I Don’t Think You’re Ready to be a Principal: How to Maintain Relationships After Professional Rejection

Spring is just around the corner and principal positions will be posted in school districts across the country.

For every principal position posted and awarded, there are many aspiring school leaders who are not selected.  Difficult conversations with teachers are challenging (which explains why many school leaders prefer to avoid them altogether).  They are even more challenging when teachers are told they are not ready to be a principal.  How do districts help applicants move past professional rejection?

This article is geared more towards dealing with internal applicants, though much of the information could apply to external applicants as well.  While no system or set of tools can guarantee every applicant will embrace rejection, the areas discussed below may help maintain professional relationships when the time comes to tell aspiring educational leaders they are not ready to be a principal.  Additionally, we are providing this free resource to assist your district in developing fair and reliable hiring practices.


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Perceived Fairness in the Hiring Process is #1 Priority

The first and likely most important step in telling an aspiring school leader they will not be hired as principal is ensuring the actual hiring process is fair.  

Perceptions of fairness in hiring can damage trust between applicants and the school district and can have long term consequences with internal applicants.  Factors such as organizational commitment and counterproductive work behaviors (discussed further below) may seem like matters of collateral damage but these factors can severely damage the culture of the school district and will also affect the ability and willingness of existing employees to work to achieve the district’s mission once the hiring process is complete.  

If maintaining a healthy culture isn’t reason enough for districts to use fair hiring practices, there are legal and ethical factors to consider as well. Poorly designed hiring practices, or hiring charades used to reach predetermined outcomes can result in costly law suits and embarrassing public disputes.  Research has consistently found that hiring practices are viewed as fair when they are perceived as relevant to the job and when applicants feel they can demonstrate their abilities (Anderson, Born, & Cunningham-Snell, 2001).  We wrote an article that expands on perceptions of fairness, Do Perceptions of Fairness Matter in School District Hiring Practices?, that dives deeper into this topic.

Hiring methods should be based on a properly developed job analysis which identifies job valid criteria.  Interview questions, assessments, and performance events should be developed to ensure reliability and should allow for continuous improvement. Using valid and reliable selection practices is often the most effective way to combat perceptions of unfairness and maintain positive relationships with aspiring principals and education professionals.  


Potential Outcomes to Professional Rejection

While it may not seem very positive to view non-hire decisions as professional rejection, that is often how an applicant who has been denied a promotion will view the decision.  Once districts ensure their hiring practices are valid and reliable, they must consider three possible outcomes when educators do not receive the promotion they are seeking.  The three most common responses to professional rejection are:

  1. Counterproductive Work Behaviors
  2. Professional Defeat
  3. Acceptance and Development


Counterproductive Work Behaviors

What happens when internal employees who were not hired begin working against the district’s objectives? Within our field of study, organizational psychology, this is known as counterproductive work behaviors (CWBs).  Counterproductive work behaviors are employee behaviors that go against the interests or objectives of an organization. The majority of CWBs are not physical in nature.  Instead, they are most often behaviors related to defiance (either overt or subvert) or forms of  workplace deviance.  Research has found counterproductive work behaviors can be a form of protest against specific leaders or the organization at large (Kelloway, Francis, Posser, & Cameron, 2010).  These researchers contend that many forms of counterproductive behaviors are protests of perceived injustice (like not being hired for a job or viewing hiring practices as unfair).  

Other research on CWBs found that envy and perceptions of unfairness can significantly influence counterproductive behaviors.  In a 2007 study titled,  Does Perceived Unfairness Exacerbate or Mitigate Interpersonal Counterproductive Work Behaviors Related to Envy?, researchers Carash and Mueller found the potential for toxic working environments to be present when employees viewed a work outcome to be unfair and were envious of others who benefited from the outcome.  Carash and Mueller argued toxic work environment are even more likely to produce higher levels of CWBs when envy and unfairness involves employees who are high in self-esteem and experience threatened egotism following high levels of envy and unfairness.  

These findings do not suggest districts should adopt a hiring policy of appeasement to avoid conflict or counterproductive work behaviors. However, they should provide clear justification regarding the need of valid and reliable hiring practices that are perceived as fair by applicants and district stakeholders to avoid counterproductive work behaviors to the extent possible.


Unintended Consequences of “No” : Professional Defeat

The unintended consequences of hiring a new school leader is denying the applicants who were not selected an opportunity to advance in their career.  Applicants who are not selected often find a target for blame, either external or internal.  If the applicant determines the target is external, such as the hiring school leaders, or the district as a whole, that’s when counterproductive work behaviors may appear.

On the other hand, if the applicant lacks confidence they will often focus the blame internally. These applicants are more likely to hold themselves accountable and second guess their qualifications, performance in selection procedures, and possibly their future career path.  Those who focus blame internally may have been reluctant to apply in the first place, but once they applied and imagined the possibility of promotion, they allow the hope of promoting to grow- only to see those hopes uprooted when they are not hired. It shouldn’t be surprising to see these employees withdraw and their performance drop for a period of time.  These behaviors are not intended to be counterproductive, they are more of a by-product of feeling rejected.  

The final two areas discussed in this article may assist in softening the blow of “no.”


Respectful Rejection

First, all applicants deserve to receive notice regarding their applicant status directly from the school district, regardless if they are existing school district employees, or external applicants.  External applicants may receive a simple call or email thanking them for their interest, but informs them the district is considering other applicants.  Some districts choose to advise applicants that their information will remain on file for a given time period in the event of another opening.  It is our opinion that internal applicants deserve more detailed feedback.  The next section discusses what that might look like.  

Regardless of whether applicants are internal or external, any school leader or teacher participating in the selection process should keep applicant performance in confidence.  We actually develop confidentiality agreements with districts we consult with to protect the integrity of hiring tools and to ensure applicants don’t find out they weren’t hired from community gossip.  Some districts with whom we’ve consulted chose to make breaking confidentiality of the hiring process an offense worthy of job termination.  Consequences for compromising confidentiality should reflect the district’s commitment to the integrity of the hiring process.

Outside of ensuring the integrity of those rating job candidate performance, respectfully denying an applicant’s opportunity for professional advancement must begin with the truth.  Being truthful is based on the ability to discuss valid areas where they scored low (try to avoid comparisons to other candidates). However, it’s difficult to discuss an applicant’s performance if the entire selection process is not fair and reliable.  While this point has been belabored already, it’s worth discussing again.  Valid hiring criteria makes it far easier to be honest about which areas of development are needed.  

Here’s the thing; quality selection processes for school leaders should be objective in nature and should remove forms of bias. When we design hiring processes for school districts, selection tools cover multiple domains of knowledge and skills and require applicants to move through multiple phases, or hurdles, with minimum scores at each phase.  In this way, failing to move to the next phase, or the decision not to hire isn’t personal, it’s the combined judgment of multiple raters using objective criteria.  After a current teacher or other internal applicant completes the selection process, but is not ultimately hired, it becomes possible to discuss which areas require continued development to be competitive for future opportunities.

How the truth is delivered also matters. Feedback should be delivered in a way that the applicant will actually absorb. If the feedback is too blunt, the conversation becomes even more personal.  If it’s too cautious and the reasons for low performance are ambiguous performance cannot be improved. Be straight forward regarding their performance, but use a softer approach that is considerate of the situation. If applicants receive the correct information, without ambiguity, then you cut through some feelings of rejection. Instead applicants internalizing rejection as, “I’m not good enough to get promoted to principal. What’s wrong with me? It’s not fair!” They might be more likely to think, “So to be competitive in the future, I need to develop my skills in written and verbal communications, the ability to influence, and improve my ability to influence change.” Both are expressions of disappointment, but the latter leads to anger and resentment while the other leads to productive development that benefits the applicant and the culture of the school district.


Acceptance and Development

The final response that aspiring school leaders (and the response the district most likely prefers) is acceptance and development.  It should be noted that this is unlikely to be achieved without perceived fairness of the hiring process and respectful rejection.

Existing district employees are the people the district will still rely on to carry out the goals of the district even after the interview process is complete.  While school districts should be concerned about all applicants accepting the results of the hiring process, it is most important for internal applicants. The suggestions discussed above should help create an environment where employees will find acceptance with hiring decisions and be receptive to future development efforts.

A free resource we published a couple years ago, How to Open a Can of Worms: A Guide to Having Difficult Conversations with Teachers, discusses two critical ways leaders can help employees find acceptance in difficult conversations: establishing a mutual purpose, and embracing what can be learned from the difficult conversation.  

Establishing a mutual purpose should not be difficult.  Hopefully, the purpose of hiring a principal is something related to ensuring the district has leaders who possess the skills (leadership, instructional knowledge, communication, development, accountability, etc.) needed to help the district reach or exceed its goals.  It could also be assumed that applicants for school leadership positions want to possess these attributes and be able to use them effectively in their professional pursuits. In this case, the mutual purpose and the lessons that can be learned are the same.

If school districts are using well-developed hiring tools that identify specific strengths and weaknesses in candidates, those areas of opportunity can become developmental. If an applicant missed out on a leadership opportunity because of their ability to communicate effectively, the district should be willing to communicate the growth area to candidates and possibly work to develop solutions to improve and sharpen those skills.

Effective organizations make every effort to grow their own leaders.  The hiring process is a perfect opportunity to identify which areas the district is doing well in developing leaders and which areas need work.  Special projects, initiatives, and known challenges are perfect areas to allow aspiring leaders to cut their teeth and further develop areas of weakness.  Using development strategies can help the district take action on multiple projects and also allow aspiring school leaders to build the skills they will need to help them succeed in future job opportunities.  

Telling aspiring school leaders, “I don’t think you’re ready to be a principal” can be one of the most difficult conversations for district leaders to have.  However, when they know they are using fair and valid tools to hire principals, they are skilled at having difficult conversations, and they have formal plans in place to assist in future development, the aspiring leader, and most importantly the district as a whole improves.  

If you know your district could benefit from improving their hiring practices, download our free resources.  Our firm specializes in developing human resource tools and process to improve district performance.  You can also contact us and let us develop solutions that rival some of the most effective organizations in both private and public industries.

School District Hiring Resources

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