Serious Concerns about Hiring an Internal Applicant? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

Your advice has been very helpful in the past, so I couldn’t stop myself from writing to you again about a tricky situation.

I have recently taken over the area of learning and development as part of my portfolio. With that came the discussion of a resource with my boss. My boss suggested a name (K) from HR ops team who is interested in L&D.

K is more of a generalist who coordinates internal events and manages onboarding. I talked to K’s current boss. There are some transferable skills but there will be a huge learning curve (like instructional design, empathetic written communication skills, critical thinking) and I am open to invest my time in growing them (K’s preferred pronoun).

From where I sit, I have always viewed K as someone with a fixed mindset in their partnership with my team and someone I would not have hired myself. Also, in my last year and a half, they have never called me by name or even started a written communication by simply saying hello. That being said, we are on respectful terms but have zero interpersonal connection. 

Last week I learned K has big hesitation in reporting to me. I can only guess it is because I had to make some needed changes when I built my team and, in doing so, I parted ways with two of K’s professional friends. With my current team of 12, I am a strong and empathetic manager with a 100% score on my feedback survey. 

I am still confident that if hiring from scratch I would not have hired K. I have a deep understanding of what good looks like for the role and team culture. 

With the organizational changes, if K accepts the job, I am stuck with her. If she doesn’t, I can go outside the org to hire. I am trying to gain insight into my biases and to put my preconceived notions aside to manage K and help them grow, but it is a weird start of relationship when there’s a team member who doesn’t want to report to you. I worry about my current healthy team culture getting disturbed.

What advice do you have for me?

Uncertain 

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Dear Uncertain,

Thanks for the kind words and the trust you are placing in me. I really appreciate it.

When Jim Collins’ Good to Great came out in 2001, I remember thinking how smart, simple, and obvious his advice was to have the right people in the right seats on the bus. What took me a long time to understand is just how tricky that can be. Simple, yes, but not easy. What Collins failed to mention was that his advice also means is getting the wrong people out of seats they are already in and navigating organizational demands to hire from within. The strategy is sound, but the execution requires excellent hiring skills and the freedom to hire as you see fit—not to mention an available talent pool!

Assuming you have the hiring skills, the other two requirements might leave you stuck with K.

So now what?

Congratulations on your efforts to be aware of your own biases; that is a great place to start.

I would caution you against judging a person’s character based on email transactions. Many people aren’t warm and fuzzy over email. Possibly K is not comfortable making strong connections through media and needs to build trust one on one in person. It sounds like you are senior to K, so you never know—it’s possible they think it is appropriate to maintain strong professionalism because of that. You just won’t know until you get a chance to meet in person (even if it is over Zoom).

Your other misgivings are fair, though. And you must honor your own impressions and instincts.

I think your only option is to have the super candid conversation with them. In this conversation you need to assess a couple of things:

  1. What are the reasons behind K’s hesitation about reporting to you—and can they be overcome?
  2. Will K be ready and willing to give you a chance?
  3. Does K really want the job, and why?
  4. Is K prepared to throw themselves at the learning curve ahead?

To prepare for each of those topics, you will want to find the sweet spot between Candor and Curiosity. You can check out our Conversational Capacity model here.

The author, Craig Webber, says you should be ready to:

  • State your clear position
  • Explain the underlying thinking that informs your position
  • Test your perspective
  • Inquire into the perspective of others

It might sound something like this: “I understand you may have a hesitation about reporting to me and I would like to know more about that. I think it is critical that we get off on the right foot and be able to build trust together. What do you think?”

Or

“What makes you interested in the job? What is it specifically that you hope to learn? How will it be different from the job you are doing, and what makes it attractive to you?”

Or

“If you were to step into the job, the learning curve will be quite steep. Are you prepared to withstand the discomfort of being in learning mode for a while?”

You will want to mostly stick with questions while avoiding “why” questions which tend to put people on the defensive. Your candor and insistence that K be candid with you will tell you everything you need to know about whether or not bringing K onto your team will be a disaster. And if you really think that will be the case, you need to be prepared to tell them that you don’t think they are a good fit for the job. You must have the courage to tell the truth, even if it means taking some time to think about it after the conversation.

Hopefully, if you do that, it will discourage K enough to keep them from taking the job and it will free you up to hire a more appropriate candidate. Of course, if you do that and K still takes the job, you will have to start off with another candid conversation.

On the upside, you may clear up some misunderstandings on both sides and find that the job is just the change K is looking for and they are right for your team. Wouldn’t that be grand?

But taking the leap without the heart-to-heart is non-negotiable. You will so regret it if you don’t.

You have clearly worked very hard to build a high performing team. You must honor your instinct to protect that hard-won accomplishment.

Be kind and tell the truth. Ask the hard questions. If that scares K away, so be it.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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