Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli writes in the latest Harvard Business Review that “from the end of World War II through the 1970s, corporations filled roughly 90 percent of their vacancies through promotions and lateral assignments. Today the figure is a third or less.” He also states that “only 28 percent of talent acquisition leaders report that internal candidates are an important source of people to fill vacancies.”

These two statistics, as well as several other key points Cappelli makes, have been on my mind since I read his article. Given my own anecdotal experience looking for jobs, serving a hiring manager, and coaching others on their career paths, I am saddened by the reality but not surprised.

I would like to figure out what to do to change the way we view our current employees. A first step may be to determine what we as individual hiring managers might do to move the needle, starting with being honest about why we do not consider internal candidates. Those reasons may include:

  • If a team member moves to another role, it will be harder for us as managers because we’ll have to fill his/her position. A colleague of mine, who has reached pretty high levels in her career, immediately expressed that concern when I talked with her about this problem. As managers, we might selfishly prefer to keep a high performer in her current role, rather than advocate for her advancement. Most people also don’t like change, and from that perspective, it’s easier for managers to focus on one position (a new external hire) rather than two (the current employee who’s switching roles and the outsider who will fill the vacancy).
  • We won’t be seen as a team player by fellow managers. If I “take” your great employee, it could be interpreted as a harmful move, when in reality, the opportunities of a new position might help us keep this great person from leaving the company.
  • We set higher bars for internal candidates. We already know their stuff, or think we do, and we expect too much from them—for example, that they should know more about the job and fight for the new role in ways we would never expect from an external candidate. Our minds are closed to the possibilities. I have had numerous conversations over the years with colleagues when I have suggested internal candidates for roles, and their looks of surprise confirm that current employees were not even on the radar.
  • Internal candidates seem imperfect from the start. We’ve already seen the employee’s weaknesses, and that could put him or her at a disadvantage compared to a new hire who may only show his or her best on a resume and throughout the hiring process.
  • We want to hire someone who has already done the job. The internal candidate was not doing the job because someone else was in the role—that’s a fact, not a flaw. But compared to someone who’s been doing that work elsewhere, the current employee’s experience falls short.
  • We are locked into established job descriptions. Every time an employee leaves, it’s an opportunity to think about what we might do with those already on our teams—including how we might restructure to create the space for their growth. Even if we ultimately hire an external candidate, there’s an opportunity to develop our current employees that shouldn’t be missed (especially if they applied for the position).

Identifying why we do not easily and readily consider internal candidates is the first step toward changing our thinking. What other reasons might bias us against filling vacancies with current employees? Was there an instance when an internal candidate surpassed your expectations and led you to reconsider your hiring process? Please share your thoughts in the comments below or email me at primuska@wharton.upenn.edu and I’ll discuss your feedback in a future column.\


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