how to prepare for an internal interview

Interviewing for a job at your current company might sound easier than interviewing at a strange company where you don’t know anyone. But internal interviews can be just as hard as external ones, and they come with some additional pitfalls of their own.

Here’s what to expect if you’re interviewing for an internal position and how you can best position yourself to move into the new role.

1. Don’t assume the job is in the bag. This might sound obvious to you, but loads of internal candidates have missed out on promotions, because they acted as if the jobs were already theirs. It’s easy to fall into this trap, given that you’re a known quantity, people like you, and you may have already been doing some of the work of the new role.

However, even when the interview is just a formality for a job that you’re very likely to get, acting as if you think the job is already yours can be a real turn off to your interviewers. It can also lead you to notake the process as seriously or prepare as rigorously as you would otherwise. Speaking of which …

2. Prepare just the same as you would for any other interview. Don’t assume the interview will be lower stakes or have easier questions just because you’re already working at the company. While the feel of the interview might be less formal, assume the questions and overall substance will be just as rigorous as if you were a stranger. That means you should spend significant time preparing to talk about your skills and experience and thinking of evidence you can point to in your professional past to show why you’d excel in the new position.

You might also be asked for your thoughts about internal matters you know about firsthand, such as the company’s operations and the department’s current challenges, so be prepared for that as well.

3. Don’t assume people know what your contributions have been. This is the biggest mistake internal candidates make: They figure that because they’ve already been working for the company, the interviewers must know what their contributions have been. But interviewers won’t always know this sort of information; they might have forgotten or never known the details of your work. And some companies even have such rigid interviewing procedures that interviewers are barred from considering anything not specifically presented in the interview!

Always assume your interviewers don’t know anything about you or what you do, and explain it in the same way you would to an interviewer at another company. Otherwise, you risk getting passed over simply because you assumed too much knowledge on the part of your interviewers.

4. Strike the right tone. The first three tips addressed how you should treat internal interviews the same as you would for any other interview. But there’s one area you should approach differently: tone. The people interviewing you are your co-workers, after all, and it’s reasonable to use the same sort of collaborative, conversational tone you’d use if working with them on any other project. This is a work project, after all – it’s just about hiring.

Don’t be overly formal or stiff; it’s okay to treat your colleagues like colleagues, because they are. (And actually, that’s the ideal tone to strive for, even when you don’t know your interviewers. It tends to make for a much more relaxed and engaging interview.)

5. Keep in mind that some hiring norms are different with internal interviews. While you’re never obligated to accept any job offer, often when you apply for an internal position, people will assume you want the job and will take it if offered, as long as long as you can come to terms on salary and other details. The assumption is that as an insider, you already know enough about the job and the culture and wouldn’t be going after the job if you weren’t sure you wanted it.

Because of this assumption, before applying for an internal role, you should do enough due diligence that you’re reasonably sure you’d accept the position if it’s offered to you. Otherwise, it may impact what opportunities you’re offered in the future and how seriously you’re considered for other internal roles.

{ 29 comments… read them below }

  1. Brett*

    #5 You also have to know, as best as possible, the internal norms of where you are interviewing. One of our internal interview formalities is that you must have a signed transfer request to interview (your boss and chain of command sign it up to at least the level of the first common manager between the two units). Some units treat this as just a formality and otherwise operate like a normal hiring. If you get the offer, you can negotiate some and even turn down the offer and return to the original unit.

    But some units take the transfer request (signed before the interview) at its full literal value. You and your current manager signed the transfer, so if you are chosen you must take the transfer. No negotiation, no turning it down, no returning to your original unit.

    1. the gold digger*

      you must have a signed transfer request to interview

      Which is why it is useful to have a casual, off the books conversation with the hiring manager, which is why it is really useful to already know people in other divisions, which is why it is useful to network within your own company.

      BTW, if you do get an offer from the other division/subsidiary and your current boss says, “Well, you know that CEO – I have found him to be difficult…..” perhaps you should trust your boss or at least do a little asking around.

  2. Kaliafornia*

    Applying for an internal position now so thanks for the tips! Although unfortunately since I work for a super big corporation and do not work directly at all with the department I applied to, do not know anyone in that department, its still almost like an external application. Will definitely keep these tips in mind though.

    1. LJL*

      You can still use the “we’re all on the same team” type of tone and attitude, recognizing challenges and opportunities for the company. That helped me when I was in a similar situation.

  3. Amy*

    Hear Hear! Internal candidates should also be mindful that they may not be the only interviewee. Some external candidate could blow them away due to preparation.

    1. Beezus*

      Or just experience! I lost out on an internal job once, that was a little bit of a stretch for me, because the external candidate they hired was very very well qualified, and had some key skills my company was looking to acquire in the near future. I would have done a good job in the role, but she was a superstar at it once she got her bearings, and has since moved on to bigger things.

  4. lrs*

    We had an internal candidate once who when asked ‘What does our group do’ she replied I have no idea. Honestly! And she even has 2 friends in our group who the month before were her coworkers! My boss was not impressed and her interview immediately turned into an info session.

  5. Mike*

    Interviewers also need to be aware of the impression they leave when they interview internal candidates. I had an interview with a different office within my agency – I was the only internal candidate with 3 external candidates. I was told they would make a decision in a month. 6 weeks after my interview, I followed up asking for an update on the timeline (with no response). 4 months later, I still have not heard a word (yea, nay or update) about the position. I’m assuming an offer has been made and they are waiting for the person to start to decline the other candidates.

    Leaving an interviewee in limbo for 4 months is unprofessional whether it is external or internal. However, it definitely impacts my view of working with that office. I lost a lot of respect for the office and the hiring manager.

    1. fposte*

      Totally agreed. If there’s one place you need to pull together some reasonable courtesy, it’s when you’re turning down somebody who essentially you’re still working with.

  6. Bwmn*

    Question about #4 on the issue of dressing. For instance, in my office my normal “most formal” work wear still does not involve a true suited look (I am a woman, so while I’ll wear skirts/pants and tops – never with a suit jacket), though when I initially interviewed I did wear a more formal interview suit.

    While keeping in mind being sensitive to your office’s culture, should dressing for an internal interview just involve wearing your standard “most formal” work clothing – or should it still arise to a more classic interview outfit look?

    1. MaryMary*

      I think that’s something to ask your coworkers, or you manager if she’s supportive of your move. In the past, I’ve worn dressier outfits, but not full suit interview wear.

    2. Amy*

      Dress one level up from your usual, at least. This shows you take the interview and the interviewers seriously.

      1. ctmf*

        I go with one level up from the *desired position’s* usual. Or the same that the interviewers will be wearing, whichever is more formal. I wouldn’t wear jeans/polo shirt to an interview even if the environment was that casual.

    3. Beezus*

      I wear the suit minus the jacket, and just put the jacket on for the interview. I would be fine without the jacket, but I prefer to wear it. Letting your boss know you’re interviewing internally is completely normal here, but letting your team know is not, so I normally hang it in a closet or fold it neatly and set it by my purse.

      1. Aam Admi*

        Our accounting staff are usually neatly dressed in business casuals. I had a couple of internal interviews late last year and wore pant suits to all of them. I wear suits at least once a week on arbitrary days so no one suspects I am interviewing on a particular day.

    4. Kara*

      I’m an engineer in a manufacturing facility, and pretty much everyone who every has to leave the office wears a company issued uniform (high visibility and made from a material that protects against certain hazards common in the facility). I typically wear this uniform as my job requires going out on the shop floor quite often, but I can get away with wearing a pair of dark jeans every once in a while. I’m interviewing on a workday, and can’t decide if I should wear the uniform and change before I leave for the part of the plant HR is in, if I should just wear jeans that day and make up something for the coworkers who don’t know I’m interviewing (like, say I have to leave for a dentist appointment or something), or wear the uniform because the people interviewing me know that I’m in the plant working and therefore shouldn’t care because technically it is required personal protection. Thoughts?

  7. MaryMary*

    You also have to use your internal network to learn more about the position and your interviewers. Your coworkers can tell you much more about your interviewers than LinkedIn can. For example, at OldJob there was a group leader who was (in)famous for asking candidates what they’d read recently. She was really looking for a work-related title, not that summer’s beach read. Another time my manager let me know my interviewer had started in the same section of the company as I had, so it was helpful to know I could use certain examples without being

    1. MaryMary*

      Oops, premature post!

      I could use certain examples without being concerned that the interviewer wouldn’t understand the project or certain details.

  8. GOG11*

    Hi Alison…I don’t know how easily you’re able to fix typos on external sites, but I wanted to point out a sentence at the tail end of #1 in case you can and would like to fix it. “It can also lead you to noy= take the process as seriously or prepare as rigorously as you would otherwise.”

      1. GOG11*

        In the future, I’ll just leave it be then. I’m thinking it’s not very helpful to point something out that can’t be changed.

        1. maggie*

          How were you to know? (I also came here to do the exact thing you just did. We mean well.)

      2. EJ*

        I assumed the typo demonstrated a lack of care that should be avoided by thinking you have the job in the bag.

  9. SophiaB*

    Be careful on the tone point. If you’re interviewing for a role with more autonomy, make sure you’re presenting yourself in a way that demonstrates you can handle that. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not, but just be aware of how you come across – you’re not in the office, you’re demonstrating that you can handle the role you’re going for.

    I made the mistake of taking my lead from my boss in my last internal interview, and she used it to block me from promotion.

  10. AdjunctGal*

    I had two interviews at my academic institution, one over the phone and then one in person with two sets of groups. All went exceptionally well. I wrote lovely thank you notes and left them with each person I interviewed with, and I thought I had a great shot at the position. In the end, they decided to keep the temp they had hired externally after several weeks of keeping me and the others in the dark, and was told if the temp decides not to stay, would I please apply again? Right, sure. Even better, for a few months I would see ideas of mine from my interviews and thank you letters as new initiatives the program was doing. I felt used, to be honest.

  11. ctmf*

    Oh holy moly, the number of people I’ve seen lose out because of #1 and #5. #1 is especially bad with people who are acting incumbents to fill the gap before the official assignment. I’ve been in a couple of those and just cringed. We typically do the interviews board-style with 3 interviewers: the open position’s boss and two same-level managers from other departments. Assume those other interviewers do not know you! Also, it puts your boss/prospective boss in an awkward position to have to advocate for you when you interviewed so horribly.

  12. jennie*

    This is really great advice!

    A big part of my job is interviewing internal candidates for promotions and these are the 2 biggest errors they make:

    1. Not putting their internal experience on their resume – they submit the same resume they used to get hired here, even if they’ve been here for years. Like Alison says in the article, I don’t necessarily know what they’re doing in their current role and how that makes them qualified for the new role.

    2. Saying they’re the best fit for the job because they’ve “paid their dues”, been with the company a long time or are dissatisfied/bored in their current role, rather than talking about their skills and what they can contribute to the new role. I wish this didn’t happen but it happens way too often and is one of my biggest pet peeves with internal candidates.

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