Faculty Focus


When Internal Candidates Apply for a Position

Any process that involves the hiring of a new member of the faculty or staff has to be taken very seriously. Yet when a search involves an incumbent (i.e., someone who currently occupies the position for which you are searching and who will be replaced by the person you hire) or an internal candidate (i.e., an applicant who is already employed by the institution, but in a different capacity), the complexity of the process increases exponentially. For this reason, there are several guidelines that should always be followed.

When an internal candidate applies for a position, it is important that he or she not have an unfair advantage over external applicants. Moreover, it is important that other applicants not receive the impression that an internal candidate has had an unfair advantage.

If the search proves to be very contentious, an applicant who believes that a search was improperly conducted may file a lawsuit or a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Commission against the school, alleging unfair labor practices. Even in searches where this outcome seems unlikely, external applicants may emerge from the process with hard feelings toward the college or university; if the person then shares those sentiments with others, there could be very undesirable consequences with potential students or donors, and the impact may be far greater than on the search alone. The goal, therefore, must be for all candidates to be treated honestly throughout the search, and that goal is more easily achieved if colleges and universities adhere to the following guidelines.

  1. Never extend an internal candidate a “courtesy interview.” Some people believe that, because internal candidates are already employees, they should be interviewed even when they are not strong contenders for the position. The assumption seems to be that this type of “courtesy interview” will make internal applicants feel better about themselves or protect their self-esteem against the stigma of being screened out early in the process. But this type of courtesy interview frequently backfires. It gives the internal applicant the false impression that he or she has a better chance of being offered the position than is actually the case, and it may make external applicants believe that the institution is not conducting an open search. Although it can be awkward to inform an internal candidate early in the process that he or she will not be advanced any further in the search, having that conversation is far preferable to the alternative, where both internal and external candidates are misled about the integrity of the search.
  2. When internal candidates are granted interviews, these interviews should take place before those of external candidates. Throughout any search, even privileged information tends to leak. People hear which questions candidates are asked repeatedly, which concerns tend to arise, and the responses (both good and bad) of earlier applicants. Since it is not proper for an internal candidate to benefit from this knowledge, it is simply good practice to interview all internal candidates before external candidates start arriving on campus.
  3. Internal candidates should have an experience as close as possible to that of all other candidates. It can be tempting, because an internal candidate lives in the area, to speak to this applicant in person even though other candidates must be reached by phone, or to extend that person’s interview process over an entire week, even though other candidates spend only a day or two on campus. These changes make the experience of the internal candidate substantively different from that of any other candidate. In person, the internal candidate may pick up on visual cues, such as an expression of doubt or a frown of disapproval, which other applicants cannot see when they communicate by telephone. When called in their offices, external candidates may surround themselves with notes or discreetly check a fact on the Internet, an opportunity that is not open to an internal candidate who is interviewed in person. Moreover, internal candidates may be put at a disadvantage if they have to sustain their energy for an extended period of interviews that other candidates were able to complete in a shorter period of time. So, in order to be fair to all applicants, it is important to conduct the process in the same way regardless of whether a candidate lives nearby or must travel a great distance.
  4. Once an internal candidate has completed an interview, he or she should not be involved in the search process in any other way. While it may seem obvious that an internal candidate would not participate in evaluating other applicants for the position, some search committees see no harm in permitting internal candidates to participate in social events where another applicant is present. The problem with this practice is that an external candidate who learns a rival candidate is in the room may be made uncomfortable enough that it affects the outcome of the search. Moreover, if the external candidate later withdraws from the search for any reason, you’ll never know for certain that the real issue was not an unfortunate remark that the internal candidate made in even the most innocuous social setting. In order to avoid any doubt about the integrity of the search, it is highly desirable to limit the role of all internal candidates to that of being applicants only.

Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of The Essential Department Chair: A Practical Guide to College Administration (2006), The Essential Academic Dean: A Practical Guide to College Leadership (2007), and The Essential College Professor: A Practical Guide to an Academic Career (forthcoming). All are published by Jossey-Bass.

Excerpted from Searches with Incumbents or Internal Candidates, Academic Leader, vol. 25, no. 5, pg. 4-5.