In earlier posts, I challenged those of us in hiring roles to develop internal talent and actively work on promoting from within. Research shows that many hiring managers focus more on hiring external candidates, specifically those in the same role we’re looking to fill.

In an effort to understand why we often hire candidates who are already doing the identical job, I asked Stephanie Creary, Assistant Professor of Management, for insight. Her reply? It’s all about risk. Simply put, people believe that if you have done the job before, then hiring you is less risky than hiring someone who has not. Filling your online learning sales manager position with someone who has already managed people selling those products somewhere else sounds less risky than hiring someone who hasn’t. So if we want to be more open to promoting from within, we should take an honest look at the requirements for the position and determine our attitude toward risk.

Stephanie offered a framework to help. First, put your potential candidates in two categories: those that have done the job before and others with potential to do the job. Second, challenge yourself to identify the specific criteria needed to successfully do the job. Third, do not assess fit based on the positions candidates previously held, but on the responsibilities and accomplishments across the range of their jobs. Be open to a candidate’s credentials by drawing links between their experiences and the demands of your position.

Let’s apply step three to our example of the sales manager above. Assume you have Malia who has applied for your position. While she has never been a sales manager for online learning programs, she has:

  • Earned her master’s degree through an online program so she has first-hand knowledge with the product you are selling from a customer perspective.
  • Managed two administrative coordinators responsible for her current employer’s help desk, so in addition to managerial experience, she also understands how to navigate customer challenges.
  • Sold various products in different industries during her career, including business-to-business and business-to-consumer.
  • Specialized in education; all of her work experiences have been in the education field.

You can see how Malia could leverage her previous work experience for this position, even though she has never been an online learning sales manager before. In fact, her unique set of experiences may make her a less risky candidate, because she could bring a unique and varied perspective to the new role; she won’t merely be comparing it to the previous sales manager positions she’s held. Through the interview process, you can ascertain the depth of her skills in these areas as they relate to your requirements, thereby working to eliminate—or at least minimize—the perceived risk in hiring Malia.

Risk assessment as a hiring tool isn’t just for managers: Job seekers like Malia can benefit from Stephanie’s observation as well. Thinking about how to help a potential employer reduce the level of perceived risk in hiring you is a smart strategy. And it might help convince your next boss to break the cycle of hiring from within.


Katherine Primus is executive director of communications and stewardship for Wharton External Affairs.