when a job ad says a preferred candidate has been identified

A reader writes:

I recently saw a job posting that said at the bottom that a preferred candidate had already been identified, but that all applications would be considered. In such a situation, is there any considerable benefit in applying? While I am qualified for this position, I wouldn’t consider myself to be an ideal candidate – but for the future I’m curious what this means.

Is there ever a great incentive to applying for a position with this kind of statement? A friend had mentioned to me that perhaps the preferred candidate has stated a desired salary that the company feels is too high and is looking to see what less expensive options would look like.

Contrary to your friend’s hunch, “preferred candidate identified” doesn’t usually mean “but we’re hoping for a cheaper one.” It usually means “we’re giving you fair notice that know who we’re likely to hire, but we’re still open to talking to other candidates.” Sometimes they’re open to talking to other candidates because they’re genuinely interested in making sure they hire the best person for the job, and sometimes they’ve only open to talking to other candidates because their internal hiring rules require them to go through the motions (post every job, interview a certain number of candidates be interviewed, etc.).

When it’s the latter, it’s a waste of your time. But it’s important to know that you can’t really tell from the outside when that’s the case and when it isn’t — so if you think you’re a really strong candidate for the job and the application process isn’t terribly time-consuming, it can still be worth it to apply.

If nothing else, interviewing for the job can help you make contacts and get you on the employer’s radar screen for other positions that might fit you. Or, the preferred candidate might become unavailable. Or you might find that it’s a truly genuine process where you’re given fair consideration. So it’s really a cost-benefit question for you: Are you willing to put in a little time, knowing that there’s a front-runner will may or may not work out?

{ 61 comments… read them below }

  1. LBK

    I agree that it’s totally worth still applying, regardless of whether the listing is genuine or just a formality. Time to toot my own horn for a second: I actually got a job when it was the latter situation. They knew exactly who they wanted up front (someone internal, they pretty much had the offer written and ready to sign before they even interviewed her) but the HR policies forced them to post the job publicly and let people interview. They liked me so much from my interview that they actually turned it into a 2-person position and hired both of us. So even if they do take the preferred candidate, never rule anything out.

    1. A.

      My mother always tells me of a situation she knows of where an organization already had an internal person they were planning to hire but due to HR policies had to externally list the position and interview external applicants. There was an external applicant that blew the internal person out of the water and the org ended up offering the job to the external applicant. It does happen, so I’d go ahead and apply.

    2. Portia de Belmont

      I had the same thing happen to me. It’s worth a little effort, but not something to invest in.

      1. LBK

        I dunno – I actually didn’t know they had a preferred candidate until long after the fact when my manager told me how it had all played out behind the scenes, so I was fully invested. I think you actually have to give MORE effort if you know they have someone else in mind, because you have to be on your A-game and blow the interviewers minds with how awesome you are if you’re going to get in the door.

  2. sophiabrooks

    At my place of employment, if the job is posted due to internal posting regulations, but the candidate has already been chosen, not only do they say “preferred candidate identified” but they have no job description at all, so usually people do not apply. Which is frankly a little dumb, but usually happens when someone is being promoted (either the job has been created for them or someone of a higher level has left and there has already been succession planning)

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Ugh, that is totally contrary to the spirt of those internal posting regulations. I don’t support having those regulations in the first place, but if you’re going to have them, letting people openly flout them like that is a little silly.

      1. sophiabrooks

        I think it is really weird, but I have been the preferred candidate twice- I started as a “Secretary III” in the HR System, and was called a Program Assistant in my department. Then, after a few years of doing a good job, they made me a “Secretary IV” with the same title and duties pretty much. But to do that, the department had to create a new job, post it for a few days, take it down, the hire me. Same thing when I moved up to Administrative Assistant, and was promoted to “Program Coordinator”. The job didn’t exist before I was in it, and then my old job didn’t exist after I was “hired”. It seems like there should be a promotion process along a given track of jobs, since that is what happens in practice.

          1. sophiabrooks

            Private higher ed! If it was state higher ed I would have to take a civil service exam for each of these!

        1. Disordered

          AT&T used to do this on internal postings. So you don’t waste time applying for a job that is only posted to comply with internal/external regulations.

      2. Artemesia

        I agree — I think genuine new jobs should be posted but when promoting from within, it seems silly to see it as a ‘new job’ — the job vacated after the dust settles should be advertised but promoting someone should not require this sort of charade.

    2. Stephanie

      That just seems like they’re checking a box. “See! We posted it on the Teapots, Inc Taleo site. Now let’s go hire Matt.”

      I’ve seen postings that say “Preferred candidate identified” and that are only open to current employees. So then…why is it posted on Indeed/CareerBuilder/Monster?

      1. LV

        I recently saw a posting for a federal govt job that said the job was open only to current employees of that govt department. Except not only had they posted it on multiple job websites, but a dept HR rep had sent out an ad to a country-wide email list (which is how I saw it). Thanks for letting me know about this amazing opportunity that I’m not eligible for, I guess.

    3. Adnan

      I see this often on the job board for a University in Canada and never apply to such postinsg.
      The postings have the full job description and other info, including the pitiful pay scales.
      “This position is expected to be filled by promotion/reassignment and is included here to inform you of its vacancy at the University.”

      1. Petra

        I can only guess you’re referring to UBC. I actually appreciate that they do this. In this instance it seems to be fulfilling a policy in the interest of transparency, .e.g., “hey, we have a vacancy but we’re filling it internally”, rather than pretending to be looking at other applicants when they have no intention to do so, just so they can check some sort of HR box. Not only that, but it allows prospective applicants to see the kinds of jobs that exist and the corresponding pay scales.

        1. Braden

          Petra, your comment is very helpful! I’ve never known how to take that sort of statement as I apply for UBC jobs.

          Peace!

  3. KarenT

    It strikes me as a bizarre thing to put in an ad, since the preferred candidate would see it. It would be like saying to someone, “We’re probably going to hire you, but first we need to see if we can do better.” Even thought that’s a common scenario to be in as a hiring manager with internal candidates, it’s still TMI.

      1. KarenT

        It’s not the posting of the job I think is bizarre, (we are required to interview a minimum of three candidates per role), it’s telling people you have a preferred candidate. I don’t think it’s wrong, but I do find it strange.

    1. Anon for This

      I’m in the middle of this right now. I really can’t tell if my manager is hoping for someone better (it’s an internal transfer, on the same team, but into a significantly different role) or just going through the required motions. Ugh.

      1. Anon for This

        Oh, and: I have to complete an interview exercise. Which I generally think is a good idea, except…. my boss knows my work very well. While the new role is significantly different, I imagine she’ll still draw more on the 2+ years of experience with how I do my work than the 60 minutes we spend talking about a made-up exercise I’ll complete.

        1. Jill-be-Nimble

          I’m sorry–and a work exercise? Really?!

          I’m a temp in my company right now and a position that I would be perfect for opened up a little more than a month ago. My boss asked me to apply for it, and I was stoked! Now, just about everyone in the department that has been involved in hiring has been extendedly sick (at different times), the HR person driving the hiring process quit unexpectedly, and a huge emergency with one of the projects set hiring back a few weeks. It’s getting to the point where the temp job may end soon and I still don’t know if they’re going to hire me!

          They just told me today that it’s between me and two other people, but they love hiring from the inside. So–who knows? They’re (rightly) playing the hiring process close to the vest, but I need to know if I need to be entertaining other offers. It’s all so frustrating! (Note: I don’t think that they’re handling this badly at all or have been working in bad faith with me; I just wish they would move it faster and hire me already! I really like it here!)

          1. Chriama

            I think you should always be entertaining other offers until you actually accept the job. If another hiring process moves faster but you’d prefer your current company, let them know.

          2. Artemesia

            I’d be searching like crazy for something better. I have seen so many ‘sure things’ evaporate for people. And I think you just project more confidence and competence when you are going about building your career and not counting on vague promises.

        2. Ask a Manager Post author

          Eh, I actually think a work exercise is reasonable since the new role is significantly different. She wants to see how you approach a whole different sort of thing.

          1. AB Normal

            Precisely. There’s a guy at my company who is interested in moving into my team (he’d be reporting to me if it happens). He is awesome at his job, but the new role is very different, and I’ve already started to test him through a couple of work exercises. We don’t have an opening yet, but soon should have one, and if he does well, I won’t even have to advertise the position, I’ll just bring him in.

            He’s thrilled to be given the opportunity, and actually excited about the chance to prove himself through the work exercises. I’d feel the same way in his position, even because that should help confirm to both sides it’s a good move (and we wouldn’t be losing a great asset in a team just to have him fail in another).

  4. AP

    Why does the employer bother adding this note? (In my setting, I don’t think we can even do that; we have to give everyone, even applicants we know/prefer equal scrutiny.) Is it really just to give fair warning, or is it to keep down the number of applications they have to screen because only very serious and qualified candidates will apply? As a applicant, I’d rather not know they already have someone in mind, though I also see the benefit of saving managers’ and borderline applicants’ time.

  5. Nelle H.L.

    Thank God for a little honesty in a job ad! I’d almost started to think that telling the truth about a job and it’s hiring process was illegal.

      1. OP

        As it happens, the job is posted in DC by an international organization. And while I’ve looked at other jobs by this organization, I’ve never seen that phrase associated with other job postings – and it’s also not standard in my field to the best of my knowledge.

        I’ve ended up choosing not to apply as I considered myself a qualified applicant, but not particularly strong.

        1. Jill-be-Nimble

          I’m in DC too, and I’ve never seen this type of note added either. It’s very strange, but I’d be grateful if more hiring managers did this. Like you, I would have decided not to waste my time applying for certain jobs…instead, I put a bunch of blood, sweat, and tears into applications for jobs where I never had a chance!

  6. MaryMary

    OldJob wouldn’t post a position saying “preferred candidate identified,” but it was common that an internal posting (and external) would go up when plans were already being made to promote someone into the role. However, that did give HR and senior management a way to identify potential candidates for other similar positions. We probably had a Lead Teapot Analyst open more or less continuously across different business units and regions. It might make perfect sense to promote Jane, the current Junior Teapot Analyst on Team A, to the open Lead position. But it wasn’t until Joe applied for the same position that anyone knew he was interested in becoming a Lead. If Joe’s a strong candidate, he’ll be on the short list when a Lead position opens up on Team B in three months. Or if Joe’s willing to move to Kansas, maybe he can take the position that’s been open in the Topeka office for six months.

    TL;DR – if you’re interested in the position and the company, apply anyway and you may be top of mind when a similar position opens up.

    1. Relosa

      OTOH, another way to find out a current employee’s interest in their role in the company is to you know…ask them. I’d be wary if the only way my superiors knew I was interested in advancement was through an application.

      1. MaryMary

        This was a BIG company. So your direct manager might know you want to advance, and maybe even her manager would know to think of you for the next opportunity. But the folks in a different business unit wouldn’t know, to say nothing of the people in the Topeka office.

        At the same time, not everyone has a great relationship with their manager. Maybe you told him you feel you’re ready for the next step, and he’s holding you back. Or he’s a crappy manager and never asked, or fails to think of you when an opportunity comes up. Maybe you changed your mind between the last time you and your manager talked about next steps. Maybe you talked to your own manager, but since then, you have a new manager.

        In my experience, even if your manager is fantastic and a great advocate for you, it’s a good thing for as many other people as possible to think you are promotion-worthy.

  7. PEBCAK

    I wonder if this is a visa issue where they have to show that nobody else was as good as the candidate they’d like to hire. It’s brilliant, because it means they probably won’t get as many applications, and then can wipe their hands and say “oh, we tried!”

    1. KimmieSue

      Great comment Pebcak! This happens quite frequently. When employers have existing staff that have applied for a green card – the entire application process must be re-done. Any candidates (internally and externally) that meet the minimum guidelines must be considered. I bet they are attempting to minimize the number of applicants that they meet the requirements and need to be considered.

    2. Stephanie

      HR people, help me here–I thought that that was required if you were hiring a visa candidate? You had to show you made a good faith effort to find a citizen/permanent resident before a candidate on visa was hired? Is that true?

      1. KimmieSue

        Stephanie – Both. You must do it when hiring with a visa and AGAIN when the green card application process is started.

  8. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

    This is one of those things that is mystifying to me (as someone who spent most of her career in teeny tiny nonprofits – when it was promotion time, this was the process: my boss and I discussed a new salary and he told me to change my email signature). If you have a need and someone on your team would be great for it, why not just promote them without all the rigmarole?

  9. Nicole

    This sparked a question I have (situation slightly different). I’m not sure I understand why a company posts a job they are already intending to fill from within in the case where they aren’t even considering other candidates. I interviewed quite well once for a position and the hiring manager told a mutual acquaintance that had she been able to hire me she would have but they already had an internal transfer and just had to do interviews externally as a formality. Why? I’m not aware of any laws that require this, so why waste the time?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Large employers — especially government and academia — often have internal regulations that require it in the interest of fairness and making the best hire (and avoiding cronyism). The problem is that then people just go through the motions, adhering to the letter but not the spirit of the rule.

    2. KimmieSue

      Nicole – Many companies “prefer” to promote internally, especially into senior level roles. If they are an Affirmative Action employer they must also make a good faith effort to recruit and consider diverse candidates.

  10. sam

    Even if they end up sticking with the preferred candidate, it doesn’t hurt to network and make new contacts. I had a situation like this a few years ago.

    I got an interview at Company A where they were already pretty close to filling the role because a family friend turned out to be a pretty senior muckety-muck in Company A’s E-suite, so they basically interviewed me as a favor to her. I didn’t get the job because, well, they were pretty close to hiring someone else for it in any event, but a few months later I got a call out of the blue from Company B’s HR department asking me to apply for a job there. I actually had no idea how Company B got my information, but they were in the same industry as Company A, and it turned out that various people in the HR departments all know and trust each other, so someone in Company B’s department called up the HR person I had met with in Company A (I met with one HR person and then a variety of people in the actual department I would have been working with), and asked her if she had come across any great candidates that they had to turn down because they could only hire one person.

    I didn’t ultimately end up at Company B either, but I made it through several rounds of interviews – the job was one that wasn’t going to start for some time due to some unique circumstances and I ended up taking a different job before things really came to fruition there, but both Company A and Company B were giant Fortune 500 companies. While I didn’t end up at Company B, I was certainly glad for the opportunity, and it wouldn’t have happened if not for the “pointless” experience at Company A.

  11. HR Manager

    I wonder if this is a required posting for someones immigration (read: Green Card) case. I’ve never seen that language be so direct on the posting, which is why I question it, but in green card applications we are required to post a job and screen and interview resumes, even though we’re quite content with the person already in the job who needs immigration support.

    1. Stephanie

      I’ve seen it on government or academia job postings. Like Alison mentioned upthread, I bet it’s required sometimes to avoid impropriety and hints of cronyism. Personally, I’d prefer an explicit admission versus overly specific requirements in a posting (“Must have 7 years’ experience in Teapot Handle Design and 3 years’ experience supervising recent grads”) that were clearly written with someone in mind.

  12. KimmieSue

    A few months ago, my company posted a job for an employee that has begun the green card application. The job posting was live internally & externally for 30 days. We received about 50 applicants. Of those, about fifteen met the basic requirements. All fifteen were phone interviewed. We invited five of those on site for interviews and two are still finalists for other similar roles. We’re lucky in that this particular job is one that we frequently hire for (so we have open spots that the qualified candidates might fill). If this was a very rare position but the response was the same, the employee’s actual green card could be denied. You see, if there is a single available US citizen that meets the requirements and passes the interview – we have to justify to the government why they were not hired.

    1. Artemesia

      And I’d like to see that American applicant hired. I am kind of sick of seeing companies basically try to push salaries of highly skilled workers down by hiring internationals and not filling those jobs with the many well qualified US citizens available to do the job.

      1. Sandy

        What makes you think the international would be paid less? Especially at international organizations, you could just as easily be dealing with candidates from countries with higher salary expectations, not less (Canadians and Europeans, to name just two, but the list could be LONG)

        1. Zillah

          That can certainly be the case. I can see where Artemesia is coming from, though – there are definitely companies (and industries!) that like to hire immigrants because they can get away with paying them less and subjecting them to worse working conditions because if they complain, they’ll get fired and can kiss the visa goodbye. I think one of the regular commenters on AAM has actually talked about this happening in IT or something similar, but I could be misremembering.

      2. KimmieSue

        I work in technology where the workforce is quite diverse and employment visas are often part of my daily job. This comment is actually one of those myths that circle around our media and people believe them. Whether or not a company is applying for a work visa or a green card, part of the process is to prove that the salary being offered is a prevailing wage. This is to deter companies from paying immigrant workers less than qualified American workers. I’ve actually seen compensation in offers increased because they did not meet the prevailing wage (market salary) for a new hire or employee.

        I don’t have any first-hand experience in industries where this theory may be true (perhaps lower paying jobs like agriculture or general labor) but in technology and engineering; foreign workers are definitely not paid less than US citizens.

  13. Snarkus Ariellius

    Serious question.

    If the end result is the same, why bother following the rules at all?  I understand that some organizations have internal rules about opening up jobs to everyone else, but if they’re going to hire whoever they want to hire in the end, then everyone’s time gets wasted.  The rules are pointless.

    Quite frankly, I’m surprised by how many people are so lazy and transparent about going through the motions.  I had a CEO of one nonprofit in DC telling me, “Well…we already have an internal hire for this position.  Our charter requires us always to advertise externally with all job openings soooooo…how’s the weather out there?  Still snowing?”  This was before I even took my jacket off!  She spent the rest of the interview (all 15 minutes of it) asking me about where I was from and what sites in DC I liked so far.

    LW, I wouldn’t bother, but if you do, here’s how to tell if the employer is serious about you: duration of the interview.  Every interview that I’ve had, that ended up going to an internal hire, lasted no longer than ten minutes and the person asked me no more than two questions.  

  14. Alicia Botti

    One time I interviewed for a job and was offered the job on the spot. We talked salary right there and came to an agreement. Then the boss called in the office manager and introduced us. “Alicia, this is Rosemary the office manager. Rosemary, Alicia is starting on June 25. You can go ahead and post the job now.”

  15. Trippychick

    Although my organization doesn’t post anything about a preferred candidate being identified, I’ve been on both sides of this scenario. When I originally applied for this organization, I lived out of state and had to pay my own way to interview. Before I made arrangements to fly out to interview I asked the hiring manager if I had a chance of being hired – not a guarantee of being hired but just that the position wasn’t already promised to an internal candidate. The hiring manager told me that her supervisor had an internal candidate in mind, but that she (the hiring manager) preferred me. I got the job. Fast forward several years and I applied for new position within the same organization. After several rounds of interviews I was the front runner and had everything but an official offer in hand. I was even being given advice from that hiring manager on how to negotiate the new salary with HR. A few days later I was informed that an external candidate was being hired instead. So it never hurts to apply even when it seems like a long shot, because you never know what will happen.

  16. Someone

    My company doesn’t day this in the ads, but they normally know who they are going to hire before interviews start. The one thing they use the courtesy interviews for is to identify the next preferred candidate for the next opening, so it is definitely worth applying and interviewing.

  17. Elizabeth West

    I’d still apply–I did that once and got an interview. I didn’t end up getting the job, but the interview went well and I like to think that the person would have at least remembered me if something else opened up. It didn’t, but it could have. You never know.

  18. Diana T

    I worked as a contractor for a fairly large company for the past 12 months here in NY and all along they told me that my position would eventually be a full time position. Now, they are opening up the req for internal/external candidates as required. However, even though I continue to get excellent feedback, they are not even hinting that I’m a frontrunner for the position….which is a little unnerving.

    If deep down they hate me I get it. But, lets say they really like me and are giving me honest feedback….are there rules/laws in place that prevent them from hinting that I’m a frontrunner? After reading this thread, I’m wondering if they hint/tell me that I’m a frontrunner, maybe there is protocol that they have to note this in the job posting?

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