Interim Position Types and Expectations

In higher education, there are many reasons why someone would be offered an “interim” position. Career consultants have strong feelings about whether accepting such a title is or is not advantageous. The following discussion of interim scenarios provides an overview of the different factors to consider when navigating an interim arrangement. 

Filling in While the Permanent Employee is Away 

In situations in which a permanent employee is on short-term leave (less than three months), some institutions may select an individual to take over key roles during the absence. Some universities describe this as an “acting” position instead of using the “interim” title. Given the nature of these temporary assignments, the position likely does not come with additional pay and the interim employee may not have the full authority of the permanent employee. If offered such a position, it is important to determine whether you are filling in while also expected to complete your normal tasks, the length of the commitment, and expectations once the permanent employee has returned. It could generate good will with the organization to step up in this way while also allowing you to flex a different skill set, or it could be a source of more stress and potentially damage your performance record if you fall behind. 

Clean Up Crew 

Sometimes a person might be asked to serve in an interim role because the organization requires a dramatic or potentially unpopular shift from an outside leader. In this case, a retiree or individual from another department may be asked to step into the interim assignment. This external perspective may be used to assess challenges or inefficiencies in the organization, make difficult decisions, or act as a consultant to more senior managers. Those serving in such a role may have difficulty retaining their prior identity upon accepting the mantle of change agent among their new co-workers. Although such an interim position offers the benefit of exploring a new culture or learning new processes, it also may be a stressful position for those who work best in a team environment that emphasizes camaraderie. 

Filling in, Knowing You are Not a Candidate  

With the departure of an employee, a full-scale hiring process may be deferred and someone internal selected to serve in the interim. Such an individual may not be interested in the position permanently or may not be a competitive applicant in a typical hiring process. Those accepting this noble interim role have an opportunity to leave a mark during the short time they serve in the position. It is important to focus on relationships, realizing that the dynamic might change as you step into the interim role. Additionally, make sure you and your supervisor have shared expectations about the scope of your authority. For instance, do all decisions with longer term implications need to be deferred or made in conjunction with permanent staff? Don’t use the “acting” or “interim” title as a crutch; instead, make the most of your time in the position. 

Trial Run 

On the institution’s side, a trial run approach is often used when there is a freeze on promotions or salary increases or when the supervisor desires a probationary period with the interim candidate. It can compromise employee morale, both for the individual selected who might not trust the organization to commit to them and for the related stakeholders who may not invest full confidence in someone who has not been given a permanent role. 

For the employee, this can be a dicey situation, as you haven’t officially earned the permanent role and might be competing with prospective candidates who do not have to perform in front of decision-makers each day. If done well, the team might feel comfortable selecting someone who has already proven they can do the job. In other situations, the employee might need to lose with grace but ideally can return to their previous role, supporting the individual who was chosen. 

Stretch Assignment 

At times, an organization may craft a role for an employee that fosters growth or promotes a type of engagement not possible in their permanent position. This could occur with the knowledge that an organizational restructuring is coming or based on circumstances when a temporary solution is warranted (e.g., several members of the department are simultaneously on leave, someone is needed to oversee a major project that is finite in scope). Such positions may lead to a future promotion or shift to a different department, but there is not an explicit opening they are hoping to fill. This can be a unique opportunity for the employee. Considerations would include whether an interim title is suitable or if another title can be used without losing a status classification at the institution.  

In any of the scenarios discussed, ensure you understand the scope of the interim assignment, length of the commitment, implications for your current role, salary, and, if applicable, process for hiring a permanent employee. Additionally, even in situations that seem to be directives, it is possible to decline the offer, especially if it will cause undue stress, require a shift in your work hours or travel schedule, or potentially damage your performance track record.  

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