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by Joann S. Lublin | March 31, 2009


The good news: You accepted a terrific job offer. The potential bad news: You must supervise the internal runner-up for your spot.

Amid a buoyant job market, the problem appears to be spreading. "Anyone who comes into a moderately senior position will probably encounter resistance and possibly resentment from the passed-over insider," says Richard Guha, a partner for a small brand consultancy in San Marino, Calif., who has run into the dicey dilemma twice. "A lot of people don't recognize it until it's too late," he notes.

How can you make sure the loser doesn't hijack your authority, give you wrong information or otherwise derail your effectiveness as an outside hire?

To avoid being sabotaged, you should come well informed about your selection. "Find out all you can about what was behind your being brought on board over the inside contender," says Sheryl Spanier, a New York leadership consultant. Ask your boss why he didn't pick that individual and how to best use her talents, she suggests.

It's equally important to discover whether upper management appeased the defeated employee with a raise. The gesture may make that person "feel newly empowered and less willing to cooperate," says Vince Thompson, an Internet business adviser and former AOL executive.

After an energy company wooed Mr. Guha to lead a key division, the industry novice belatedly learned he had been chosen over a staffer who was a long-time friend of the founder and board chairman. The vanquished official soon complained to the chairman that Mr. Guha would wreck the enterprise. "He thought he had the right answers and I was the wrong answer," Mr. Guha remembers. He believes the badmouthing hurt his effectiveness.

If a prior relationship allows a spurned contender to circumvent you, try to "get your boss's help in making sure that the employee is sent back to you," Ms. Spanier says. In Mr. Guha's case, the chairman refused to curb his chum's misbehavior.

So, a month after he arrived, Mr. Guha took matters into his own hands. He solicited business insights from the disgruntled official over dinner once a week. The man stopped whining to the chairman, his cooperation improved and the division flourished. Their weekly or monthly meals lasted a year. Mr. Guha now wishes he had inaugurated the dinners right away -- "before the resentment could build up."

An immediate, frank chat with the passed-over prospect about his disappointment and career goals can also defuse the sticky situation. Act empathetic without naively assuming you will become friends. In discussing the associate's definition of personal success, stress that you value his abilities but you are the boss, recommends Barb Bridendolph, president of Crenshaw Associates, a New York career-advisory boutique. "Otherwise, you set false expectations that this role can be shared."

During her initial nine weeks with a Pennsylvania management-consulting firm, a senior vice president lacked time for a heart-to-heart chat with Paul Forti, a middle manager and psychologist rebuffed for her job. Being ignored by the new boss exacerbated his pain at being passed over, he recalls.

Dr. Forti deliberately kept his distance, never volunteering information. When consulting clients inquired about the executive, he curtly replied: "She is senior to me. She is obviously competent." But he told work buddies that he doubted she was the right pick. "I didn't want her to succeed," says Dr. Forti, now a management psychologist in Morristown, N.J. "That really hurt us both." He found himself testy with private-practice patients, while the senior VP "was always a little on edge."

A fall on the ice broke the ice. Dr. Forti saw his supervisor tumble as she emerged from her car one snowy morning. He rushed outside to help. "I'd really like to get to know you," the grateful executive said. They ate lunch together that day for the first time. She explained how much she respected him and promised they would operate as equals, according to Dr. Forti. Afterward, "we worked well together," he says.

Things improved partly because the senior VP offered Dr. Forti first crack at plum client assignments and touted his expertise when they made new-business pitches. Finding attractive opportunities for a rejected but well respected insider to shine is a good idea, career coaches advise.

The approach transformed one newcomer's possible opponent into an ally. A former international director of a Los Angeles skin-care manufacturer says the concern hired her for the new post rather than elevate its experienced head of international marketing. Aware of her young colleague's talents, the recruit agreed to make the lieutenant responsible for all of Europe.

The new executive also persuaded her boss to send workers, customers and suppliers a letter describing the plans to expand the marketer's duties. As a result, the ex-international director notes, "I had somebody 100% dedicated to being successful rather than trying to find a way to sabotage me."


Filed Under: Workplace Issues