“The veteran candidate is good,” a recruiter told me recently. "But no matter how good they are, the internal candidate is going to get the job every time.”
Oh, yeah. The internal candidate. The person who is right there in the office. Who knows all the stuff. Who knows all the people. Who has already been working in industry for years. Who brought cupcakes for everyone’s birthday, remembers where everyone’s kid goes to college and sent flowers when the dog died last fall. That internal candidate.
In a recent survey on LinkedIn, 12% of veterans said they interviewed against an internal candidate and they got the job anyway. Yet in 60% of the cases, the internal candidate definitely got the job. And in 24% of cases, the applicant did not know what happened (usually because the internal candidate got the job).
If you are the internal candidate, this seems perfectly fair. It probably is perfectly fair – unless you are one of those ”nepo babies” in celebrity terms. But if you are the veteran or spouse candidate, the presence of an internal candidate feels like one more gigantic force working against you.
Why Bother to Interview Against an Internal Candidate if They Always Get the Nod?
Because internal candidates don’t always get the job. Sometimes the interview really does make the difference. Sometimes the hiring manager is looking for a change. Sometimes bringing in outside candidates is required in a publicly traded company. Sometimes there is another hidden opportunity you don’t know about yet. And sometimes, yes, sometimes you really do beat out the internal candidate, because you are the best candidate in the whole wide world. It happens.
How to Beat an Internal Candidate
Internal candidates often have a secret flaw or two during the interview process. By knowing what those flaws could be, you can increase your chances of winning the job you want.
This Job Is Secretly a Reach for Them.
Even though the internal candidate is a legit member of the team, they aren’t always 100% ready for the role they want. Maybe it is a reach at their skill level. Maybe they made a mistake recently that made their boss take note. Just because the internal candidate is familiar does not make them unstoppable.
Your plan: Prepare vigorously for the interview. Instead of assuming you can wing it and impress, practice interview questions with another person who will give you honest feedback. Emphasis on the feedback. I know you do not want to take this step and you do not think you need it, but the candidates who are the most impressive are the ones who have prepared the most with others.
Their Boss Is Secretly Not a Fan.
While the internal candidate’s experience at this particular job is almost always better than yours, they do have the disadvantage of being a known quantity. Not everyone at the company is necessarily a fan. If the boss’s boss ain’t crazy about the candidate or if you find yourself in front of a panel interview, you have a chance.
Your plan: Make your case ahead of time. Pretend the interviewer points to your resume and says, “Why should we hire you?” Demonstrate how all your past experience does match you up for this job. If you don’t know what you would say to make your case, take it as a sign you would benefit by working with a career coach.
They Secretly Don’t Have Any New Ideas.
Internal candidates often don’t have fresh ideas. All their ideas have been beaten out of them.
Your plan: After you have demonstrated that your experience does line up with what the company is doing, show that you can bring a little bit more than the internal candidate. Maybe you have used the item they are selling in the field. Maybe you spend some time on Capitol Hill or in the Pentagon. Maybe you have a lot of experience with bickering stakeholders. What’s in your wallet?
Internal Candidates Secretly Don’t Have Questions.
Since they already know who they would work with and what the team is like, internal candidates don’t usually ask a lot of questions – and they secretly don’t do a lot of prep for the interview.
Your plan: Research first. Then in the interview, ask questions about the job that can’t be answered by Google. Ask about processes. Ask about their experience with other veteran hires. Tell them your strategies about how to make alliances and adapt quickly. Be curious about their operations and how they solve problems.
Their Network Is Secretly Not Talking Them Up.
If you got the interview because someone in your network recommended you, you have a chance. They are talking you up to the hiring manager. Internal candidates can be unknown outside their own department.
Your plan: Work your network. The person you know who works at the company right now is the absolute best source with the most accurate information. Call them up and thank them for helping you get the interview. Then ask them what they know about the team and the boss and any insight on what the company likes to see. Every little tip matters.
They Secretly Want You to Join ’Em.
Sometimes you really aren’t as well qualified as the internal candidate. They might be fabulous. That’s OK for you. Even if they hire the internal candidate, hiring managers have been known to do a "talent hire” – where they make a place for you because you have some skill or expertise they want. No matter how skilled you are, this only works if you do a remarkable job prepping for the interview. Hiring managers can also take this opportunity to get to know you, so they can send you an invite when a more suitable role pops up.
Your plan. Keep the recruiter warm. Because other opportunities do pop up in business all the time, make sure all your correspondence with a recruiter and the hiring manager is warm and timely. You want to leave a good memory.
Competing against an internal candidate is never easy, but you can be as strategic and thoughtful in your approach. In the long run, it just might make all the difference.
Jacey Eckhart is Military.com's transition master coach. She is a certified professional career coach and military sociologist who helps military members get their first civilian job by offering career-level Master Classes through our Veteran Employment Project and on her website SeniorMilitaryTransition.com. Reach her at Jacey.Eckhart@Monster.com.
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