The ways in which colleges and universities handle internal candidates vying for different positions can vary widely. Many do not have policies or practices that give any advantage to internal candidates, often pitting them against competition from throughout the nation, if not the world. Progressive institutions have policies designed to secure a return on the investment made in developing and cultivating the talents, skills, and abilities of their very own faculty and staff. Since the posture of how many institutions handle internal candidates is unclear, this sends distorted or indistinguishable signals to applicants about how they should pursue positions at their home institutions.
One of the most notable and calamitous practices of some institutions is allowing so-called ‘courtesy interviews.’ As the practice goes, internal candidates who are minimally qualified for an internal posting are afforded an interview. This is nonsensical. Even the most questionable purported employment expert would tell clients that the gulf between being qualified and competitive is as wide as an ocean in most cases. This encourages lackluster commitment from candidates who feel they deserve something they might not have earned. Courtesy interviews are as disingenuous as faux interviews wherein the hiring manager already knows she is going to hire employee ‘X’ for the vacancy and is simply going through the motions because the HR department requires a search. Both practices have questionable ethics. Together they create the context for confused internal candidates who are not quite sure how to show up and perform come interview day.
Given the context of indecipherable personnel policies and practices in higher education, there are some common pitfalls that fail internal candidates. To counter these circumstances, there are at least three tips that can bolster their success. Three tips for success are taking the interview seriously, stating the obvious, and staying in character throughout the process. Three common pitfalls are not being prepared, being overconfident, and being informal.
I have witnessed and heard of countless internal candidates who showed up for an interview dressed in their normal daily attire — not in a suit and tie, or the female equivalent. Some will also not put together compelling application materials or take the interview seriously because they assume that everyone knows them and their good deeds. Interviews by their nature are tests. One would not provide incomplete answers on an examination, so why would one not apply full commitment to their interview? Word to the wise is to treat the internal interview as if it were a real interview, because it is. Search committees expect all applicants to be prepared and professional; it is simply a basic expectation and the etiquette of the selection process.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the overconfident interview candidate. They assume that they have already been anointed or that they have the inside track on the position. In these instances, they either don’t properly prepare or present a pompous front — whether this assuredness is deserved or not. The interview is not the place to be presumptuous about one’s chances of success. Regardless of how good one might assume they are, the judge and jury are not oneself, but the hiring manager and search committee. As such, factors such as character, graciousness, kindness, collegiality, and courtesy are fair game in making the decision of who one would like to work with or for.
As noted, interviews are tests. Tests are formal affairs and have a degree of pomp and circumstances built in. This is precisely why everyone involved usually dresses up, shows up on time for the meeting — a rare occurrence in higher education — follows a well-established question and answer protocol, and documents the results for the record. Why then should the internal candidate treat the process as if it were a gathering of friends?
Given the formality of the process, internal candidates, like all other candidates, should approach the process as if it were a serious and important undertaking. They should prepare earnestly and attempt to do their very best. Because practices vary, the expectations are not always clear. Some hiring managers will hold internal applicants to a higher standard expecting that they have an advantage and as such should perform heads above others. Whether this is real or imagined, fair or unfair, one’s proximity and inside advantage create a double-edged sword.
The prepared internal candidate might think that their record and reputation will speak for itself. But that is an assumption. One must present impeccable application materials, say the words, and perform well in the interview. One’s experiences are more important to them than others, so it would seem unreasonable to assume others know or remember all the good things one has done. Just as a search committee might presume that all internal candidates know the institution’s strategic plan, initiatives, or goals, so might the applicant assume that the committee knows their finer points. The smarter bet would be to present a full, complete, and clear cover letter that highlights one’s background vis-a-vis the vacancy announcement, and fully answer the questions posed during the interview.
Consistent with taking the selection process seriously, following interview etiquette, and approaching the process formally, is staying in character. In the selection process, one is less a current employee as they are an applicant. Therefore, one should stay in character. As noted, there are no rules or universal standards of practice. The rules that govern the employment mating game — selection process — are in the mind of individual committee members. This is dangerous for any and all who have ever been candidates. No one can be sure what the protocol is, so one should err on the side of caution. Some will think internal candidates should relax among their colleagues and others will assume they should follow interview etiquette. Some tips are to never criticize the people or institution even if all the warts are known, be polite to all hosts, avoid telling playful jokes at the expense of friends, and to adhere to the instructions provided, even if they are not wholly applicable to the internal candidate. Just as you would be polite when visiting someone’s home, in this instance, you are being hosted as if you were a guest. If staying in character seems inauthentic, just say it. Better yet, ask the committee chair what is his or her preference. The grand caution here is to not assume. I have seen many an internal candidate crash and burn because they made incorrect assumptions about their competitiveness, the relative need for preparation, and the formality of the process.
One interesting twist that reinforces the advice above, is when candidates assume that they are the only internal candidate being interviewed, this is yet another fatalistic mistake. When candidates make well-intended, but reckless presuppositions like “No one knows the system like I do,” or “It would take less time for me to hit the ground running than others,” might actually undermine their chances of success. A theme woven through the advice provided here is that internal candidates should not make assumptions that external candidates would not make and that they should prepare for every interview in earnest. The fundamentals apply to all. Wise candidates plan, prepare, rehearse, and show up for ‘game day’ — the interview — and perform as if the game — the job — is on the line. Because it is.