My Promotional Interview Was A Sham, Now What?

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about what to do when it seems
the results of a promotional interview were determined ahead of time. 

Question:
I have been an employee for a local government organization for almost ten years now. A promotional opportunity opened up and everyone who has worked with me or is working with me told me that I am best qualified for this step up. I have a flawless work record, outstanding work performances, I have been at that location the longest, I get along great with everyone, etc….. So there is no reason why I shouldn’t be promoted.

So about 3 weeks prior to interviews, my boss made contact with me after work hours to tell me that I won’t be getting this promotion. I told him that I don’t understand how if I’m best qualified for it. He told me that I didn’t hear it from him and that was the end of conversation.

Interview came and I felt like I nailed every question. But I already knew what was going to happen based on the conversation before and who was on the interview panel. I didn’t want to believe it but it was all staged. Basically, there is a clique of friends who over the past 15 years have been helping each other out for these promotions. We have an HR manager and a compliance manager but they don’t have a clue as what is being pulled off behind their backs. I have sat on a few interview panels before and people interviewing for positions are on a 1-5 scale point system evaluated in 3 areas and the final decision is based on the average of these areas. You can fudge these numbers.

Sure enough, that one friend got the promotion over me. She is not qualified and has not even been there long enough to do the job as well as I could have. I’m in a tough place cause I feel like if I say something, then my job might be at risk. But it just doesn’t sit well with me. How should I handle this? I am working for a government agency who has pulled some crazy things before.

Answer: 

I can understand very well why you would feel disappointed, frustrated and angry over the situation you describe. Unfortunately, without naming your source in a complaint, you have no way to prove that the promotional interview was rigged—if, in fact it was. Even if you were to notify HR that your boss told you ahead of time that you would not be promoted, the interviewers could deny any collusion and point to things in the interview that led them to their ratings, and they may be telling the truth. This is why I don’t like to have in-house raters for promotion! Even if they try to be perfectly accurate and unbiased, there can be an appearance of wrong-doing.

However, it seems to me that your boss showed his own lack of judgment and ethics by contacting you in an almost clandestine way—after work hours—to tell you that no matter how well you did in your interview, you were not going to be promoted. If he didn’t have the courage or ability to do anything about it, he should have kept it to himself. Based on his lack of ethics about the matter, I would question any of the rest of his comments, even though it may seem he was proven correct.

For one thing, I don’t believe any of the interviewers would have told your boss that they intended to falsely rate the interviews or that their minds were already made up. No one would admit to that, with someone not involved in the unethical behavior. The only thing any of them may have done was to tell him they had concerns about you, so they doubted you would rate high enough to get promoted. Or, they may have said something very positive about the other candidate.

If that was the case, your boss could have at least told you about their concerns or what positive things they said about the other candidate. You could have at least made an effort to say something to overcome some of their concerns or reinforce more positive things.

If they didn’t say anything to him at all, his warning was based only on his own thoughts about the process—and maybe his own thoughts about your suitability or readiness for the promotion. Even when coworkers think someone is ready to be promoted, that doesn’t mean management levels view the candidate the same way. So, for all you know, your own boss may have had a few reservations and expressed them to interviewers, then came to you to appear to be your supporter. That may not be the case at all, but it may be.

As it is, you only are left with the belief that the interviewers were part of a clique of friends who deliberately rate a bit inaccurately here and there to skew promotions. The reality may be that they think they rated accurately or that the other candidate did a surprisingly excellent job. However, you will never know that and will always wonder, solely because your boss failed you and the company with his actions.

Since he is the one who started this unpleasantness in your mind, I think you should start with him to get some more information, if you haven’t done so already. You may want to be direct and ask him how he knew ahead of time what the results would be. You may find he was told nothing at all, he just speculated. I think he owes you an explanation of his prediction. You know your work culture best, so perhaps you cannot be very open or confrontational with him, but if you can talk to him openly at all, I think you should do so. Ask him for his help in overcoming this system next time. Ask him to give you additional opportunities to show how capable you are in areas related to supervision or management, so you can build your experiences even further. He may have access to the interview results and can give you insights about it.

The next thing you might do is go to HR or others in charge of the promotional interviews, to ask them if you can see any notes or at least the ratings you received, so you can tell in what rating areas you scored lower or higher. You mention that you have sat on similar interviews, so you know from experience that often there are very few significant differences between candidates, but a point here or there can change the average.

You won’t know what the other candidate scored, but it could be there was only a small margin of difference. Or, there could be a rating area in which you scored very low, which would be good to know. Sadly, you will never have confidence that the rating was accurate.

I think you should also ask HR to reaffirm for you, what exactly goes into the decision to promote. Is it only the interview or is it the interview plus your recent performance evaluations? Are current bosses asked for input about each candidate? Was someone from HR present during the interview, so there was an independent witness who could verify the differences between candidates? You can approach that as simply trying to find out more. It’s OK to say that you were surprised and disappointed because you truly think you were the best candidate for the position. Perhaps they will have some insights that would help you know if there was something other than the interview that led to the final decision.

In some companies it is acceptable to talk to the interviewers after the process and ask them for input to help you understand the decision and so you can prepare for future processes. You may not feel you can do that, but if you can, it would be interesting to hear what they say. In addition, if they are on interview panels in the future or talk with those who are, you can gain some insights and leave some positive impressions, based on talking with them and letting them see you in a different way than across an interview table.

The bottom line is that in-house interviews are often questioned as to fairness and accuracy. I think it is almost impossible to have them be completely unbiased, unless the interviewers have never worked with the candidates and do not know them personally—or if they haven’t contacted bosses and coworkers to get input ahead of time (which often happens). So, I can understand why you feel the process was a sham and someone else was promoted unfairly.

I wish I had some advice that could make the situation better, but probably nothing will help except a reversal of the decision and that is unlikely to happen. The best you can do at this point is to find out all you can about your results and accept that if you stay in that organization you will have to find ways to overcome the flaws in the promotional system. Not everyone who has been promoted has had inside help and at some point your knowledge, skills and abilities will be so strong they will be recognized and rewarded no matter who is on the interview board. You have to keep that faith and keep moving forward. It will help you feel better about your work and that positive attitude will inspire others who also feel you should have been promoted.

Best wishes to you with all of this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know if you find out more or gain additional insights.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors