Here’s Why Incumbents Shouldn’t Hire Their Replacements – Period

The other day I had a phone interview with a potential employer about a part-time position, and the employer told me the incumbent was “very interested” in her replacement and would want to meet the new hire and orient him or her to the organization.

I almost hung up the phone right then and there.

Mixing the past and the future: Not a good idea

As a job seeker, I have never (and I mean EVER) had an interview with an incumbent that was anything but a disastrous and frustrating waste of time.

Incumbents think they know anything worth knowing about “their” positions. Incumbents are blind to how their weaknesses may have negatively affected the department’s functionality. Incumbents want to hire people just like them.

I don’t like interviewing with incumbents. If you have a practice of involving incumbents in hiring their replacements, I’d like to persuade you to stop.

A trip down memory lane …

I asked one incumbent, “Why are you leaving the company?”

She gave me a chilly stare and then stated (unconvincingly) that she hadn’t been looking for a job but that she had received a great offer out of the blue and couldn’t pass on it. I considered my question to be a standard (and obvious) one, but clearly my interviewer begged to differ. My bad.

Another time, I asked an executive director to describe her ideal candidate, and she cheerily replied “Mary!” (not her real name), and then looked at the incumbent expectantly. It was now Mary’s turn to assume the unenviable task of explaining why her attributes are ideal. Weird. I could tell Mary was wigged out by the whole thing, too.

At yet another interview with an incumbent (and yes, I’ve done this a lot), I asked a series of questions about current procedures that seemingly rattled her. In an irritated tone, the incumbent asked, “Exactly who’s conducting this interview?”

She immediately tried to hide her rude response with a fake laugh, but I sure as hell wasn’t fooled. Apparently incumbents don’t like it when you’re more proficient in their field than they are.

Sigh.

With an incumbent, it can only go 2 ways

Still not persuaded? Consider this: There are only two likely reactions an incumbent can have to your request to hire his or her replacement.

Article Continues Below
  1. Marked indifference — “I couldn’t care less who these people hire. I’m so outta here! But sure, whatever, I’ll help them find somebody.” (Yawns.)
  2. Over-invested hyper-vigilance“I own this job, and I’m not giving it away to just anybody. The new person needs to look, think, and act like me. The company deserves nothing less.

You say: “Bah! It’s possible for an incumbent to assist her employer in a reasoned, intelligent, and helpful way. You’re describing extremes, Crystal.

Well then, call me your ultimate “extreme”’ magnet, because that’s all I’ve ever experienced.

Awkward and self-sabotaging

Grooming an in-house replacement for an upcoming, high-level vacancy is one thing. We call that succession planning, and I’m on board with it.

Over-involving someone in your hiring process who already has at least one foot out the door? Not so much.

Get this person’s input into what makes a successful worker for the job, sure. Have him or her update the job description — great. Ask for referrals, even. I don’t care.

But please, pretty please, don’t let your incumbents interview their potential replacements.

It’s awkward at best and self-sabotaging and counter productive at worst.

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

Topics