The One Question You Must Ask Internal Candidates

Last Updated Aug 13, 2010 2:42 PM EDT

Once you've decided to interview an internal candidate for a job opening, there is a single question to ask that will allow them to rise to the top of your list or become an also-ran.

Internal applicants have a huge built-in trump card over outside ones: They know something about the job, but more importantly they should have a firm understanding of the corporate culture, know where the power resides, what traps to avoid and the local personalities involved. Lucky you! One of the key advantages to hiring an insider should be that they know how to get things done and can be more productive, especially at the outset.

But do they actually have that insider smarts? And if they do, do they know how to use it? Here is the question to ask to test their organizational acuity, courtesy of HBR.org blogger Amy Gallo.
"If you ask an external candidate, 'How do you handle conflict with a colleague?', she will likely give you an answer that is mostly theoretical. An internal candidate should be able to respond in a way that is in line with company policies or norms and shows that he knows how to handle conflict specifically at your organization."
Read Gallo's full blog, How to Conduct an Internal Interview.

Here's another question along the same lines: "As head of a team working on Project X, how would you gather resources to accomplish your task that aren't readily available to you?" The answer should reveal the candidate's knowledge about how things really get done in the company, and their capability to lead without authority, that is direct folks who report to someone else.

If your internal person can provide insightful answers to either of these questions, they have a tremendous advantage over outsiders, all other things being equal, and likely deserve a place near the top of your finalist list.

What's your tip for handling inside candidates versus outsiders?

(Job candidate image by I Don't Know, Maybe, CC 2.0)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.

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