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Promotions: Internal Versus External Recruitment

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
September 21, 2023

Recruitment and retention have been widely discussed over the past few years, with a continuing trend suggesting it is becoming increasingly challenging to find talent for some positions within any agency. This might be attributed to any number of causes, each of which should be explored within each agency, as circumstances differ. Another discussion which should be had within each agency is whether to engage in internal versus external recruitment for promotions. In essence, should an agency recruit from outside?

Internal Recruitment

Many public sector agencies have a long-time pattern of promoting from within. The current trends suggest that agencies often limit promotions to those already within the organization, especially those at frontline supervisory or mid-level positions. In some agencies—and this might be tied more to specific agencies than to communities—open recruitment of external candidates is often limited to only the executive levels of the organization. We also see open, external recruitment for a small number of positions where unique qualifications, licensure, certifications or skills are needed, which are not readily available within the current workforce.

There are many arguments to support internal recruitment. It recognizes and rewards the loyalty and performance of the existing workforce. It can create a greater team identity, promoting esprit de corps. It increases the probability that the newly promoted individual will be wholly familiar with internal policies, practices and procedures, minimizing any interruptions or barriers to service delivery which might be present when an external candidate is becoming familiar with the agency and the community it serves. However, a wholly internal search might limit the organization, contributing to stagnation, as new ideas might not continually be introduced into the environment. In effect, the old practices become the only acceptable practices, and over time they might grow ineffective, inefficient or become non-responsive to the evolving needs of the community.

External Recruitment

While many public sector agencies have a pattern of recruiting mid-level and executive leadership from outside the organization, it is a much more limited practice for frontline supervisory positions. There are several potential benefits to recruiting outside the agency. One concern for the leadership of any public sector agency is that the organization becomes stagnant. That the organization is incapable of continual process improvement simply because they have become so satisfied (so complacent) with current practices that they do not study how others might deliver services more effectively, efficiently or responsively. By recruiting from outside, there is the potential to bring in new ideas, new perspectives and new practices, all of which might contribute to continual process improvement, which may be of unquestionable benefit to the organization, the workforce and the community.

There is another benefit of external recruitment, though it is not often recognized or discussed. If everyone in the organization knows that the agency is likely to only promote from within, they may not aggressively pursue professional and personal development opportunities. If they are in the running for a specific position, they are measuring themselves only against others within the organization with whom they might compete. When an agency opens positions to external recruitment, these individuals are suddenly faced with competing with the unknown qualities and characteristics of external candidates. They do not know what experience, certifications, licensures or education these people bring to the table. Consequently, they are more likely to engage in ongoing professional and personal development activities to make them more viable candidates for future promotional opportunities.

An interesting benefit to opening recruitment to external candidates is tied to this ongoing professional and personal development. Even if an agency elects to favor promotional candidates from within the organization (and there are strong arguments to support such an approach), they might find that opening the positions for external candidates changes and improves their existing internal talent pool. Internal candidates may actively pursue professional and personal development opportunities, exposing them to new, differing practices and perspectives. They might have unique insights into how to adopt or adapt these new practices into the agency, making the agency more effective and efficient. This helps to erode the potential for stagnation created by recruiting solely internally. By opening promotions to external recruitment, the agency effectively forces internal candidates to go “beyond the wall” to improve themselves. In the process, they bring new ideas, new perspectives and new practices back into the agency, supporting on-going organizational development.

Ultimately, regardless of the means of recruitment and selection, the goal is to recruit and select individuals with the talent to excel in their new position, providing and supporting optimal service delivery in a collaborative, team-based, customer-focused framework. There is no one best way to achieve this, but there is one wrong way. The wrong way is to continue doing whatever has been done in the past if there is evidence that the agency has underperformed, become stagnate or sluggish in evolving or continues to exhibit any other symptom of organizational malaise. If this is the case, it might be time to throw open the doors of recruitment to a much wider world.  

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, SHRM-CP, IPMA-CP is a training and development consultant and independent scholar. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. He served over 30 years in local government, and has been teaching at the graduate level since 2004. He may be reached at [email protected]

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