Why “Checking the Boxes” Doesn’t Work for Hiring or Promoting

As founders, managers, and interviewers, we’ve all been tempted. The person we’re seeking for this position needs to be X, Y, and Z. We’ve already got someone on the team who checks those boxes. Let’s do the easy thing and promote from within. It looks good to the team because we’re showing that there’s a growth path, and it lets us keep someone who’s put in the time and knows how things work at the company.


Sadly, it’s probably the wrong choice, at least if it’s the only path we take.

I’ve been through this temptation many times myself, and in the past, I’ve rationalized the counter-arguments away until internal promotion without any external exploration was the choice we made. As a result, through some of Moz’s growth years, we’ve promoted some people who weren’t ready, lost some people who we might have otherwise retained, and probably cost ourselves some great external talent that could have helped to level up everyone at the company.

It’s easy to see why being loyal to the people who’ve been loyal to you (or your team) pays dividends. And, conversely, it’s hard to comprehend how bringing in external candidates to interview when there’s already a serviceable internal choice makes sense. That move will almost certainly make insiders doubt their worth, question your loyalty to them, wonder about whether they can grow at the company, and feel the antagonism and resentment that comes with being second-guessed.

The only way to free yourself and your team members from this emotional trap is to be totally transparent.

Explain (preferably to everyone on your team at frequent intervals so it never feels like one person or situation is being singled out) three truths about promoting from within:

  1. All else being equal, you and the company want to promote from within. Internal candidates have institutional knowledge and thus, a pre-existing ability to contribute more, faster. Internal promotion also helps improve retention and proves that people at the company have a growth path.
  2. Unless you recruit external candidates to compare side-by-side, there’s no way of knowing whether you’re making a fair assessment about an internal candidate, and no way for anyone to know whether the internal candidate was promoted on their merits or for some other reason (e.g. you had a personal relationship, you feared losing them, you wanted someone you could move back if it didn’t work out, you didn’t have time to recruit, etc).
  3. Internal candidates are, almost always, already contributing in many of the ways they could in their new position. When those contributions are a clear slam dunk for the new role, their candidacy is nearly assured, and if someone feels like they’re not able to contribute because of their title alone, they’ve forgotten the most important rule of influence.

If you don’t share this information with your team, and bring in external candidates for a position someone internal is up for, perception will suck and political ugliness will ensue (even if you ultimately hire the internal candidate). Sadly, even if you do share this info, you’ll probably have to deal with emotional consequences. The logic of interviewing externally may make sense when it’s for someone else’s job or for a position that your friend at the company hasn’t been working their butt off to earn. But come time when those scenarios do apply, logic will fly out the window, and emotion will overwhelm.

In cases where an internal candidate is already performing at the level of the new role, internal promotion without an external search is not particularly terrible (though it’s still bad hiring hygiene). In cases where they have yet to fulfill those needs, it’s a sin that can cause serious long-term pain – pain that I’ve felt, Moz has felt, and several former team members have felt, too. It’s so easy to slip up that even after facing this pain in the past, a little while ago, I had to be reminded again about the importance of this process by some fellow Mozzers who’d observed the misstep at prior companies (thank you gang).

Checking the boxes required for a new role is not synonymous with contributing at that level. Checking the boxes is not synonymous with being the best candidate. And no amount of tenure at a company or meeting expectations in a current role brings even the checked boxes. Great team members let their influence define their roles, and doing so will not only get those boxes checked, but also create a team that can’t wait to have that person fill the new position.

You have to prove to your team, your candidate(s), and yourself that you care and are willing to fight to bring the best people into a role. That can only be done with a process that considers all the options, not just the easiest path.

Ask yourself if you’d feel good finding out that you’d been promoted to a role primarily because finding an external candidate was hard and you met the bare minimum requirements? Maybe the answer is that you don’t care how you got here, you’re just happy to have the chance to prove yourself. Fair enough.

Now ask how you’d feel if you found out your manager, or your teammate, or the new c-level exec had been elevated for those reasons? It’s enough to make you question whether the company’s leadership really has the best intentions or the will to see the right thing done.

Special thanks to Wil Reynolds, who inspired this post through a conversation we had today (as a kick-off to our CEO swap this week).

p.s. In general, this applies far more for people management positions than it does for individual contributors, though at higher-levels, it can also wise for ICs.

p.p.s. Another good way to go about this is to have the internal candidate temporarily contribute elements of the new role, before considering them formally. This makes conversations around expectations and fulfillment of those expectations much easier if/when the time comes.