Thursday, November 06, 2008


Turning Down Internal Candidates

This has recently become salient in my world, again.

Internal candidates raise all kinds of issues – information asymmetry, historical baggage, sense of entitlement, and the like. There's a really basic awfulness in saying 'no' to somebody internal.

Saying 'no' to anybody is unpleasant, but it isn't so bad with people you're unlikely ever to see again. You can be vague and relatively quick, and emerge soon enough with both parties' dignity intact. (That doesn't always happen, of course, but it should.) Once the deed is done, it's done, and you can get on with your work.

But with internal candidates – especially those who had a fairly realistic shot, and who harbor a sense, fairly or not, that the job is owed them – it's much harder.

On a basic level, you know you'll see them again, repeatedly. In fact, you'll have to continue to work with them, and hope to get their best from them.

Depending on the candidate, there may also be a disappointed cheering section of friends and allies, some of whom will hold the choice against you. (I've also seen people bad-mouth an internal candidate behind closed doors before the selection is made, then rally to hir side afterwards. So it goes.)

If the choice comes as a surprise (at least to the candidate), you may get the barrage of 'why' questions. Depending on the real answers, these can be easy or hard to address. If it's a relatively bright line credential, you're home free (“your doctorate isn't finished yet”). The disappointment will still be there, but it's really not personal. But if the reason is more of a judgment call, it can be tough to put too much out there without forever poisoning the well.

From this side of the desk, how someone handles rejection tells me a lot. I've seen candidates express disappointment in the moment, but then (maybe after a weekend) get right back to doing what they do well. These are the ones who sow doubt about the selection. More commonly, I've seen candidates intimate that darker forces are at work, that there will be political hell to pay, or that the rejection is 'typical' of (fill in the blank). In these cases, I'm quickly reassured that I made the right call. If the response is selfish, then I have a sense of what I would have been in for.

Having been through this several times now, I'm increasingly convinced that there's a common expectations gap. A non-trivial number of people think of internal postings as spoils, or as rewards for having paid dues, or as something for which you take a number. In other words, they think of them as entitlements, and react to rejection as they'd react to theft: something was taken from them that was rightfully theirs.

Simply put, I don't buy it. Nobody is 'owed' any more than fair consideration. Positions aren't rewards. They're bundles of tasks that the institution needs done as well as they can be, within existing constraints. Sometimes the best candidate is also the next one 'in line,' and that's great. But sometimes not. If a newer hire has a skill set better suited to the job at hand, and has managed to inspire confidence that s/he gets stuff done, then forcing hir to 'take a number' is wasting a valuable resource. It's running the institution for the employees, rather than for the students. It's a category mistake.

Turning down the 'next' candidate carries risks. Flight risk is an obvious one; I've seen heirs apparent get passed over, howl in righteous outrage, and announce a new job elsewhere a few months later. I don't blame them for that; what one college needs at a given moment may be very different from what another one needs. If what you have to offer is out of sync with what your college needs, then finding a place that needs what you have makes a lot of sense. But I wouldn't make a wrong choice just to avoid flight risk; if the fit is wrong, it's wrong. And I have faith – rightly or wrongly – that the world's talent pool is big enough that nobody is really irreplaceable.

There's also the constant churn of rumor, for which difficult choices provide tempting fodder. All I'll say to that is that I've found over the years that there's really no appeasing the gossips. Give some what they want, and you'll magically create others. Worse, you'll embolden the ones you appeased, so they'll crank up the pressure later. There comes a point at which you just have to accept a certain amount of rumormongering as a cost of doing your job. With rare exceptions, these folks have exactly as much power as you give them. Shrug them off.

None of which makes it easier to have that conversation, knowing that the disappointed candidate will still be here next week, and the week after that, and the week after that. So it goes.

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Oooh, this is a tough issue. I've seen it on a small scale, with a more admin/college office type position. Word on the street could have it that Candidate A, who's been around for years, would be perfect for the position. But this doesn't take into consideration the possibility that there might be a Candidate B, who not only finished his doctorate but also has a law degree. It's not easy to give someone you know personally the news that there was someone better out there.
Choosing between inside candidates isn't something I know about...

In the case of having one inside candidate for a faculty job, I have some thoughts....

Overall, taking pains to be very professional about the search can make things easier for the inside candidate. There are a couple of ways this can be achieved...

1) From the start -- i.e. well before the job announcement... tell everyone involved that there will be no information leaks -- and mean it. Don't post candidate CVs to the faculty mailing list that includes the inside candidate, don't discuss other candidates in the hall, don't expect the inside candidate to come to the other candidate's job talks etc.

2) During the inside candidate's interview "trip"... Treat the inside candidate exactly like all the other candidates --- go to dinner with them, ask them the same questions you would other candidates, make sure they aren't doing things for themselves that are done for others (arranging IT support for job talks, making copies of handouts etc.) -- Don't skip ANYTHING you wouldn't skip for someone else... AND -- cancel the inside canidate's classes on those days just like you would if they were traveling elsewhere. It isn't fair to expect them to both teach AND interview fully... both are time consuming and exhausting.

The thing is, being an inside candidate is very stressful. Often you've been there for a couple of years because you were told there would be a t-t position and that you are a good candidate... So, for those couple of years you feel like everything you say could be a reason to hire you or reject you.

During the actual search, it does not help to know who you are up against... nor does it help to have inside information about the interview performance of the other candidates etc.

Finally, inside candidates -- for good reason -- think that others 'know' them -- when they may not. When is the last time you asked your limited-term faculty about their most challenging or rewarding teaching experience... (i.e. a typical interview question) -- and, when is the last time the whole committee asked such a question?

In short, unless you assume imperfect knowledge of your inside candidate, you are doing them a disservice... and, if you treat them unprofessionall, why should you expect them to react in a professional manner?
People should definitely be professional in the face of rejection, yes. And claiming that their previous institution "will pay" is ridiculous and unprofessional in the worst sense. But I also think it's ridiculous that an institution is going to somehow expect that once they've been dumped, they go back to giving 100% because of some ideal of what their job means or whatever. The institution has a right to act in its best interests (for example, in some places I've seen, getting lots of work out of someone for little pay and benefits - and then hiring someone else out of some sense of credentialism).I'm not saying that this is what's happening at your institution, DD. I don't know you. But I always bristle a bit when management expects workers to give it their all when there is no rational reason to do so.
"And I have faith – rightly or wrongly – that the world's talent pool is big enough that nobody is really irreplaceable."
Ah! And therein lies part of why these situations are so difficult. I'm betting you refuse to spin a rejection as "you're great at your current job and we really can't afford to loose you in the role you're in". If I had to be rejected, that's the kind of approach that would keep me motivated to keep working at a place.
The reality of the situation is that internal candidates, especially those that have worked for you for a while, have every reason to think that you think they are doing a good job. So I can imagine that being supplanted by a relatively unknown quantity would be tough. Rehiring them as an adjunct after rejecting them for a tenure track position only adds salt to the wound - after all, they do bring something to the table that no one else does - a proven ability to successfully teach your students. This is not really a promotion - it's just giving someone the benefits and job security that in your heart of hearts you know they should probably be getting anyway (maybe not the job security given your lack of affection for tenure but you know what I mean).
I get where you're coming from at some level in not wanting to hire those who won't fit. But if you keep hiring someone as an adjunct that you know is not going to be a good candidate for a tenure track job, you have a responsibility to let them know that through performance evaluations. They should not find out as a surprise after applying for a tt position. And if you're not telling them because they are beige but willing to work Saturday morning then you are choosing to mislead them rather than do the hard work of developing them as an employee or finding a more suitable instructor.
As a last and somewhat random note, I’d say that from my own personal experience, ITPF's recommendations for internal hires are exactly right.
"you're great at your current job and we really can't afford to loose you in the role you're in"

Before I even read this, I was going to post a comment that this is often used as an excuse not to hire an internal candidate (for ANY job - not just in higher ed), and that it can turn people off just as much as it will make others feel better. If you think you won't be promoted from your current job because you've been told this, what else is there to do but leave and take a job somewhere else? Unless you are happy with the job you have and want to keep it indefinitely...which someone applying for a different job isn't.
To echo Ivory's comments: Imagine you're an adjunct faculty member who's been rehired semester after semester, year after year, someone who's received good classroom and student evaluations. Finally a full-time job is open in your department, you go through the interview process, up to and including an interview with the college president, and an outsider who's never worked at your school or maybe in your state gets the job. How would you feel?
Like acting in a "professional" manner?

One of the problems here is that the grass almost always looks greener on the other side of the fence. Years and years of good, solid, competent adjunct teaching can be outweighed by a flashy hour-long interview. I just can't see how that's fair.

And if you've been an adjunct who's been actively involved in departmental work and campus politics, it's likely that you've made some friends--and some enemies, too. So what happens to objectivity?

An anecdote: I've been a community college English teacher for 35 years. The first 15 were spent adjuncting. I was vocal and involved, especially in our union, which had done an absolutely miserable job representing part-time faculty, so I'd made lots of friends on campus and more than a few enemies, too.

Eventually, two full-time, tenure-track jobs came open, one in ESL/reading, and another in English comp. I was equally degreed, qualified, and experienced in both areas. I didn't even get a damn interview for the first one, but I got the English teaching position.

All this argle-bargle about fairness, objectivity, and professionalism makes me just want to shake my head.

Having been an inside candidate, I can testify that it does, indeed, suck. From the outside the job sounded perfect for me, and I was on the short list, but no cigar. To my everlasting shame, I did burst into tears at work in front of one of the colleagues who commiserated with me during the days after the news. But then I bucked up and did my research, etc., as that benefitted me for my future job more than it helped the institution.
"in some places I've seen, getting lots of work out of someone for little pay and benefits - and then hiring someone else out of some sense of credentialism"

Yep, and agree with above anon. I adjunct, I'm wildly overqualified compared to most of the TTers, but we have a two-body problem, and this was a good fit at the time. But I've seen this CC administration, which claims to value teaching, pass over excellent teachers with years of experience and service at the college for an outside Ph.D. with a flashy publication record. It's bad enough, if understandable, when someone with a masters is passed over for a Ph.D. who's a catastrophe in the classroom, but when the inside person is equally-credentialed but just not sexy or interesting enough -- that sucks.

One of these yahoos is currently on administrative leave for serious misconduct allegations. Several equally-credentialed inside people were passed over, partly because they weren't interesting, partly because they work for peanuts so why should we pay them more?

I can see why administrations sometimes hire outside people over inside people for good reasons, but with THIS administration, it makes me automatically suspicious.
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I've been in the situation of passing over an internal candidate. The problem was that the person was on a one-year contract and expected to get the tt job. I wasn't on the search committee for the one-year job, but the person who was told me that the Dean insisted we hire this one, as he was currently an adjunct with us.

Turns out, when we looked at his transcripts and CV, that he didn't even meet the qualifications to get an interview -- so, we declined to interview him. At the time we couldn't say why -- but, we made extensive CV review notes, knowing this person would challenge the search and thus get to see them. I'm sure they did see the notes and realized the problem with their transcripts -- and perhaps in the end feel more comfortable about the decision.

Of course, because we were trying to be professional about it all -- we couldn't sit with him and explain it face to face. Instead, he had to be upset for a while and we had to keep our doors closed.
If the internal candidate has been told that being internal gives them the edge, possibly by implication as an inducement to take a rather unattractive job, then they have a right to feel betrayed. The person telling them that (or hinting that) may have had no right to do so, but you know that things like that happen.
Have I a story for you!!! If I email it, will you keep it confidential??
Obviously you have to hire someone highly qualified, but loyalty should count for something too. If a teacher is devoted to your institution and students for years while getting little pay and no benefits, that should be considered a major "skill set."

Most people do their jobs fairly to highly well and most people can do most jobs fairly to highly well. More importantly, most people can and would learn a new "skill set" if it meant a better job.

So why not reward those who have been true to you and your institution whenever you reasonably can?
Because there are other hiring criteria that the committee may or may not openly discuss.
How about applying year after year and not even getting interviews anymore? That's a real mind-bender...until you consider that maybe there is a lot more ageism going on than some want to admit.
What if your Vice President of Academics asks you to apply for the job, encourages you throughout the process, and then hires an external candidate (who on paper, at least, looks less qualified)?? When you ask for feedback, in terms of what you can do better, for next time, you are told; nothing. You were the perfect candidate; just not this time.
Tks very much for your post.

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