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Are You Evaluating Internal and External Candidates on the Same Level Playing Field?

Who has the advantage when applying for a role in your company: an internal candidate or an external candidate? The ideal answer is “neither.” Yet, that’s not always the reality. 

A variety of talent evaluation pitfalls can create an unlevel playing field for candidates, resulting in biases that skew your impressions subjectively. In turn, that raises the risk that you’ll hire a suboptimal candidate, while letting a much better fit slip away. 

The use of structured assessments can help ensure your organization evaluates internal and external candidates the same way, using the same criteria, to avoid biases in either direction.  

Who Has the Upper Hand? 

If you were to ask an internal candidate and an external candidate which one is naturally in a better position during the hiring process, each person might point to the other. And to some degree, they would both have a point. While every organization and every hiring situation is unique, there are a few common missteps that can tip the scales unfairly toward one or the other.  

On the internal candidate side: 

  • The hiring manager might overlook all the ways the employee has evolved and progressed during their tenure, especially over a lengthy period. As a result, they might view the candidate’s capabilities narrowly or through an outdated lens. 

  • A high-performing internal candidate could benefit from a “halo effect,” where their strong past performance leads the organization to assume they’re the right fit for a position requiring very different skillsets. That’s one reason you see employees promoted beyond their competency level.  

  • A hiring manager might shy away from promoting an internal candidate that is so good at the current job, they would be difficult to replace. Rather than create the win-win the manager expects, it creates a lose-lose situation when a high performer leaves the company after being passed over, resulting in two spots to fill. 

  • If a personality conflict exists between the internal candidate and their supervisor, the latter can become a blocker rather than an advocate—putting a bad taste in the hiring manager’s mouth and making it difficult to evaluate the individual objectively.   

On the external candidate side: 

  • The hiring manager might subconsciously favor an external candidate who makes a great first impression or one who seems very similar to themselves (two common hiring biases).  

  • By default, an external candidate is more of an unknown quantity, so they might be deemed a higher risk than an internal promotion.   

  • An external hire will naturally lack the institutional knowledge of a current employee, and the hiring manager might place a higher priority on this criterion than others that are more relevant to the role (especially in the case of leadership positions). 

  • Conversely, the hiring manager might place a high priority on the external candidate’s experiences in other environments and settings, which the internal candidate might not be able to match. 

  • The organization might gravitate toward an external candidate simply because they seek a change agent to shake things up (without considering whether the company culture is ready for rapid or dramatic change).  

The Value of a Structured Assessment Approach 

To avoid these common pitfalls and evaluate internal and external candidates consistently—achieving the proverbial apples-to-apples comparison—it’s important to use competency-based assessment tools that are equivalent for both types of candidates. 

That means first taking the time to identify the competencies the open position requires, going beyond a job description that simply lists responsibilities. For leadership roles, it starts with a robust leadership competency model that includes behavioral anchors which demonstrate what a low-, medium-, and high-performing leader looks like in action. Those competencies then become the benchmark against which you evaluate every candidate, internal or external. 

The very act of developing a competency model can introduce biases, so be on guard for this possibility. For example, if a current leader who is changing positions has input into the model, they could skew the required competencies for their soon-to-be vacant role based on their own skills and strengths. For that reason, many organizations partner with a firm with deep expertise in leadership development to help define job competencies objectively, free of internal filters, leveraging industry best practices. 

While every assessment process will vary based on the organization’s needs and culture, the most effective approach to objectively evaluating internal and external candidates involves a combination of tools such as these: 

  • Well thought-out job descriptions that reflect what the job requires today and how it is likely to evolve in the short term 

  • Online personality and aptitude testing, conducted at least one day prior to the interviews, enabling interviewers to prepare thoughtfully by tailoring their scripts based on the test results  

  • Expert interviewing skills, such as active listening, clarifying, confirming, probing, watching for interpersonal cues, picking up on inconsistencies, and maintaining the right ratio of listening vs talking 

  • Questions that force the candidate to share how they handled specific issues or situations in the past (focusing on what they DID do in practice, not what they WOULD do in theory) 

Though a structured assessment is critical for evaluating all candidates objectively, the results don’t always align with expectations. And that can create conflict or uncover succession planning problems. One organization revamped its leadership levels, identifying the competencies and behaviors expected for each role. Then they took their mid-level directors (all on track for VP roles) and assessed them against the new model, as if they were external candidates. The executive team was shocked to learn that many of these HIPO directors fell far short of meeting the newly articulated job requirements—making it painfully clear to senior management that they didn’t have the bench strength they believed they did.  

Other times, the assessment results necessitate difficult conversations with an internal candidate who wasn’t chosen. Employees who are open to filling gaps in skills or experience welcome the opportunity to grow, while others could become disgruntled and leave. 

No matter the residual effects, applying rigorous assessment principles and approaches during the hiring process ensures internal and external candidates have the same, equitable opportunity to vie for the role. The more level that playing field, the better the outcome—not just for the candidates, but for the organization that garners the best talent for the job.  


The Leadership Advisory Practice at Odgers Berndtson helps organizations discover and develop leaders, strengthen value-creating teams, and prepare for what’s next. Learn how our highly experienced assessors and coaches can help you and your team make a positive impact on your organization and those around you.  

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