should I ask my boss why I was their second choice for my job?

A reader writes:

For the last nine months, I’ve been doing a (paid) internship at a foundation that is aimed at recent graduates looking to enter the nonprofit world. It’s been a great experience, both in the kind of work I am doing and the people I am working with. I’ve also consistently gotten great feedback, to the point where my boss has said multiple times that she’d like me to return to work for them once I have the necessary degree.

However, while looking at our internal phone registry, I recently discovered that my boss originally had meant to hire someone else for the internship. While I wouldn’t rely on this information alone, I also got an accidental glance at an email from last year that referred to the area of study of the future intern. This was a very specific area and matched the person whose name I found in the registry. Not being their first choice would also help explain why their time frame for offering me the position was slightly longer than expected, especially having now witnessed from the inside how quickly my boss likes to settle these things.

Would it be reasonable to ask either my boss or my mentor (who is a separate person on the same team) about this? I know there are many potential reasons why someone else was initially chosen for the position. It could simply be that this person was able to start earlier than I could – my start date was later than they would have preferred. But if, for example, there was something that I could have handled better during my interview, that piece of information could be very valuable in future job searches.

Generally, I feel like I have a really good relationship with both my boss and my mentor. However, they never mentioned any of this to me (I was not rejected during the period of time where they apparently offered the job to someone else), which is why I would feel a bit awkward about bringing it up out of the blue. Would it be reasonable to ask one of them about this? And if it is an appropriate question to ask, how would I best frame it? Or should I just let this go?

I’ve read your previous answer to a similar question, where you said the person could bring this up related to their future interview. However, I feel like my situation is somewhat different, since they don’t know I‘m aware that I wasn’t their first choice and since there is no position with them that I would immediately be applying for, as I need to go back to school first anyway.

Don’t bring it up.

There are tons and tons of reasons why other people might be offered a job before you are, and they don’t generally mean “you sucked in specific way X but we decided to take a chance on you anyway.” They generally mean “we had four people we would have happily hired and only one slot to fill” or “you were great, which is why we ultimately hired you, but someone else was just better” or “you were good but, man, I really clicked with the person we offered it to first” or all sorts of other things that won’t be useful to you.

Asking why you were the second choice can come across as overly in need of reassurance, and as if you don’t really understand how hiring works (which, being an intern, you don’t and that’s completely OK — but it would be slightly off to ask). It also risks putting your boss on the spot. Plus, nine months after the hiring process, there’s a strong chance your boss won’t even remember anything useful about the other candidates or the decision-making process at this point.

They hired you, they’re happy with you, all is well that ends well!

{ 136 comments… read them below }

  1. trust me I'm a PhD*

    Some of the most successful and happy people I know were second or third choice for a job. It doesn’t mean a thing. You got the job –– enjoy it!

    1. Fives*

      I was the second choice. The person who was offered the job before me declined. I’ve been here for almost 19 years, though in a few different roles. And I’m pretty happy with work.

    2. Pizza Rat*

      I once interviewed for a job in October, didn’t get it, but was called the following January when the person they did hire backed out at the last minute. It really didn’t matter why I was second choice, I was there and it turned out to be a great experience.

    3. Lab Boss*

      I was the second choice for a promotion and ~7 years (and several promotions later for both of us) am still extremely happy working for the woman who was the first choice. It turns out that I probably could have succeeded in the job at the time, but she’s much better equipped to handle what it expanded int0- and I’m much happier with where my path ended up developing, and would be both a poor fit and not happy doing what she’s doing now. Sometimes it just works.

    4. Anon for this one*

      I’m going anon for this one because it’s so specific.

      A few years ago, I was mostly managing contractors. A colleague from a different department had hired a contractor, but his second choice was good so he recommended her to me. Due to the fast moving nature of contractor hiring, I made hey an offer without even interviewing her, just based on my colleague’s judgment.

      She is the best employee I’ve ever had. She excelled during her contract and we were so glad to move her to a permanent position when it became available. She will go far if she stays with this company. Who cares if she was technically second choice? It’s what she did after she was hired that matters.

    5. MaxPower*

      I think it’s worth the LW knowing also that in order for someone to be a second choice, they have to even be someone who’d be considered a viable choice for the job.

      There are plenty of times where if the first choice doesn’t work out, it’s back to the drawing board, none of the other candidates would be decent hires. They’re not second or third choices, they’re just not choices.

    6. Dadjokesareforeveryone*

      I was the 3rd choice for the job I’m currently in. The 1st two both claimed much more experience in their field than I had, but on their first days turns out they struggled with even the basics and were let go.

      When they got to me I had said upfront that my experience was more limited, but faced with the same tasks as my two predecessors I executed them flawlessly. My manager gushes to this day that I’m the best hire they’ve ever made.

    7. Sparkle Llama*

      I was the second choice after the first choice worked in the job for a month or two and didn’t work out. I have since been promoted to a role created for me. It is just hard to tell from interviews who will really be the best fit. I know in my case it was largely a coin flip between the two of us.

    8. Butterfly Counter*

      Yes. A few years ago, we were in the hiring process and it came down to two serious contenders. I advocated hard for one of them. I thought she would bring something unique to our department. We offered her the job and she thought it over and turned us down. The other candidate said yes and she’s now one of my favorite coworkers! I don’t feel guilty about my push for the other candidate, but I also don’t feel bad it didn’t work out. We were in a no-lose situation. It sounds like your employers were in the same boat.

    9. Parakeet*

      I was originally the second choice for my current job, which I love. It was between me and someone else, there wasn’t the budget to make two hires, he got it. A few months later someone left the team and there was another opening. That time I got it.

      There’s no weirdness or anything between me and the guy who got it the first time, or in how our teammates relate to us. I understand why they went with him (he was more experienced and better known to them) when forced to pick one of us in the first go-round.

  2. Consonance*

    Something that I’ve learned by doing a lot of hiring is exactly what she said: there were likely multiple good (very good! great!) candidates, and one spot to fill. I didn’t expect that the hardest part of hiring for me is that I turn down a lot of people who would be great at the job. It’s often a real toss of the coin which one gets the initial offer. And sometimes someone gets it because they bring something to the table that you just don’t happen to have on the team yet, but could never actively recruit for. From my perspective (academic library), that might be “has good event planning experience and the rest of us are kind of mediocre at it,” or “really comfortable with a piece of software we should know about but the rest of us use a different one.” It’s hard to describe those things when it’s about creating a well-rounded staff overall, not about the individual.

    1. honeygrim*

      For the last position I needed to fill, my choice between two very qualified people was largely due to one having skills in a very specific area of the field, and we realized that the person’s skills would be really useful in our work. I wasn’t actively recruiting for it but couldn’t turn down the opportunity to add that skill set to our team.

    2. Lab Boss*

      “the hardest part of hiring for me is that I turn down a lot of people who would be great at the job”

      This, exactly. I actively dislike having to hire, because I know it always involves turning down at least one or two candidates that are all about equally qualified to the one who gets the job.

    3. Helewise*

      This is it exactly; I’m even a little bummed about one or two people who I wasn’t able to bring in for an interview after the phone screen because I really liked them.

    4. Garblesnark*

      Yeah, this is real! I do resumes, and people I help consistently come back and tell me “I can’t believe you were right about mentioning my experience in Y — it turns out that’s why they called me for the interview.” (I told them they should include the experience in Y on the resume because at their old job, they were demonstrably The Best Ever at it, usually. Always include if you were just recently The Best Ever.)

      One of my clients just got a manager job that they were definitely qualified for, but the thing that sealed the deal was that they were a great preschool teacher 15 years ago.

    5. rebelwithmouseyhair*

      If you’re second choice, that means you’re better than all the candidates except one. So it’s pretty good. And since OP got hired and is already nine months in, they’re obviously happy with her.

      I remember my boss told me I was their first choice, but then I came across a document where they had listed pros and cons for all the candidates. The fact that I was only proficient in one foreign language was listed as a con for me. I’m not sure what happened in between making that list and hiring me, there’s a good chance they tried hiring one of the polyglots

    6. tree frog*

      Seeing the other side of the hiring process is helpful for this. As a candidate (particularly early in your career) it’s easy to take rejection as a personal failing, but from the hiring side, you’re just trying to make the best guess possible based on available information. If a second-choice candidate is hired, it reflects as well on them as if they were first choice.

  3. ecnaseener*

    I do think you can ask whether your boss has any advice for your upcoming job search, since you’re an intern and she knows you’re leaving, but yeah do NOT hint at not being the first choice. Just ask whether she remembers (several months down the line she might not!) anything in your application or interview that she thinks you could improve.

    1. Kyrielle*

      Yeah, I might take this approach – and you still have some schooling to do, you said, OP. If there’s any optional paths or classes in that (if it’s not already all baked in place), and you would be willing to aim a little bit for their needs, you might ask whether there’s anything that would be an additional boost with them afterward. Like, if they like you and will hire you anyway, but adding a course in data analysis with software X, or a general psychology course, or whatever, would make you even more valuable to them….

      Don’t do that unless you really want to, though. If you already know what you want to take class-wise, don’t ask the question and stick with your plan. But if you have a course or two that’s “meh, I could do this or that one” – it might be worth finding out if any of them would help.

    2. TheBunny*

      I like this. This is a question from someone who is looking to grow and as long as you don’t push if they don’t say anything specific I don’t think anyone would ever be the wiser.

  4. ElizabethJane*

    When faced with equally strong candidates I’ve had to make hiring decisions because “idk I guess the vibes were better”. It sucks to admit that but sometimes it is that arbitrary. Usually I’ll word it better, something to the effect of “I thought this candidate would be a better culture fit for the company” but regardless it’s generally not feedback anyone can effectively use.

    1. Butterfly Counter*

      Ha! I do something similar with more steps.

      “I vibe with PersonA. I think I’d like to hire them. But wait, am I vibing with PersonA because they are a lot like me? Is having another me around go for our department? Or would having someone like PersonB, who is also great, be better for whatever they bring that is different? But PersonB is a lot like Coworker, so maybe PersonC would be best?”

      And so on.

  5. Momma Bear*

    I agree with don’t ask. There are many reasons, often just that there were multiple good people and only space for one. I was once second choice and got hired a few months later. It wasn’t a failing on my part, just timing and skills and magic handwaving. Don’t overthink it.

  6. Artsygurl*

    I was the second choice for a graduate fellowship job – the initial candidate had been hired, onboarded, and then announced that he was not interested in commuting the forty minutes from his university town to the city the job was in, flatly refused to even consider moving to town despite the institution offering to subsidize his housing, stated that he would work remotely (impossible with this type of work especially in 2008 before we had the infrastructure we now have), and flat out told his manager she should just be grateful to have him on staff. She fired him the same day and called me up and I have been working in the field ever since while he crashed and burned in graduate school.

    1. Armchair Analyst*

      This is a great example of the adage that “90% of life is just showing up”

      I mean, it doesn’t work for everything… but in this case, it did

  7. Heidi*

    If you like, you can imagine that the first choice was the kid of the CEO (see column from Monday) and everyone was relieved when the kid decided to do something else. Then they could hire their “real” first choice, which was you!

  8. Goldenrod*

    “Asking why you were the second choice can come across as overly in need of reassurance”

    Yes, this! Firstly, the hiring process is so random. I bet now they are very glad they hired you, and as Alison implied, they are likely to barely remember the other candidate.

    And as to the “reassurance” aspect – this is such a compelling reason to say nothing, because asking for reassurance is offloading your insecurity onto your boss to handle. And asking your boss to handle your emotions in this way is – in my opinion – inappropriate. This is your thing to handle, internally. Talk about it with friends, but don’t make it your boss’ problem to solve.

    Recently I was scheduling job interviews, and one candidate asked a few times for status updates and reassurance. I really felt for her – because interviewing is tough! At the same time, I also felt like, if I had any say in the hiring (I did not), I would likely pass on her, because I would worry that she would have a pattern of expecting her co-workers to handle her emotions.

    1. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

      Don’t give the impression that you are needy – which asking for reassurance during/about hiring does!

  9. Dust Bunny*

    Don’t ask.

    I work in a library, which means that even as a sub-professional assistant there were probably a pile of candidates for my job. I had zero previous library experience so I have to assume that I was not the first choice, either. But I got it. I don’t need to know and I probably don’t really want to know.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Also, there is usually only one job (or however many jobs) open so inevitably a whole bunch of good candidate aren’t going to get it. It doesn’t mean they were “sloppy seconds”–it just means that the job pool doesn’t expand to accommodate everyone who technically deserves it. It’s not like everyone who gets an “A” gets a sticker.

      1. GammaGirl1908*

        This to me is honestly the best way to put it. In school, everyone who gets all the answers right gets a 100 and gets an A. There are unlimited As to give.

        In interviewing, you can get all the answers right and get a 100 yet still come in third, and it doesn’t mean you did anything wrong. There aren’t unlimited jobs to give.

        Coming in second or third doesn’t mean they hated you or you did something wrong. It often means that 10 other people also did everything right and got all the answers right, and person 1 just had a teeny something extra that you couldn’t anticipate. Meanwhile, the committee loved you too! It doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t be delighted to hire you both.

        Then, your something extra would be another panel’s first choice!

        It also could be that Person 1 didn’t love the job as much and turned it down, whereas it would’ve been your ideal job. Something about it might not have worked for them, but works for you, and you were equally strong candidates.

  10. toadFlax3*

    Yes OP please don’t worry about this! Once you’ve been on the hiring side you will see how much of it actually has little to do with the quality of the candidates. Also that why someone gets picked over someone else is just not what your insecurity might tell you it is. Give that worried part of your mind (who is just trying to help, after all) a big hug, tell them you love them, and let them know that everything is okay.

  11. Caramel & Cheddar*

    “But if, for example, there was something that I could have handled better during my interview, that piece of information could be very valuable in future job searches.”

    I think if this is genuinely why you want to know (vs perhaps an insecurity at not being the top choice, which is a very common feeling), then there are probably other ways of getting that information, e.g. asking your boss “Since you most recently interviewed me, I wanted to ask you if there was any feedback you could share with me that I could implement in my future job searches / my next application here, etc.” Don’t make it about the fact that you know you weren’t first choice, but do make it about a perfectly normal thing for an intern to ask for feedback about.

    I’d also just put the “second choice” thing out of your mind as best as you can. You have better, more up to date information about how they feel about you as an intern/employee: your boss thinks you’re great and wants you to come back when you graduate. That should trump any feelings they had about you or other candidates before they even knew you or your work.

  12. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    I think you should use this as a positive object lesson.
    You are new to this career path/industry/sector and have many roles, interviews and possibly companies ahead of you.
    Luck, timing, so many uncontrollable factors play a role.
    Truthfully, after a year of successful work, your manager might not even remember what put the other person ahead. And it doesn’t matter, not to her and not to you.

  13. MaxPower*

    There have been so many times I’ve been hiring and had more than one person I’d have been happy to hire, but had to pick just one. As a hiring manager, I consider that a win. If my first choice falls through, I’m plenty happy to be able to offer to the second choice. Often there’s nothing at all wrong with the second (or third) choice, and if my first choice hadn’t applied, I’d have never passed on the second choice.

    In many instances, those second choice candidates have been the ultimate hire, and after the day they accepted the job, there was not a second thought given to the fact that they weren’t my first choice. They were never walking around with a giant asterisk after their name, as the LW sort of imagines.

    1. GammaGirl1908*

      This too. This is one of the differences between job searching and dating. The reasons why it’s a big deal to be your spouse’s active third or second choice are not a big deal when being a job’s third or second choice. The job is not going to cheat on you, or leave you blindsided in three years when the other applicant gets divorced.

    2. Sara without an H*

      What MaxPower said. I spent 35 years in management and did lots and lots of hiring. The ideal situation from a hiring manager’s perspective is to have a strong pool of highly qualified applicants. Your ranking of them may come down to very, very fine differences, gut instinct, or some other intangible. But if your first choice candidate turns you down, it’s wonderful to have a strong second choice you can offer the job to without reservations.

      That said, if the LW ever gets a chance to serve on a search committee or interview panel, she should definitely take it. I did this when I took my first professional position (higher education). The experience made a vast improvement in my own future job searches.

    3. Baunilha*

      Right. I’m hiring for an entry-level position right now and out of the five people I interviewed so far, there are four that I wish I could hire.

  14. Goldenrod*

    And let’s not forget that a lot of famous actors got their big break when everyone else who was offered the role turned it down!

    For example – here is a list of actors who turned down the lead role in “Die Hard” before newcomer Bruce Willis finally landed it: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Robert De Niro, Burt Reynolds, Nick Nolte, Richard Gere, Don Johnson.

    1. anon_sighing*

      From that list, I’m chuckling at how CLEAR of an image they seemed to have of the character. Lol. Some lean hard to the “macho manly” type but they had a vision.

    2. House On The Rock*

      George Raft turned down the lead in The Maltese Falcon because he didn’t want to work with first time director John Huston. Seems to have gone swimmingly for Humphrey Bogart (and Huston)!

    3. Amos Tupper*

      Angela Lansbury was the second choice for Murder, She Wrote – JB Fletcher was originally written for Jean Stapleton.

    4. Sacred Ground*

      The producers of Casablanca (1942, one of the Greatest American Films Ever) originally wanted to cast Ronald Reagan in the lead role. He was unavailable so they went with their second choice, Humphrey Bogart. I can’t imagine the movie with Reagan, or anyone else really, as Rick. Just no.

      The point is, often the second choice is the correct one. Like all these movie examples, it’s an interesting fact that you were someone’s second choice, but no more than that. They made the right call by hiring you, they know it, there is no need to second-guess that choice.

  15. Mark This Confidential And Leave It Laying Around*

    Also: you’ll be asked how you came to the conclusion that you were the second choice. It sounds plausible here, but imagine saying that out loud to your boss. Now look at it in the most suspicious light. Don’t do it for all Allison’s reason but also: don’t do it because you’re going to look like a snoop.

    1. TerrorCotta*

      This is 100% what I came here to say. Even reading it, I definitely thought “accidentally happened to see a *year old* (!) email” sounded…a bit suspicious. Even if it WAS unintentional, it suggests OP was deliberately going through the boss’s emails trying to find information about this person. Which would be a very bad look.

      It’s honestly just none of your business who they previously considered, and they probably had even MORE candidates waiting in case YOU didn’t work out, as well.

    2. Heart&Vine*

      I was once clearing out really old digital files from our server and found an offer letter (that probably should’ve been saved somewhere else) to another candidate for my job dated around the time I was hired. Obviously this meant I wasn’t the first choice. I moved the file to the correct place and never commented on it. Unlike OP, I wasn’t really curious as to what this person had that I didn’t but, more than that, I knew if I did ask I would immediately be met with the question, “How did you find out about this person?”. Telling my boss I stumbled across it would be better than admitting I was snooping but not much better. If anything, I think OP coming off as a nosy snoop would be even worse than coming off as insecure.

    3. Stumbling*

      I’m surprised I had to scroll so far to find this comment. “Stumbling across” two separate, year-old pieces of evidence is going to seem like an awful lot of coincidence.

    4. Green CTO*

      Agreed, OP, my gut reaction is that you wouldn’t have found this if you weren’t sleuthing back for details about your hiring process which weren’t intended for your eyes. If so, consider changing how you react to the impulse to dig like this.

      The curiosity is a natural feeling, but acting on violates professional norms and is not going to be productive— as you’ve seen in this case, the details you find aren’t the full picture and just leave you with unanswered questions, questions that are hard to ask because if you allude to info it doesn’t make sense for you to have, you’d come across as untrustworthy.

      People do this stuff on workplace intrigue shows. It’s not a good idea in real life.

    5. Pyjamas*

      Scrolled down to see if anyone else thought “accidentally” meant “accidentally on purpose”

  16. Anecdata*

    Don’t ask but you absolutely CAN ask your boss for advice on your upcoming full time job search — that kind of mentoring conversation is something I would consider part of the job of managing an intern. You can ask about your resume specifically (does she have any advice about what parts of your experience to emphasize?) and about hiring more generally (“I’m going to be applying for XYZ type jobs, if you were hiring for that role, what would you be looking for?”)

  17. WW*

    To paraphrase Jed Bartlet, you were not the first choice but you were the last one and the best one (to Toby)

  18. Lab Boss*

    To look at a slightly different angle than the commenters saying “it’s always tough to choose just one candidate,” I’ll add that if you were good enough to even be on the final ranked list of candidates it likely means you were a good candidate without any specific flaws. If there had been something “wrong” it’s probable you’d have been weeded out well before the manager had to make a final judgement call.

  19. Judy Seagram*

    I was once involved in a hiring process where we hired the person who was my second choice. Since then I connected with my first choice candidate on social media. From what I’ve seen of them since, I am SOOOO GLAD we went with our second choice candidate! The first choice person has a lot of issues that would have been very problematic if we’d hired them.

    OP, try to put it out of your mind. You got the position, and it sounds like your supervisors are glad you did. All’s well that ends well.

  20. House On The Rock*

    A couple of my best hires have been “second choices”, or even third or fourth choices when we had to go back to the candidate pool after others falling through. Don’t ask because it almost certainly doesn’t mean anything concrete about you. Also, regardless of how accidental your finding this out was, it still might be startling to your boss or mentor to hear you know this detail. Let it me, enjoy the job and the experience, and move forward!

  21. Kevin T-Rex Willis*

    One reason not to ask is so that you don’t have to admit you were snooping, even if you stumbled up on it accidentally

    1. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

      Yup, some people may – however unfairly – suspect you were snooping and this can harm your prospects

  22. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

    I do some hiring and the difference between first choice and second choice is this: Wow, we have 2 (3,4, whatever) amazing candidates, I wish we could hire them all!

  23. anon_sighing*

    Don’t ask. I once had two separate people tell me 1.5 years into a job that:

    Person Y: ” Person X wanted to hire someone else, but I fought for you” and;

    Person X: “Y wanted to hire someone else, but I fought for you”

    Suffice to say, they hired someone and ended up being happy about it. Don’t get in your head about it – when hiring, you only have a piece of paper and a few interactions with people. Their first choice may have been a flop or they may have been amazing. It could have simply been a matter of convoluted thinking on why they were a hair better than you or another candidate. Either way, they got you and they’re pretty happy they did.

    1. A Significant Tree*

      My manager said something similar to me about a year after I was hired. I was the first choice for most of the interviewers but not all (including someone with a lot of sway), and Manager got the final say to give me the offer. I asked what the hesitation was from some of the interviewers and was told that my specific background was a selling point to Manager but a concern for some. I was curious, but in hindsight it doesn’t matter and didn’t add anything to my performance. No one ever brought it up to me directly so it’s not like I could do anything with that information anyway.

      Now it’s been several years and I work pretty closely with everyone from my interview panel and from the feedback I think they’re all very happy I joined the team.

  24. Gemstones*

    Another reason not to ask…don’t make yourself look like a snoop! It’ll make you look like the kind of person who’s reading emails that don’t belong to you…

    1. CityMouse*

      Yes, that’s a serious concern. Everyone gets curious but in general policies often read like “stop reading as soon as you realize you were something accidentally”. Even if it was truly an accident you can’t control people’s perception.

    2. Jellybeans*

      Yeah, I’m surprised everyone is overlooking the fact there’s no way LW can ask without drawing attention to the fact she’s been spying and prying. There’s a real chance she could be fired for that.

      Don’t snoop and eavesdrop and “accidentally” read other people’s private emails if you don’t want to potentially read bad things.

  25. Cat Lady in the Mountains*

    I was the distant-third choice in the hiring process for my current role. Two people on the hiring committee – including my boss — were strongly opposed to hiring me. I’ve now been here for many years, gotten consistently glowing assessments, been promoted I think 6? times, and regularly laugh with my boss about how they really wanted to go with someone else.

    Hiring is always a little bit of a gamble with the hiring manager taking a (hopefully small, but sometimes a little bigger than would be ideal) leap of faith on their choice. No one has perfect assessments of candidates – not the ones they hired nor the ones they rejected. You got the job and it sounds like you’re doing well in it; that’s all that really matters.

    1. Kyrielle*

      Yup. The only time you have a near-perfect view of a candidate is when they’re so unsuitable that what you’re not seeing doesn’t matter anyway. They won’t be given an offer; if your second-best is in that category, your recruitment process prior to that *stinks*.

      (Examples of ‘I have enough info to be quite sure of my conclusion’ includes people who have experience using computer-aided design programs, and apply to a position as a software engineer programming computer-aided dispatch systems…and are neither programmers nor have any experience with dispatch or 911 services. But hey, the job popped on their “cad” keyword search – and they didn’t read far enough to see it spelled out as computer-aided dispatch. Sigh.)

  26. Resident Catholicville, U.S.A.*

    Don’t ask- I’ve been the second choice in at least two positions now and both have worked out great. The job I’m in currently, I was the second choice for. (The person they hired had different experience than I did and he could start immediately, whereas I had to give two weeks notice.) Turns out, he stayed in the job exactly one (1) day and decided it wasn’t for him, so they called their back up- me. My third anniversary is this week; I’ve almost doubled my previous job’s salary (I’ve had three really good size raises); and I’ve been promoted twice. My bosses are thrilled with my performance. Sure, it’d probably be great to have that other guy’s skills (I don’t have that skill set and have pretty much said I’d hate doing particular work), but considering I’ve taken so much off of everyone else’s plate…yeah, it’s worked out for them, too.

    If it comes up and you get a chance to ask, sure, go for it- but don’t bring it up yourself. You got the job, not that other person- if they hired you and have kept you around, that means that your skills were good for what they were looking for and you’ve done what they wanted or more.

  27. CityMouse*

    You 100% should not bring this up. Even if you say it was accidental, they’re going to be concerned it happened twice and it’s going to come across as chasing info you shouldn’t have had. So, really, don’t. It’s a bad idea.

  28. Wendy Darling*

    I used to work a job where one of my responsibilities was helping stand up entire brand new teams in new locations, so we were generally interviewing and hiring to fill 5 or so roles at once. So I’ve actually seen how things shook out between our first choice and our fourth choice.

    Only like one time across five different batches of people was our first choice the person who actually ended up being the best performer. There was typically one person who seemed totally amazing in interviews and on their resume and most of the time that person was indeed a perfectly good hire, but there was almost always someone who was our second or third or fifth choice who was actually the standout performer in real life.

    We were doing super specialized work so we had to train people extensively, and we did massively adjust what we hired for over time in response to this and it did help, but we never could eliminate an amount of uncertainty. You never know how good someone is going to be at the job until you actually see them working the job for a while. Hiring is basically a process of trying to guess with limited data who is going to be good at a job, and it’s tough to do that with much accuracy.

  29. Lucia Pacciola*

    I’m having trouble connecting the dots between finding a co-worker in the company phone registry, and an email about that co-worker’s field of study, and the conclusion that the co-worker was the first choice for LW’s own job.

    Also, LW can rest easy about their interview skills. If you’re short-listed for the job, and you’re the one that actually ends up getting it, you’ve already nailed the interview. People who suck at interviewing, but seem otherwise qualified, get put in the second stack of resumes. The “we might need to take another look at some of these candidates, if none of our top choices pan out” stack.

    1. anon_sighing*

      I thought the internal phone registry would be some kind of log with names and numbers of people they’ve contacted — still a bit odd to keep that, but I don’t know it’s explicitly a current coworker.

  30. SheLooksFamiliar*

    It’s not typical to have a single, heads-above-the-rest candidate; quite often, there are a few really great candidates that offer a lot of the same skills and experience. But one has something the others don’t, and so on and so on…I agree with everyone who said the worst part of hiring is having to decline great talent.

    OP, I also agree with everyone who said there is no benefit to you in bringing this up, especially when a logical question will be, ‘How did you find out about that hiring process?’ You were hired, everyone is happy with the decision – yourself included – and it doesn’t matter how or why it happened the way it did.

  31. LW*

    Hi, letter writer here! Thanks so much for answering my question, Alison.
    I’ll admit that even though this isn‘t the answer I wanted to get, it’s the answer I expected, and reading it (plus the overwhelming agreement in the comments) will be helpful in keeping my curiosity (and, admittedly, my insecurity) in check.
    Since I’ve seen multiple people say that it would be okay to ask for advice on future job searches, I am planning on doing that closer to the end of my internship. If there are specific questions it would be smart for me to ask, I’d be interested in hearing them!
    Otherwise, thanks everyone both for your stories about not being the first choice or hiring someone who wasn’t initially your first choice. :)

    1. MaxPower*

      I think it’s really, really important for you to know that the difference between two candidates can (and often does) come down to things that are best categorized as person preference on the part of the hiring manager. Things that aren’t about competence, but are about how the candidate and the manager click with each other.

      And, to take that further, that thing that this hiring manager might prefer, another might not prefer.

      There’s really few universals, beyond having a resume that highlights yourself well, and putting your best foot forward in the interview.

      Even on this site, I see Alison talk about things that she likes to see in a resume, cover letter or interview, and sometimes they’re things that I specifically prefer something different.

      One hiring manager might like you to tell anecdotes about your experience, another might like you to stick to the facts in a very linear way. One might really like a chronological resume, another might really prefer a skills based one. You really can’t know, because hiring is done by humans, all with their own preferences. All you can do is hope for the best.

      I mention this because there are a lot of people who believe that if they didn’t get a specific job, they did something wrong, and they need to fix that for the next time. If the person you interview with today prefers people who interact very personably and kind of casual-like, and you were more formal, that doesn’t mean that the next person wants you to be that way, the next person might prefer the more formal approach.

      Which is a really long winded way to say that you should take feedback with a massive grain of salt, unless you did something that was kind of universally offensive/unprofessional, most people’s advice is just their personal preferences/opinions, and other managers will feel differently.

    2. anonymous anteater*

      I think you are overlooking that you have multiple pieces of information on your boss’ thinking here, and in my opinion, you are falling for negativity bias (is that what it’s called?) when weighing them!
      You know that another applicant got the internship offer before you, based on application+interview, which is honestly not that much information for most hiring managers. There is a ton of guesswork and hoping the candidate will pan out.
      HOWEVER, you also know that your boss would like you to come back to work for them, and she said so after really getting to know you and your skills for nine whole months!
      Unless they were just being nice, this vote of confidence should carry much more weight than their initial choice to rank the other candidate over you.

    3. anonager*

      Just want to validate your reaction and commend you on being self-reflective enough to check yourself and write in! I’ve discovered that I was a second-choice candidate before, and even having experience on the hiring side and KNOWING intellectually that it didn’t mean I did anything “wrong,” I found it surprisingly difficult to step back and disengage from that nagging feeling of “what made Top Choice Candidate better than me?”

      Of course, as many others have already pointed out, that’s not really how hiring works at all…but it doesn’t stop the knee-jerk emotions!

    4. anon_sighing*

      If you want to know why they hired you, you can ask that. “I’d love to stay working for you all after I get my degree, but in case that doesn’t pan out (future is unpredictable), I would love to get your feedback from when you initially interviewed me and now. I’m always looking to examine my strengths and weaknesses from other viewpoints.”

      If it’s just insecurity though, it will come off as such. I don’t mean this in a mean way, but you’re very rarely someone’s first choice. Oftentimes in life, you’re just the best choice in the moment.

  32. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    This hits home for me. I was rejected for a position late last year, only to have the employer’s representative reach back out and ask me if I would still be interested in interviewing again as recruitment had been reopened–i.e. choice #1 backed out, didn’t work out, or something similar along those lines.

    While my curiosity will probably never full subside, I came to the same conclusion as Alison’s advice. There’s really precious little value in knowing why. The important reality is that you are there and have the opportunity to make the choice of you the right choice.

  33. TG*

    Agreed – don’t bring it up! It sounds like your boss likes you a lot and then saying they want to bring you in when you have a degree is great feedback. We have all been choice #2 at times professionally and in many cases we ended up in the job and successful!

  34. Jake*

    At my first job out of school I was my boss’s 3rd choice out of 5 finalists for 2 spots. I was only hired because his boss had me ranked first, and had my boss’s second choice ranked last.

    It was disappointing when I found that out, but at the end of my run there, I was considered a top tier hire, and was tasked with mentoring my boss’s top pick. This illustrates two points:

    1. There was a candidate that one guy with 30 years of managerial experience thought was a no doubt about it rock star and another guy with 20 years of managerial experience thought was a no doubt problem. Hiring is not black and white, and it’s not a science. It might not even be useful to know why you weren’t top choice because they could easily not be representative of the wide range of thought processes used by hiring managers. For the record, the guy that had me third of five was the best manager I’ve ever seen.

    2. Once hired, there isn’t a single time that me not being the top choice entered my boss’s mind while managing me. He was just happy to have somebody that demonstrated the skills and wherewithal to handle the position.

  35. Snoozing not schmoozing*

    I will never understand why people are bothered that they were 2nd or 3rd choice for a job, if they ultimately got the position. As far as I know, I was 3rd pick for all my favorite jobs, and I was delighted that the 1st and 2nd choices declined or didn’t work out or whatever, because I got the job. It’s not an Olympic medal, nobody cares how you placed.

  36. RVA Cat*

    Brock Purdy is the first “Mr. Irrelevant” (final draft pick) to take his team to the Super Bowl – and into overtime!

  37. Fluffy Fish*

    OP – I’ve been second choice about 3 times for a transfer at my employer. would you believe that all 3 times the first choice turned out to be a dud? and that circumstances of those positions as well as positions i did subsequently get that being second choice was the absolute best thing that could have happened?

    look the reality is hiring, for the most part, is based on looking at a piece of paper and brief conversation or two. there’s a good bit of guesswork – albeit educated- about how a chosen candidate is going to work out. it’s rarely you vs someone else and more you and a few others and some other circumstances, vibes, mercury in retrograde,coin flips.

    dont get caught up in measuring yourself against other candidates.

  38. Yeah...*

    Asking how you could of a have handled the interview better for your current job to use in next job search may not be well received.

    1. ranunculus*

      It’s an internship for recent grads, so it’s highly probable that the LW will be seeking new employment when the internship ends. Many internships are not set up as a pathway to permanent hire, and interns are generally expected to be preparing for entry into their field, so I don’t think your comment applies to this situation.

    2. Ess Ess*

      Since this is an internship, asking what could they do better in an interview would be part of the professional learning experience. That’s the point of an internship. Unless there was a plan to have OP continue as an employee after the internship was over, it would be the normal expectation that they would be interviewing elsewhere.

      However, OP should NOT ask why they were picked second… instead they should just ask for general improvement tips.

    3. TheBunny*

      I think you are wrong here. This is an internship. That’s literally the kind of question an intern would be expected to ask.

      By definition an intern who is hired wasn’t held to the same standard of interview and professional skills as a regular hire… so asking if there were any areas they could do better seems like the exact kind of question to ask.

      1. Ess Ess*

        I think you misread my response. I also said it would be appropriate to ask for pointers or areas that they can do better in an interview. I said it is not appropriate to ask why they were second, since that was not information that they were supposed to know.

  39. cosmicgorilla*

    Even if you came across the information in the most innocent way possible, bringing up that you know you were the second choice makes it look like you were snooping.

    That alone makes it a good reason not to bring it up.

    In some roles, you are privy to confidential and sensitive information, and you are expected to not act on it or react to it. It’s the nature of having that kind of access.

    1. Amos Tupper*

      This was my concern too – they just happened to come across this info which was confirmed when they just happened upon corroborating information… it could seem a bit much.

  40. hobbydragon*

    I’m on a hiring committee right now and our first round of names we got from HR had four people, 3 backed out before the interview. So we were allowed to go to the second rung of candidates, and of the 9, we interviewed 3. Our top two choices as a committee were the first round candidate and one of the second round folks who we hadn’t rated as a “hope we get to interview them”. We are having 3 of the 4 come back for an in person meet and greet before making our final choice but honestly all of them would be good at the job. The two top ones at the moment seem like they’ll be happier with the day to day of the position. But in the end if our first offer is declined it will mostly be the universe deciding for us.

  41. The Dude Abides*

    Don’t ask – you may not like the answer.

    At the worst FT job I’ve ever had, I was the second choice for a bookkeeper/accounting job – the first choice lasted a single morning. Within a month, I found out why:

    – regular exposure to secondhand smoke and pet hair (my partner had an allergy)
    – technology was stuck in the 1980s; I had to print paper checks on a OKI dot matrix printer with a check lead I had to physically tape on in order for the checks to print right.
    – the pay was terrible; I was grossing $19/hr despite having several years’ experience and a Masters.

    1. anon_sighing*

      > Don’t ask – you may not like the answer.

      Oh, you’re spot on. Everyone is focused on why LW shouldn’t ask, but considering this question came out of a mix of insecurity-curiosity…hearing an honest, even if gentle answer, probably won’t dim that initial feeling of being a consolation prize (which you are not, LW!!)

  42. Kelsi*

    This! I was just part of an interviewing/hiring process and we had two absolutely stellar candidates; one pulled just slightly ahead, but we weren’t sure if the salary was going to be a dealbreaker (candidate would be moving from for-profit to non-profit, salary was disclosed up front, candidate asked if it was a hard number or if it was flexible–all totally normal considerations and they were interested enough to proceed but we weren’t sure). We talked with the HR person and basically said “offer it to them first, if they decline, please move ahead with offering it to the other finalist and either way we’ll have a new hire we’re very excite about!”

  43. Ditto*

    That was me back in 2011. At my internship for the federal govt I discovered I was the “alternate” or “second choice.” The first choice had a “brand name” university whereas I went to a state school. But I ended up outperforming others from “brand name” universities. In 2024 it still frustrates me when people choose university pedigree or the big 4 consulting brand instead of actually measuring performance and outcomes.

    1. anon_sighing*

      The federal government will give someone with barely any experience but a Ivy education the same consideration as someone from a state school with years of experience. The Ivy League sticker is enticing and makes them look better, I suppose. Federal work isn’t usually the first pick for people that go to those places.

      I don’t get it at all.

  44. Pam Adams*

    I was on a hiring committee once, where we were hiring for 2 positions. We picked our top 7 or 8 to interview out of a strong applicant pool. We did the interviews, and started making offers. People declined offers or stepped out of the process, so we kept interviewing, and making offers. I think we finally hired the 12th and 15th interviewees. Both were successful hires, one was with us for several years, and the other is still here, but in a leadership position.

  45. Carrots*

    There’s no useful information to come out of asking, because your goal should not be to be the first choice candidate every single time you apply for a job. Your goal should be to get an interview and do well in the interview. And to continue to build skills that position you well for future roles. But being 1st choice instead of 2nd or 3rd choice? That’s out of your hands!

  46. Porch Gal*

    I’ve heard of 2 cases where a student who was admitted to college from the Wait List went on to become their class valedictorian. So don’t let their initial choice of someone else for your position intimidate you or hold you back!

  47. Anallamadingdong*

    I was a second choice. The two directors in charge of hiring me fought because the other choice could start earlier (she was unemployed and I needed to give notice) and she asked for less money.
    Two weeks after she started they called and said “please come work for us, you should have been our first choice!” and I’m still here 4 years later!

  48. WantonSeedStitch*

    I had a great employee who was my second choice for hiring originally. It was a situation where I and others involved in the hiring process all wished we had two open positions to fill, but could only make the offer to one person. We picked the person who had been in the same kind of role at a different organization, rather than the person who had been in a different kind of role at our organization, because there would be a shorter learning curve. That person decided to take a counteroffer from their employer, however, so we went with our second choice. Second choice person ended up being a FANTASTIC hire who went on to be promoted to a management role.

  49. Leenie*

    I just hired someone a few weeks ago, and I thought any of the top four candidates that got to me for interviews (after HR’s initial screening) could have done well in the job. There was someone whose background seemed to be just a bit more on point, and I really liked the way that she answered a few of the questions. So we made an offer to her, which she accepted. But if that hadn’t worked out, I would have made an offer to one of the others. And I wouldn’t have even really thought of that person as a second choice, even though, technically speaking, they would have been. Hiring is a process with any number of possible outcomes. If someone doesn’t move forward, you go a different direction. But it’s not normally like you’re sitting there with a checklist looking at candidates who are growing ever less qualified as the list goes on. There are often many well qualified candidates with very little that separates them in any material way.

  50. Me, I think*

    After I was offered and took a staff job in a popular and competitive creative field, out of state, I had several local creatives tell me that they had been offered the job and turned it down. Like, sure, buddy, if that makes you feel superior or something.

  51. Belle of the Midwest*

    I was second choice for a job back in 1992. I spent the next year making them glad they had hired me. It worked. I’ve had a good career here and I will retire at the end of 2024, having won awards and recognition and bonuses and flexibility. And respect. No one remembers who the first choice was. But they do know me and what I’ve done for them

  52. Anne Shirley Blythe*

    There are numerous examples of actors who were originally the second choice for the leading role, yet they made the role their own and fans could not imagine anyone else in it. Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek Voyager, for instance. It ran for seven seasons.

  53. Ess Ess*

    I would like to add an additional concern that this would cause… you say you accidentally saw an email that gave you this information. That means you are asking them to give you details about a situation that you should not have been privy to, and you are using information that was not supposed to be accessed by you. Going to them to ask for more information, based on knowledge you obtained from confidential information will harm your professional standing.

    1. learnedthehardway*

      THIS is a very good point – there’s no way in which the OP can mention that they know they were second choice without people wondering how they found out.

      I mean, I once found out I was the second person offered a role when someone mentioned they had been offered a job that I had ultimately been hired to, but that was years after the fact. Being in recruitment, it didn’t bother me – I know for a fact that there are a whole lot of stars that have to align for any one person to be hired, and that just because one person was the hiring manager’s first choice, it doesn’t really mean all that much.

      The odds that the OP would have run into the other candidate are vanishingly small, so better to not raise questions about how she found out this information.

  54. Alice*

    I have done a fair amount of hiring; one of the best people I ever managed was someone who was our second choice. The first choice had actually started in the role, but on her third week with us, was offered another role that she had interviewed for around the same time but which had a much longer process; it was a better fit for her so she left. Fortunately our second choice was still available, she started almost straight away, and was amazing from the get-go. Ten years later she is now a senior manager in this field, I’m really proud of where she is.

    She had only been our second choice because the first choice had a stronger academic background (think Phd vs someone with a bachelor’s degree), and it was a role that intersected a lot with universities. Hiring is rarely a perfect art, and when it comes down to two or three really strong candidates, sometimes it’s just a small thing that tips it in someone’s favour, and in another situation, someone else would have made a totally different decision.

    1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

      Geez, I once rejected a candidate for on-campus interviews because of a lack of pertinent experience. She came to the interview room and asked for a chance to speak. We ended up hiring her, she worked harder than anyone, and she became a star.

      Hiring is such a crapshoot as it is. Don’t sweat where you ranked.

  55. tess*

    If you have a good relationship with boss and mentor, instead ask them what specifics you should work on to make you the star candidate for a potential future paid opening. You know you need the degree, but there is always something that could be stronger.

  56. el l*

    You have so little frame of reference for why they made their first pick. It’s probably not going to make sense to you.

    The reasons often have very little to do with anything you can change.

    More to the point, what if their reasons for preferring them over you were…wrong?

    The fact is, a man* is whatever room he’s in, and you are in this room. That’s enough.

    *I’m quoting the line from “Mad Men” which quotes a Japanese saying, but the context is non-gendered and that’s how it’s meant here.

  57. Crencestre*

    What Alison said, plus this: Not only is it unwise to put your manager on the spot like this, it brings into question how you got hold of that email. Unless it was actually sent to you (and it doesn’t sound as if it was!), your having read it in the first place smacks of snooping on your part; that may be unfair, but that’s what it will look like. You do NOT want to remind your manager that you weren’t their first choice and you do NOT want to give them the impression that you go around ferreting out emails that were never meant for you to read.

    Seriously, LW – seize the opportunity you have now and make the most of it. Do NOT make your manager think that they made a mistake by hiring you!

  58. Caz*

    Of your goal is to improve your interview technique for future jobs, ask for support with that. This could be role playing, it could be having someone read over snf help you tighten up your resume, it could be practising the STAR technique (Situation, Task, Action, Result) – it will be much more valuable for you to be looking forward rather than backward. You got the job ans that’s the important part.

  59. RedinSC*

    Don’t know if this was already mentioned, but also, LW, you saw confidential information. If you bring it up to your boss now, they will know that 1. you saw this and 2. are acting on that information for your own benefit. Which isn’t a great look. You. mentioned you were at a foundation, so it’s possible you’re dealing with donor information. Bringing up information you happened upon might make them wonder if you can be discreet about other things that should remain confidential.

    I just wouldn’t bring it up. When you leave at the end of your internship you can ask for feedback – about the hiring processes, your resume, your interview, your current work, things you can do to grow, etc. Don’t do that now based on something you happened upon.

  60. M2*

    How do you accidentally come across an email and a phone log?

    If I found out an intern had done this I might have second thoughts about the intern. If you have access to someone else’s email for work that doesn’t mean you get to go fishing and read confidential or emails that don’t concern you. If it was really accidental then it still makes it confidential, but if you went snooping around that is not okay. What was the purpose?

    My spouse has an EA who was their predecessor EA. The previous person in the role who retired let the EA go through emails, reply to them, etc.

    My spouse won’t do that as this EA has shown to go through things that don’t concern them. They are trying to move this person as it would be very hard to put them on a PIP. It’s hard for my spouse who gets hundreds of emails every single day and many they need to respond too. It would be nice ti have a trustworthy EA and one who doesn’t send emails with mistakes.

    Also as someone who worked at nonprofits a name brand foundation and the UN many things are confidential especially donor information. I would seriously question the judgment of someone who came across confidential information and thought they should use that information for their own benefit.

    1. Bruce*

      I agree that asking about this could look odd to the manager, as in “wow, is this person digging around in the files?”

    2. Peanut Hamper*

      I would really like to disagree with you, but any time somebody says “accidentally” I have to wonder how much of an accident it actually was. Usually these accidents also involve a fair amount of non-accidental digging.

      Your last sentence — I agree 1000%! We actually have a lot of laws against that in certain contexts.

    3. anon_sighing*

      Best case scenerio: this org very weirdly prints out emails of this nature and files them (unlikely).

      Most likely: this org has phone logs (the registry) is a public place (maybe even on paper or as an Excel file in a shared folder or something) and the email is a shared one (maybe to schedule interviews or a shared calendar or for external applicant or org comms). LW had to dig for them in the email inbox, (can’t see any other way), but it’s not necessarily being in a place where they aren’t supposed to…such digging more than they should in a very nosy manner based on the phone logs. The “accident” here is that LW may have opened the phone registry on accident and spotted it (or were assigned to look at it or similar items), but the email thing had to be a choice to seek out more info.

      Worst case (and I don’t know if it’s this one because I assume the LW has some tact): they were digging in places they shouldn’t and found things they didn’t like.

    4. Kelly*

      In an old old law firm job, I was only days in and still learning how to navigate the document management system, so I ran a search for my name because I knew I’d filed the email and it would have my email signature in it. I also found a 60+ page affidavit filed by someone else that included a paragraph naming me as the person the deponent had requested to complete a research task.

      Accidentally found something can just mean accidentally found something.

  61. Carol the happy elf*

    Don’t walk the “why wasn’t I first choice??” road. Too many forks and hairpin curves thataway!

    One of my best hires wasn’t the first, the headandshoulders top, or the very most educated. She came into a room the fourth day of live interviews with 4 or 5 other candidates. She was much equal with the high average.

    Her name was Susannah. I wasn’t impressed either way with any of the candidates, and Susannah had misspelled “Ailurophobia”- a fear of cats. It meant that she wouldn’t be delivering to veterinarian clinics or to animal shelters; a new segment of our division. No sweat, we had others who could.
    But I was 12 weeks post-mastectomy, 6 weeks postpartum and 3 weeks into a brutal chemo.
    My sense of smell was wicked sharp, though, and every other applicant was wearing some form of cologne or perfume. The mix smelled horrible and had some metallic notes that I could actually taste.

    Susannah smelled of baby powder, like my brand new infant. And a bit of lilac, like my favorite aunt. Hired.

    I used all of my work capital to battle for hiring her right away. I went home early that weekend and personally called every reference the woman provided– each person loved her work and her personality and a few commented on her “cat allergy”.

    I didn’t feel guilty, I felt reprieved by a loving Heaven. There were other jobs for the other people- some in our company.

    She was a calming soul. Skilled? Gifted!
    Her work was great-to-marvellous. The rest were great enough. They got jobs. (I guess I felt guilty enough to have checked later.)

    Don’t beat yourself up, sweetie. It could just be that you used a mild cologne
    when someone had a migraine, but the stars realign themselves all the time. All. The. Time. Just be the one that they gloat over, the one that almost got away.

  62. Alan*

    I’ve picked a number of interns and it always feels like a crapshoot. It’s incredibly difficult for me to determine how someone will do from a resume or even an interview. I would guess that the fact that someone else was picked first means nothing other than something undefinable made that person initially seem like a better fit. It doesn’t matter because in the end you turned out to be exactly what they needed! And I can tell you that I would absolutely remember nothing about the other applications more than a week or two afterward. I’ve moved on to other stuff, and asking me why you were second would just feel weird and uncomfortably needy. Don’t do it. (Although if someone did ask, I’d probably just tell them I couldn’t remember and we’d move on.)

  63. Samwise*

    Do not ask. Because your boss may wonder how you found out. Either someone told you, or you “snooped” around. Boss may be peeved by the former, and the latter makes you look bad.

  64. Escapee from Corporate Management*

    Athletes face a very public view of their hiring. Michael Jordan was the 3rd choice in his draft. Peyton Manning was the 2nd choice in his. Tom Brady, famously, was the 200th choice. All are considered potentially the best ever.

    The point? Hiring is an imperfect process. Being the second choice is meaningless. It’s what you do after you’re hired that makes all of the difference.

  65. I get to read books and talk about them with nice people, it rules*

    I don’t think I’ve ever been first choice for a job, and I’ve had many and done well in them! I absolutely get it, though: the horrible anxious bit of my brain likes to remind me of this every now and then as evidence of my General Failings, even though I know my colleagues are happy with me. Just to say that everyone above is right – it’s very very normal to be second/third/fourth choice initially and still be someone your colleagues are very glad to be working with (and it is much better not to dig up the hiring process again – they’re happy with you!) – and it’s also very normal to have feelings about that sometimes, and you did the right, self-aware thing to check in with others outside the situation about it.

  66. Kelly*

    I’ve heard of a place that had three equally good candidates for a position and whomever got offered the position was drawn out of a hat.

    Combine that with people applying for multiple internships for the same period, and you’re bound to find a few people that were offered a position but declined it in favour of another position in another company, leading to a second or third candidate being offered a role.

  67. Cranky ann*

    As someone who has done plenty of hiring….once it’s done, the other candidates, even the great ones….quickly fade from my mind. Months later, I’m interested in the person who’s there, not “the one who got away.”

    That said…it sounds like you’ve got quite a lot of info about this that, if not necessarily secret or confidential, and even if it’s well within your scope of work to see… your mentor might be surprised to learn you’d combed for that level of detail in order to feed your own curiosity. Even if there’s nothing off about your seeing these materials, in most cases I think professional norms would expect that you won’t be going out of your way to mine that access for your own gain. you may not have broken any rules exactly but if you raised this and explained how you knew, folks would likely find that quite off putting and raise some questions about your judgment.

  68. Patricia Morrison*

    I was the second choice for my first real job in my current field. Twenty years later I’m at the top of my sector within my overall field. I’ve been a hiring manager for 15 years now and sometimes you just have a lot of great applicants but can only choose one. Let it go and be thankful!

  69. Teej*

    A while ago, I was specifically head-hunted by the owner of a company to apply for a position, and I wasn’t hired.

    It turned out that when that position was opened, another person with way more qualification than I did at the time (which includes actually founding a company and running it in the same manner that the new position would requires, giving that person over a decade of experience where I had a limited set of experience.) That person have an amazing set of skills and is doing great at that job.

    That position would have also paid me 30% less than I was making at the time, and about 50-60% less today (Granted, it was a big raise for that person, so I do not know if they would have paid me the same or more than I was making at the time). It is a passion project that I would have deeply enjoyed, but it’s just the way things worked out. They got an amazing person to work for them, and I’m just the “second best” that most likely would have done an amazing job there.

    I am not upset about it. There are always people better than you, and some of them may apply for the same thing you applied for. Does that mean you sucks? No. The 8th place finisher at the Olympics are way better than 99.9% of the participants in that sport. There are just simply 7 people better than them for a variety of reasons.

    The only reason to ask this question is to improve yourself, not dish dirt. The above details I just shared are based on my knowledge of that person, close friendship with the owner of the company, and my desire to be a better contributor. If you truly believe that, then you can ask what you can do better. Otherwise, let it go.

  70. Sharpie*

    It’s not like the Olympics, where coming first, second or third determines what medal you get. Or school, where everyone can get an A because it’s purely down to their own work and effort. There are rarely jobs that take on a whole group of people at once and who gets taken on depends on a whole range of factors.

    You might not have been the first pick for the job but what matters is that you’re there, the first pick isn’t – and they might not even be as good as you in the role even if they did take it. You’re the one in the job, you just need to be the best person doing the job. Nobody else is thinking ‘ohh, you were only second best, I wish we had the other person’. You can be the rock star they want, the job is yours. No one else’s!

  71. Jenna Webster*

    If I was your boss, I’d be wondering how you came across this information – it doesn’t really seem like something you would find without poking around where you’re probably not supposed to be. I’d wonder where else you were poking around, and whether I needed to worry about that.

  72. NotARealManager*

    Not a job, but I (and several of my eventual good friends) were admitted off the wait list into our very competitive grad school program. Sometimes that’s just how it shakes out. There’s only so many spots and many people are equally good candidates. The things that edged someone else over you as the first choice are often out of your control and not worth worrying about if you are in the job/program and doing well.

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