrong. Others will wallow in doubt and self-pity. Some will send resumés to the competition, eager to spill the company's dirty laundry for revenge. Others will hear inner voices looping the same message: "The organization doesn't value you. Why are you still working here?" Their work will suffer in the short term as they work through distraction, indifference, and anger.

You can't control these reactions. In the end, you can manage only your own performance. Look at the interview from the candidate's perspective. Be honest, tempering this with tact and sympathy. Recognize that your finely honed instincts and hard-earned experience may just be prejudices in disguise. Judge candidates on their merits, not their department, role, age, or location. Understand that your interview may force them to face skill gaps and performance issues, which they may not appreciate—at least not initially. Most important, never forget that internal candidate are peers. You may need their help someday. Make sure you've earned the goodwill.

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