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“We have offered the position to another candidate.” No job applicant wants to hear those words. But doubly painful are those words for an “unsuccessful” internal candidate. That’s the hardest challenge for anyone who aspires to a different job on their own campus, competes in a search and loses out. How do you respond to such a setback, in full view of colleagues and co-workers?

For anyone not selected for a desired position, your next steps are difficult. How to handle the news? How to move on? At least external candidates get to manage the challenge with some privacy and with a sense of returning to status quo. But when your candidacy unfolds and falls short before the observant eyes of colleagues, you have little emotional space for a private reaction to disappointment. Although probably not as much you imagine, you are being watched, and the reaction that people see will matter. This is not a time to let down your guard.

When a HERS Institute alumna in this situation asks for my help, I advise that she work through three stages: managing immediate actions and reactions, devising next steps for her work, and drawing lessons for the future.

Immediate Actions and Reactions

“Immediate” is a relative term. If it was quite recently that you didn’t get the campus job you sought, you may well have already done and said some strong things in the first few days or weeks, perhaps some things you’d like to take back -- a pretty normal response to disappointment.

Breathe. Take a step back. Give perspective a chance. You have plenty of time to act and react as you find your footing again among your colleagues. Allow yourself to realize that few, if any, people on your campus are gloating over your “failure” to be selected (and those few never cheer for you anyhow). Others may simply feel that you stepped out of line by showing your ambition for a new role. They like you where you are. That’s the odd pecking order we often impose on ourselves and our colleagues at many institutions. Maybe you expected their support; now you know better.

It’s likely that the people who are paying the most attention are not adversaries but rather the colleagues who supported you -- and who care about you. Those people now deserve your attention -- and they will be the ones who are going to help you get to your next stage. Let them know you are OK -- at least OK enough to thank them for their support and concern.

Then you need to ask them to join you in supporting the person who was awarded the position you sought. But more than just asking, your campus supporter needs to see you showing the same support. If you find you still need a venting session -- who wouldn’t? -- call your dearest friends far away. You don’t need anyone on the campus venting on your behalf or using your situation as an occasion to express an opinion on the new person. Anything said will surely be attributed to you.

Next Steps for Your Work

With the help of your friends, it will become clear that you are supporting the institutional decision on this search. With that as the starting point, you can plan for your next steps.

Internal searches cover many situations. It could be that you applied for a position that was vacant and now you will just stay in your current role. That may mean you go on about your business and encounter the new person only as other faculty or staff members will.

Or you may report to the new person. That will require more adjusting, but it’s still possible you will want to stay in your current role. Your conversations with the new person about your role will need to take place in stages: first, you should offer congratulations and support, and then you should follow up to talk about plans and how you can contribute to them.

Or you may have been in an interim role that you will now vacate as the new person takes the position. You will need to have conversations like those I just described -- expressing support and offer possible ways to contribute -- but you need to have those with the person to whom you will now report. If there’s any doubt about how this will work -- I hope not, but terms of interim positions are often less clear than they should be -- then you should talk with the person who asked you to take the interim role.

Whichever situation you are now facing, you need to be looking at other position descriptions. I’m not saying that you should necessarily look for another job right away. But you need to be more aware of what positions are being advertised and how they are being described. As you talk with your supervisor and other colleagues about what you want to be doing for the next year or two, you need to be ready with options you might like to try. That should include possibilities that are more attractive than what you were doing before you sought a different campus position. Trust your aspirations for a greater challenge.

Maybe you have opportunities to grow your current role. Maybe you’ll find opportunities to grow elsewhere. But you are ready to grow, and you need to nurture that impulse rather than pushing it down as you “settle” back in.

Assessing What You Have Learned for the Future

Finally, you should ask yourself a number of questions that will help you move ahead effectively.

  • What did you learn about possible positions?
  • What was exciting about your initial decision to be a candidate for the new position?
  • What did you learn about the position that met your expectations?
  • What did you learn about the position that made you pause?
  • What have you learned from your experience with this search, and the wider review of positions you’ve now started, that you will use in looking in the future?
  • If you don’t see positions that seem immediately interesting, what have you learned that might allow you to craft new possibilities where you are?
  • What did you learn about your institution and institutional processes?

Remember, this is not just about what you learned about the specific position but what you have learned about your institution. Did you learn about how positions are proposed, approved and filled -- all of which you might use in finding other opportunities on the campus?

Also, during the search, did you learn anything about challenges, strengths, opportunities, goals and strategies that are likely to shape the actions of current leaders? Being more aware of your institutional context can help as you look for options at the institution. It will also be useful in assessing opportunities elsewhere.

Finally, what did you learn about yourself? And, most important, what did you learn about yourself -- your skills, experience and vision -- that will help you make decisions about your future directions?

You have just put yourself forward in a challenging setting. Congratulate yourself for that effort. Take care of yourself a bit more for a while. Take your time in planning your next moves and rallying the supporters who will help you in the next round.

Yes, I trust that you will be in a search (or searches) in the future. At that point, you will be a more experienced and prepared candidate. In the meantime, you are becoming a more focused and effective leader on your campus. That will not be a disappointment to anyone.