after I get the job, can I ask who else was in the candidate pool?

A reader writes:

I’ve just had my last interview for a new job in a very niche area. There aren’t many experts in this area — so chances are that I would know, or at least be familiar with, most of the other candidates. If they were competitive enough to get an interview, they are a probably a current customer or a competitor of the product I sell today.

If I get and accept an offer, do you think it would be weird or inappropriate to ask my new boss who the other candidates were? I’m not interested in patting myself on the back and gloating that I was chosen over anyone. Being hired is enough evidence in itself. And I also know that it’s possible someone more qualified than me might have turned it down for other reasons. In that case I’d be a second, but still good, choice. I’m comfortable with all of that. And anyway, chances are anyone turned down would still be a future customer, competitor, or other colleague in my new role. It’s the same thing if I’m not hired. I will continue to be a visible expert with niche knowledge and experience.

So professionalism and preserving my reparation are important here…I’m just curious who I was up against. What do you think?

I totally get why you’re curious, but I wouldn’t.

There are times when there’s good reason to ask a more narrow version of that question — for example, if you’re going to be managing people, it can be helpful to know if any of them applied for the job and are potentially upset that they didn’t get it (so that if you pick up any weirdness, you have some context for it).

But if it’s just because you’re curious, I’d skip it. There’s too much of a chance that your manager would feel uneasy about it and like you were asking her to violate someone else’s privacy. There’s not a ton of privacy attached to job applications (when you apply for a job, you usually have to accept that anyone in that organization may learn that you applied there), but your manager might rightly feel uncomfortable tipping you off that so-and-so is job-searching if your only reason for asking is curiosity.

{ 46 comments… read them below }

  1. BearWithMe*

    I always thought this was info that I as the candidate would die to know, but info the employer would never dream of releasing. So when I started my first full-time job after finishing school I was really surprised that my boss brought it up in conversation at work. He asked me if I knew so-and-so, told me where they worked, what he liked/didn’t like about the other candidates, etc. It was so odd to me that he would just talk about the other candidates so openly and candidly, but we’ve since hired another person in the same role and he was just as open with her about the other candidates they had been interested in.

    Funny thing is, a few weeks after I started I saw a pile on his desk and noticed it was a bunch of old resumes and cover letters dated around the time I had submitted my own application. I assume these were the candidates who applied but were not selected to be interviewed. I actually recognized one of the names as a school colleague who had way more experience than I did, and I thought I would always be out-competed by people like him for jobs I wanted. It just goes to show we can’t always know exactly what the hiring manager is thinking.

    1. some1*

      This is what I was going to say: it’s not uncommon at all to end up finding this info out organically (coming across the app materials or having a boss or coworker bring it up in conversation) so there isn’t much reason to ask directly and end up coming off as nosy.

      1. Murphy*

        Yeah, nosy is the best way to describe how I would view this if someone I hired asked the question. And my first response would be “why do you want to know?” and if there’s no good reason, honestly that doesn’t look good to me. It seems almost juvenile (which I’m sure is not the intention).

  2. Lily in NYC*

    I would be very unhappy if someone I interviewed with gave the chosen candidate my name. VERY unhappy.

      1. MK*

        What privacy? Applying for a job isn’t a private matter. I would say it’s not in very good taste to gossip about the rejected candidates (barring any concretr reason to discuss this, gossip is really all it is), but not a violation of something they are entitled to expect.

        1. Panda Bandit*

          Considering some people still get fired for just applying to other jobs, privacy is quite important.

          1. MK*

            Yes, but I was commenting in the context of letting the successful candidate, who is now part of the company, know. And even then it’s really not a matter of privacy.

        2. Florida*

          There is no privacy law in applying for jobs, but there is still a general expectation of privacy in the job application process. As Panda Bandit noted, people frequently get fired when their current boss finds out they are looking. If not fired, they might be penalized in other ways (passed over for promotions, etc.)

          There is no obligation to keep the candidates names private, anymore than there is an obligation to be polite to the bartender who makes your drink. But, like being polite to the bartender, it is generally expected and appreciated.

    1. knitchic79*

      Clearly my paranoia is showing, but I could see a less than ethical person taking this info and calling said rejected candidate’s current boss to out a job search. Especially considering this is a niche area.

      1. Florida*

        It wouldn’t make sense for OP* to call rejected candidate’s boss. That could hurt OP in their new role. Maybe if one rejected candidate found out about another rejected candidate, it might happen. It might be a stretch. Although, I agree that it is sometimes awkward in a niche field.

        *I’m not suggesting that OP would do something this low. That was just the easiest way to structure my sentence.

        1. ReadItWithSpanishAccent*

          Ur… there are privacy laws – at least in Spain, and I think in most of the other EU countries – regarding the data you can disclose. Yes, there is no a privacy law in applying for jobs as such, but there are personal data protection laws. A previous, current or potential employer would be breaking the law if s/he shows my CV to another candidate or a worker not involved in the hiring process.
          Besides, apart of law there are customs, and most of the people will not apply for a job if they know that their CV is going to be released, or the current employer is going to be warned about his/her job-searching employee. Not the best way to build trust, imo.

  3. christine j*

    I have organically found out who at least some of the candidates were for every job I’ve ever had! Granted I’ve tended to work for small slightly disorganized nonprofits without an independent HR function, but each time I’ve found file folders or digital files lying around (sometimes months later), had my boss or a colleague mention something, etc.

  4. Jerry Vandesic*

    I would never tell someone I hired about their competition. There’s nothing to be gained, at least from my perspective. In the end, the new employee needs to stand on their own and deliver, and the comparison to others ends when I make the hire.

  5. AnotherHRPro*

    It is completely normal to be curious as to who your “peer group” is but i think that asking for this information would raise an eyebrow so I would also advise against it. In the future, if they are hiring another individual for a similar role, it might come up organically but otherwise, it really isn’t your business.

  6. Language Lover*

    My boss was pretty open about the other candidates in general but I only ever heard about one specific name.

    And I kind of wish I didn’t know since we are part of similar professional organizations and run into each other. Normally I’m somewhat oblivious to people acting strange or mildly rude. I brush it off with an idea that they have other things going on with them. But with this candidate, I never know if that’s what’s happening when they’re standoffish, as they often are to me, or if they just have other things on their mind.

    They don’t know that I know and they did get another good job but knowing makes our interactions just a touch weirder than I think they’d normally be.

  7. Engineer Girl*

    You don’t need to know who your competition is/was. It would be reasonable to ask what discriminators made you “the one” and also what discriminators helped the competition. Knowing the other discriminators shows you growth areas that you can work on for your current job and the future.

  8. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

    I have told new hires when someone on the team interviewed for but did not receive their position. I think it helps navigate the team/working dynamics.

    We had a strong debate over telling a candidate about a client who had interviewed for their position, but wasn’t chosen. Ultimately we decided it would be easier to transition that client to another project manager, rather than trying to make the client and our new staff member navigate the relationship.

    1. M. S.*

      I think this IS important. If you’re going to be managing someone who is pissed you got the job THEY wanted, you need to know this and nip it in the bud.

      Otherwise they may do things to sabotage you (possibly unconsciously, or worse consciously).

      1. MK*

        Well, it could also backfire. If the rejected internal candidate is professional and just wants to move on, having a manager who knows they applied for the job is just going to make the relationship awkward. And it might prejudice the manager about the candidate, making them see signs of resentment even it’s not there; not to mention that the manager knows for a fact the candidate isn’t satisfied with their job.

        1. Blight*

          I cannot agree with you more. It would be such a mess to have a manger with a preconceived idea that John is going to sabotage him because he is mad he got the job over him… it is thoughts like this that result in good employees being treated poorly.

          I’ve seen this myself in regards to my part time education. I did 1 full year of school without telling my manager to see if I could do it without it impacting my work… after a glowing performance review I revealed I was finishing my degree. First thing out of his mouth was ‘this better not impact your work’… then almost every day he yelled at me for something and claimed I was ‘too distracted by school’! It was all based on his own perspective of the situation. When I was a perceived non-student he seen a small error as normal, but as a perceived student a small error was blamed on my personal commitments.

          This could happen so easily in a situation where the manager was told that John applied for the position and assumes that John will be upset enough to act out over it. John would then be singled out for actions that other employees get away with because John is suddenly THAT employee.

    2. Jane*

      In my last job one of the people I was leading had applied for my job. He was hired for a stipended internship instead. It was awful. I had no idea at the time why he resented me so badly, but he was beyond miserable to work with. Additionally, as I was also fairly low level, my supervisor was inexperienced at managing people and does not like rocky boats, and the intern in question started just before me, I was really unwilling to raise the issues I was having with my supervisor.

      I wish I had known. It would have completely changed the dynamic and made it possible for me to raise my concerns with my supervisor even in a workplace with such a strong aversion to confrontation. As it was, I, being inexperienced in leadership but not in passive, stoic, workplace cultures, mishandled it and passed on my praise of where he was strong but not where he was downright awful. This mistake of mine resulted in the person being hired on at the end of their internship.

  9. Lauren*

    I asked this once,

    I asked ‘what made me stand out against the others?’
    Response = ‘you were the cheapest’

      1. dragonzflame*

        Ha, I once had a manager who was very open with me about the fact that I was second choice and I only got the job because the first person they hired decided not to leave her job after all. I didn’t even ask for that information.

        Really didn’t need to know that, dude. He was an arsehole in many and varied ways.

    1. AdminSue*

      I asked the same question, the response was….You were the only one who sent a thank you letter after the interview!

  10. Rusty Shackelford*

    I know one person who interviewed for my current job because we were networking and he basically asked me “how did you get that job, they told me it was mine.” Well, not exactly like that. But he’d been told by a family friend – someone high up in the org chart but completely separate from my department – that it would definitely be his. It’s nice to see it doesn’t work that way sometimes.

    1. Bibliovore*

      I was at a professional conference when “not chosen” candidate came up to me and wanted to know why I had gotten the position and not him. I was speechless.

    2. MK*

      In all probability, the family member didn’t even tell him that; this sounds like a person who would interpret vague positive feedback as “it’s in the bag”.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        From the way he described it, it wasn’t vague positive feedback at all (and the friend wouldn’t have been able to give feedback on the interview process anyway, since he’s not in our area and wasn’t involved in it at all). The unsuccessful candidate said the big wig family friend took him on a tour of the facility, introduced him to people, etc. I would have felt really bad for him, except he asked me if I knew someone or was related to someone, and if that was why I got the job. I guess he counted on getting the job because *he* knew someone, and he wondered how my personal contact trumped his.

  11. Cath in Canada*

    When I started my last job, my manager gave me a list of names of people I should meet with to learn about their roles. Two of them told me up-front that they’d applied for the job I got. It was a bit awkward, but I’m not sure a heads-up would have helped much.

    I say don’t ask outright, but keep your ears open and you might very well find out anyway!

  12. Stranger than fiction*

    Well, maybe the Op will get lucky like my friend. She found all the applicants and candidates on her company intranet as well as their pre interview assignments and all the scores!

  13. De Minimis*

    My position actually involves posting job announcements and everything we’ve ever posted is recorded for posterity so I got to see our records for the the job opening for which I was ultimately hired. It was weird to look at, I don’t recommend doing it even if it’s technically okay with your employer.

    1. Elliot*

      My first post grad job was HR Assistant. I didn’t look at all the resumes that were in competition with mine, but I did peak at the spreadsheet of names that applied- 82 people! I learned how lucky I was and how competitive entry level jobs actually are in today’s market. Really put things in perspective for me.

      1. Lia*

        Competitive, but also sometimes not so much.

        I ran a search for an entry level position that netted us over 200 applicants. After sorting out the people who did not meet the qualifications (we asked for a year’s experience using MS Office, and gave preference to anyone with experience in another software), we were down to less than 40 people. Another pass for additional skills/people who had put some amount of care into their applications, and we were down to 20, and then we were able to go through those for an interview pool. It WAS time-consuming, though.

  14. Master Bean Counter*

    At one job the person I was replacing left all of the applicant packets on her desk. I got to look at all of the others resumes and answers to interview questions. Kinda weird.

  15. OP*

    Great thoughts, everyone.

    I honestly hadn’t considered the privacy concerns or it being too nosy…I can understand how weird the situation could be…my industry is one where word tends to get around anyway, and very little is actually all that secret. Seriously. I’ve been in meetings where customers talk openly in front of their teams how they MIGHT move to a competitor, and are considering other offers!

    There won’t be any direct reports in this new role, though there could be other future colleagues and especially customers who might have applied. In that sense, it might be helpful information. But really, as AnotherHRPro said, this is mostly about knowing who my peer group is. This job is a rather big leap in responsibility from my current role, and it would be nice to know who’s company I keep.

    1. Blight*

      I really get the feeling from your post that you aren’t just looking for a list of names (names don’t really mean anything) but rather to essentially see the resumes of those that also applied. I can see how this seems like a great idea for getting to know your industry peers… but some people would refrain from applying if they were told that their resume would be shared with not only HR but the chosen applicant.

      While some people are proud enough to post their resumes on the sides of buildings, others may be more shameful or private. There may be tell-tale employment gaps, unemployment, poor grades and lacklustre references. While it may not seem like any big deal because these are just future colleagues/customers, what if they are more than that?

      What if your best friend Sally had applied? Or your brother-in-law Stan? Or even your neighbour Mike? Do you think that they’d be comfortable with you perusing their resume’s? Would Sally be okay with you knowing that she didn’t really get a 4.0 average? Would Stan be okay with you knowing that he hasn’t worked for the past 3 months? Would Mike want you to see his salary at his current job? While there is a chance that it’ll all just be strangers and acquaintances, there is always the chance that there’ll be people you know on the list, and not all of them will want that information to be shared outside of the HR department.

  16. TootsNYC*

    I would not be happy if my new employee asked me who her competition had been. It would make me wonder if I’d made a mistake.

    Part of it is that you just don’t leak the info that someone was job hunting to someone who isn’t actually hiring.

    And I don’t want to devolve into some sort of competition. I sort of subscribe to the polite fiction that you don’t beat out someone else for the job; it’s just sort of karmically yours or not yours. “May the best man win,” to quote the old adage.

    Also, I want the new hire to be focusing forward on our new tasks, not backward on who he beat out for the job he actually already has.

  17. harryv*

    Chances are if it really is that niche, those that applied would reach out to you anyways after you get the job and update your linkedin.

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