Further Questions: Is it possible to be fair when hiring for a position with internal and external candidates?

Each week (or thereabouts) I ask a question to a group of people who hire library and LIS workers. If you have a question to ask or if you’d like to be part of the group that answers, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.

This week’s question is from someone who hires library workers:

Hiring for a position that has both external and internal candidates can be tricky. Is it possible to do this fairly? If so, what are some specific recommendations to ensure an equitable process?

Laurie Phillips, Interim Dean of Libraries, J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans: I do and have done it and I believe it’s been fair. I’ve also witnessed situations where it wasn’t fair, but that may be for an anonymous answer… First, the job description and ad must be written to reflect the needs of the library and not to match the specific qualifications of an internal candidate. Otherwise, you’re stacking the deck and it’s not even fair to the internal candidate. I had a position last year where I had the possibility of two internal candidates. I met with each of them to determine if they were truly interested (or just wanted a job that paid more) and what my questions might be about their candidacy. Second, the process must be the same for all candidates. The internal candidate must apply in the same way and interview in the same way. Other than maybe a library tour, the interview questions must be the same and they must meet with the same people. We often use similar interview questions for searches, so I’ve tried, when I have an internal candidate, to switch things up so they won’t have an unfair advantage. I’d say it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, you’ve worked with the person and know their strengths and what they could bring to the job (in addition to what they say in an interview situation – maybe they’ve just never had the opportunity to contribute at that level). On the other hand, you also know their weaknesses and where they need development. It’s all a part of the process and the manager has to be responsible for keeping it fair to both internal and external candidates.

Anonymous: It can be tricky, but not always for the reasons you might expect. Sometimes candidates automatically assume they’re out of the running when they find out there is an internal candidate, but being an internal candidate comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, I will almost always interview an internal candidate if they meet the position’s basic requirements, as a professional courtesy. So they do have a foot in the door. But, we have more detailed knowledge of an internal candidate’s skills and abilities than we do for an external candidate, and sometimes that means we know the internal candidate would not be a good match for a certain department or position. In other words, an external candidate is evaluated on their application, interview, and references, while an internal candidate is evaluated on those factors plus their history of work at the organization. Honestly, this extra information usually works in the internal candidate’s favor; after all, if their performance was not good enough, presumably they wouldn’t still be working here. 

My one recommendation: don’t penalize a good internal candidate for any vacancies or staffing problems their promotion would create. Sometimes the internal candidate really is best, but then you remember how hard their current position was to fill, and how well they’re doing there, and how long it will take to find another good candidate. Don’t hold that against them! If they’re outstanding enough to be promoted in your library, they’re outstanding enough to get a higher position somewhere else, and I’d rather have the temporary problems associated with rewarding good employees rather than the longer-term problems associated with an organizational culture of no room for recognition or advancement.

Anonymous: I am sure it is possible, but damned if I have ever seen it, either as an applicant or a hiring team.

My only suggestion is to be honest and transparent with all the candidates if you can, but that would probably get you sued.

Actually, I have nothing that can make this situation better. Almost all of my worst horror stories on both sides of the table involve internal with external candidates.

Jaime Taylor, Discovery & Resource Management Systems Coordinator, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts: This question should not be answered at the time a search is being conducted! Instead, this is a policy question, and if your library does not have policy about internal candidates, it should create it. If your library does have policy, then those conducting the search should refer to it.

Examples of policies might be that there is always an internal posting for x amount of time before an external one, or that internal candidates will be considered first, or that internal candidates will be considered first if there are x number of internal candidates — or the opposite, a written policy that says internal candidates will not be given first consideration. Either way, everyone’s expectations are clear and you’re on the same page. If you have a union and a collective bargaining agreement, these policies likely are (or could be!) in your contract. If your library is developing this kind of policy for the first time, be sure to think about how the policies, whatever they are, will influence your ability to recruit and retain a diverse staff and create an inclusive organization.

Ellen Mehling's headshot. She is wearing a cloth mask

Ellen Mehling, Job Search Advisor/Instructor and Brooklyn Public Library’s Job Information Resource Librarian: This is an example of why it is always better to have a panel/committee reviewing resumes and conducting interviews, rather than a single person (who would usually be the hiring manager). Those on the committee should discuss pros and cons and skills/experience/strengths of each applicant that meets the requirements of the position, and internal applicants should be considered and vetted as thoroughly as external ones. In general you’ll have more information about internal applicants, but that should not automatically mean that they are preferred for the new position.

Katharine Clark, Deputy Director, Middleton Public Library: Yes, it can be very tricky to interview internal candidates at the same time. Having been a part of the process on both sides, as an interviewee and interviewer, here are my two recommendations. First of all make sure and contact everyone to set up initial interviews the same. Don’t ask your internal candidate in the break room if next Thursday works for them. They are most likely going to tell coworkers about the upcoming interview, so be vague when talking to others at work about the process. You want it to be a fair and equal process. Secondly, if you don’t hire the internal candidate make sure and follow up with them. If you are part of a large system that sends out generic emails to candidates that aren’t hired, be sure to have a one-on-one chat with your co-worker that didn’t get the job. Let me know what they can work on and how much you appreciated them taking the time to apply for the position. I highly suggest this second piece of advice, makes for a more comfortable work environment for both parties.

Jaime Corris Hammond, Director of Library Services, Max R. Traurig Library, Naugatuck Valley Community College: I think that hiring when there is an internal candidate can be done fairly, as long as the committee is clear on what they can and cannot consider when they are comparing candidates. If the committee agrees ahead of time that they will treat the internal candidate as a new person, and only consider what is on the person’s resume and cover letter, then the hiring process can be fair. In many cases, the internal candidate has the advantage because they have direct experience at the institution, but I have also seen outside candidates be hired because they had deeper and/or broader experience that better aligned with the goals of the hire.

Jimmie Epling, Director, Darlington County Library System: It is possible to hire from a pool of external and internal candidates fairly. From experience, my recommendations are:

1) Use the same hiring process for both internal and external applicants. An internal applicant must go through the same application process as external candidates. If you require an application and/or resume of an external candidate, the internal candidate must provide the same.

2) Provide external candidates with information that may only be readily available to the internal candidate. As an example, provide youth services programming statistics to both internal and external candidates. Offer a tour of the facility or area to the external candidate before the interview. For an IT position, offer a tour of the server area and schematic of the network (of course leaving off specific information).

3) Have the candidates perform a job related task or program. When interviewing for a children’s position, a story time presentation can be a decisive factor between an external and internal candidate.

4) Have a nonemployee who is knowledgeable about the position on the interview committee. The nonemployee will not know any of the candidates, providing the best opportunity candidates can have for an unbiased opinion.

Having a non-employee who is knowledgeable about libraries as part of the interview committee is one of the best way to assure fairness and equitable treatment between internal and external candidates.

When interviewing for an IT Manager position, the South Carolina State Library help us by allowing its IT Manager to be part of the interview team. This person provided excellent questions, spotted exaggerators, and was impartial. I regularly invite either a director friend or someone from State Library services to participate in branch manager interviews as they do not know the candidates and are knowledgeable on public library services and issues. As part of the interview committee, the non-library employee has no knowledge on the internal candidate and requires us as employees on the committee to explain our observations and choices.

Julie Todaro, Dean, Library Services, Austin Community College: When answering this question, we must remember that – within our organizations – librarians move laterally, within levels of promotion, between or among departments, into other roles within libraries, as well as those who apply for temporary or permanent roles, current positions to project management, frontline positions to management, public to behind-the scenes or technical services or technical services or behind-the-scenes to public services – or – and what we think of more typically – further upward on the management track. In addition, managers may choose to step back and apply for leadership or positions that coordinate or facilitate only, rather than management. This means that there are MANY different areas for feedback for our employees so that not only are they aware of how they are performing throughout a year, but they are also better informed on how they might position themselves to apply for other positions, projects, team work, etc. within the organization.

As to the process that we use to select applicants who seek to move up, on, or differently, the best success for hiring for any positions to be filled internally OR from a pool of internal and external candidates comes from a combination of the following practices throughout the process:

Before/The Standard

  • Organizations should articulate their practices on seeking applicants for positions which could include this variety of approaches:
    • We are committed to developing our employees.
    • Our mentor program is designed to not only provide employees multiple avenues for success within the organization for this position but also to get assistance if they decide to move within the organization.
    • Although the organization is committed to developing employees, we consistently post all available positions both internally and externally at the same time to ensure equitable opportunities and the best possible project and customer services.
    • The organization values its employees and their development and available positions within the organization will be posted internally for x days, then finding no successful applicants, the position will be posted externally. Internal employees may apply at any time, following the same standards and practices for the hiring process.
  • To be able to assess internal employees’ performance as well as eligibility for moving within internal work roles and responsibilities, organizations must have up-to-date position descriptions, organizational, departmental and individual goals and outcomes as well as project or team outcomes and evaluation of those outcomes to provide information for employees seeking moves within the organization.
    • Outcomes – for initial team work – must be assigned in part or overall – to provide direction for completion.
    • “The usual” must be in place for individual or group successes such as timelines, resources, organizational tools, etc. (Many organizations identify “levels of success,” that is, “the project is completed to level 1 with x available with level 2 articulated as possible only if additional funding is granted.”)
  • Organizations need organization-wide annual performance evaluation policies and processes.
  • Organizations need – within their annual performance evaluation processes – systematic feedback for completion, successes, needs for improvement and failures throughout each year. This can come from consistent feedback that provides positive feedback as well as negative feedback with a requirement of constructive examples to accompany both positive and negative comments designed to avoid repeats. Feedback can be given in many ways:
    • direct manager giving teams feedback on overall performance of the team
    • a matrix of managers (all involved and/or all affected) providing feedback on overall performance of the team
    • direct or a matrix of managers giving teams feedback on the product while leaving project or team chairs or leaders the responsibility to provide individual team member assessments based on product assessment or “assigning” feedback to individual
    • performance
    • managers giving individuals feedback on their performance for basic as well as advanced duties throughout a year
    • teams, groups use peer evaluations as part of performance assessment for the project
    • teams, groups use peer evaluations as part of performance assessment for a project, within basic roles and responsibilities of a department or service, etc.
    • teams, groups use self evaluations as part of performance assessment for a project or within basic roles and responsibilities of a department or service, etc.
    • teams, groups use upward valuations as part of performance assessment for a project or within basic roles and responsibilities of a department or service, etc.
  • Managers need to commit to effective orientation, training, education and development programs that strive to ensure that employees get the information and curriculum – and as possible and as needed – the funding for development for individuals, departments or services to assist in ensuring successful work product and performance and maintenance of required and preferred competencies
  • Organizations should explore onsite or virtual/digital mentor programs that provide opportunities for employees to discuss roles, receive feedback and experience attention to their performance NOT from their managers of record for job performance or project or team work.
  • Organizations need processes in place to assess the organization’s future needs in order to provide training, education and development to ensure employee competencies are maintained or upgraded to meet those needs.
  • Organizations should have clear, fair processes for “acting,” “interim” and temporary roles employees may take on for open, pending positions that include:
    • clear instructions on whether or not interim or acting employees will be allowed to apply for positions
    • practices for providing orientation and training – and as needed – development during acting or interim roles
    • practices for providing feedback during acting or interim roles
    • articulated, specific practices and scripts for how managers might answer questions from existing employees on internal openings
    • practices in place for feedback and “next steps” for internal applicants NOT successful in the selection process
  • If organizations offer internal candidates the opportunity for interim or acting roles and responsibilities, they should take great care in organizational announcements as well as instructions to teams or projects or departments when interim or acting individuals are announced and integrated into the work and consider:
    • use of the interim or acting or other relevant title
    • specific timelines to announce for beginning, middle and ending roles and responsibilities
    • the possibility of announcing whether or not interim or acting can apply for position

Interview Practices and Policies (in general but also to ensure equitable internal applicant consideration:)

  • Position descriptions and job advertisements should be designed NOT to favor internal applicants (ex. required position elements should avoid – as much as possible – citing specific products or software the organization uses – that is “in-depth knowledge of (the organization’s specific online circulation software) versus “in-depth knowledge of current online circulation software used in (x such as a type of) library
  • Committees must have identical, carefully designed questions for all applicants.
  • Identical modes and methods should be used with applicants for interviewing (if – for example – initial interviews are virtual – internal applicants at the first stages are virtual as well)
  • Standard rubrics should be used for evaluating applicants – based on among other things – position descriptions.
  • Organizations should have formulas for creating equitable selection committees to assist in the process of balancing internal and external (normal) applicant support or lack of support.
  • Committee chairs should take great care to have carefully trained committee members who understand and commit to confidentiality during the entire hiring process including post-hiring discussions with both successful and unsuccessful candidates.
  • Managers must establish practices for organizational announcements for introducing successful applicants in general but especially for internal unsuccessful applicants and co-workers.

Post Interview candidate exchanges:

  • Human Resources standards and legal issues must be addressed for any q and a with unsuccessful candidates such as sessions on “Why didn’t I get this position?” as well as “What might I have done differently?” or “What should I do next time?” or “What is my future here now that I didn’t get the position?” as well as “How can I work with x who got the job instead of or over me?”
  • If discussions are allowed by HR for unsuccessful applicants, scripts must be created for what questions can and can’t be addressed such as “Why DID x get this position?” and “Why was x chosen over me for the position?”

Finally – the goal is to have well-designed practices in place avoid:

  • …”I thought I was getting this position.”
  • …”I was promised this position.”
  • …”I was not oriented within this (as interim) position and therefore could not be successful as interim or acting.”

We’d love to hear your thoughts here in the comments, on Twitter @HiringLib, or in a novelty song! If you have a question to ask people who hire library workers, or if you’d like to be part of the group that answers them, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.


Filed under Further Questions

3 responses to “Further Questions: Is it possible to be fair when hiring for a position with internal and external candidates?

  1. Anonymous

    I was interviewing for a position that I was really excited for. I found out there was an internal candidate when the person giving me the tour said “By the way tomorrow’s candidate is the current interim who is going to get the job. But I guess that’s ok because you already have a job you love, right?” This sounds fake, but I swear it happened. Recently. At a university you’ve heard of.


  2. Pingback: Return to Further Questions Questions | Hiring Librarians

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