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How to Reject an Internal Candidate


Oct. 19, 2019 The Muse

I’m sorry, you didn’t get the job.

As a manager, this is probably something you’ve had to communicate at least once before, if not many times. 

While turning down job applicants is common enough (hey, everyone can’t get the spot), it’s more likely that you’ve said “no” to folks applying from outside the company, not from within. 

So what happens when an internal candidate applies and you have to let them know that they didn’t get the job? How exactly do you break the news to someone you already work so closely with—and appropriately manage their expectations moving forward?

Answering these questions is more nuanced than rejecting an external candidate. After all, this is someone who believes in your company and wants to grow their skills and responsibilities there rather than somewhere else—that’s why they went after that internal transfer to begin with.

As the CEO of PhotoShelter and someone who’s dealt with this situation a lot, I’ve learned five key lessons about navigating the murky waters of turning down internal applicants.

1. Don’t Do it Over Email

Email may be a blessing and a curse (my inbox screams curse at the moment), but we can all agree it makes communication easier and faster. It’s not, however, the right channel for breaking bad news to your employee. 

As busy as you are, it’s critical to sit down face to face to explain your final decision. In these scenarios, your tone, facial expressions, and body language can all make a tremendous positive impact on how your employee feels about the outcome. The fact that you’re willing to take time out of your day to have this conversation in the first place also speaks volumes.

2. Be Clear About the Reasons Behind Your Decision

An in-person meeting requires a bit of planning on your part. You’ll need to think critically about what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it (writing your thoughts down or running them by a colleague or your HR department might help). 

It’s important that you’re clear not only about your decision, but also the reasons behind it. The thing about an internal transfer versus an external candidate is that the person is already deemed a culture fit—which means the reasons they didn’t get the job are most likely about their experience or lack thereof. So, you’re in a better position to give them honest, direct feedback that will make sense to them and ultimately help them improve.

For example, if the applicant didn’t have an important skill needed for the job, specify what that skill was. If another candidate was a better fit, explain why. Whatever you do, don’t leave the person without any explanation at all.

3. Ask About Their Professional Goals

Often, an employee might apply for an internal transfer for the wrong reasons. Maybe they feel stuck on their current team and are just looking for something—anything—new. So, the position they applied for may not actually be in line with their own career aspirations. 

This is where it can help to have an open conversation about their professional goals. What title would they love to have one day? Who do they admire professionally? What part of the company or their job gets them most excited? Understanding these aspirations will help you recommend ways they can build on these skills and passions in their current role (and thus get them to stick around longer), and pursue future roles that better align with these goals.

4. Find Other Opportunities for Them to Grow Within the Company

As someone higher up, you know better than anyone where the company is headed and what opportunities for growth are realistically available. 

For example, what additional revenue streams or product developments are you considering? And what kind of team will be required to tackle those pursuits once they’re set in motion? 

Share these future opportunities with your employee by explaining where you’re hoping the company will go and how they could potentially take part in fostering that growth. Additionally, come up with a plan to help them be best aligned for such a role when it eventually comes along. They may get even more excited about those possibilities than the original job they went after.

5. Don’t Forget to Check in

After all is said and done, you should still check in with the person after a few days or weeks. Offer to grab lunch, step out for coffee, or schedule a quick meeting. 

To put it simply, this shows you care. You care about how your employee is feeling, how their current work is moving along, and if they have further thoughts after your discussion. Checking in makes employees feel valued and heard—which builds lasting affinity for and loyalty to your company.

My experiences of having to reject internal candidates have taught me that even when you have to deliver bad news, it’s actually a very good sign when someone’s expressed genuine interest in new opportunities at your company. It means your employees like working for you and can see themselves there for the long term.

Most importantly, it’s your job to foster that spirit and help them get to where they want to be—regardless of the fact that they didn’t land this specific role. Doing so will only strengthen your relationship and the overall success of your business.

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