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The Art of Rejection

"When you've worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back." ~ Michelle Obama

The other day I got a really wonderful compliment. I was approached by an individual who was declined by me for a job I was recruiting for, and she said this:

"I really like the way in which you rejected me."

One of my goals as a recruiter has always been to tell candidates WHY. For some reason, most workplaces love to go on and on about how transparent their communication is, how open their culture is, yet when it comes to recruiting?


For some reason, too many recruiters and hiring managers usually get either silent or passive aggressive when it’s time to decline a job applicant for either an interview or, later in the process, the job itself. And worse, when an applicant asks the very reasonable question of “why”, they are often ignored or given a canned response.

Now, obviously, we are all very busy people, but there is honestly no excuse to ignore the people who have taken the time to go on your (often massive hoop-jumping, poorly designed) Applicant Tracking System (ATS) to upload their resume, write their cover letter, and of course retype half of their details because your ATS can’t parse worth shit (and god forbid you just open the resume attachment).

And while again, you are busy busy busy, if that applicant DOES get your canned response declining them, and politely (I emphasize politely – if someone emails me and is a jackass about it, I’ll delete their email as those rare individuals will never get the clue no matter how well you try to respond) to get actual feedback on your resume, and you ignore them or just say a generic “we found someone who was a better fit”? That is just plain laziness! Make the time.

So much of why I do what I do is all about the Golden Rule. What would I want as the applicant? What have I wished to have heard from prospective employers in the past when I was being passed on by them for a job?

It’s simple: most people just want a genuine reason why they were not selected. No, they don’t need to know the depths of your hiring team processes. No, they don’t expect you to give me the super duper specifics of the candidate(s) you did move forward with. They simply want a basic answer with something that will give them an understanding of where they fell short relative to those who did not.

Here are a few examples of the right way and wrong way to respond when a candidate asks why they were rejected:

  • Situation: The recruiter rejects the candidate, and the candidate goes to the hiring manager to ask why they were rejected. Wrong: The hiring manager is clueless and doesn’t want to offend the candidate, so responds in a way to make the applicant feel that they were potentially wronged by the recruiter and that (s)he’ll rectify it. This is wrong because the HM is not only potentially misleading the applicant, (s)he is also bypassing the process agreed upon by the recruiter and externally showing mistrust in the recruiter’s judgment, embarrassing the recruiter before bothering to find the answer. Right: The hiring manager should let them know they will forward the candidate’s inquiry to the recruiter to respond to, cc the recruiter in the email, then ping the recruiter separately requesting to be cc’d on the response. This empowers the recruiter to tie up loose ends, protects the process while simultaneously enabling all parties to be both helpful and part of the solution. The recruiter then gives a succinct response whether it be regarding qualifications, length of time on the job, or something else related to the application materials submitted (or if they’ve applied in the past, reference that if it’s someone who’d already interviewed).

  • Situation: Candidate interviews with the hiring team but is not selected for the job and gets declined. Candidate asks recruiter why they didn’t get it and who they hired. Wrong: Recruiter doesn’t respond, or refers back to the manager, who either doesn’t respond or provides a wishy-washy answer that provides no help to the candidate. Right: Recruiter gives a concise, honest answer that respects both the hiring team’s integrity and selected candidate’s confidentiality, while giving the candidate the manager’s feedback which (s)he will be able to use…or at least appreciate. A few solid examples include: "While you have strong technical skills, the team felt the person we hired had a work style that more closely suited their particular culture.” Ideally add that: “The team felt (choose one along these lines) your style was too confrontational for their style / you didn’t ask enough questions / you didn’t seem all that interested in our company in particular.” OR “While I can’t share with you our new hire’s name as they have not started with us yet, the candidate we offered the position to really wowed the hiring team when it came to their (choose one along these lines) technical abilities / presentation skills / industry knowledge and experience, etc., so overall it was a stronger fit.”

  • Situation: Candidate’s application is rejected and they receive the “not selected” auto-email, and emails the recruiter to find out where they fell short. Wrong: Recruiter deletes the email because (s)he is busy, or provides another canned response. Right: Recruiter looks up their name in the ATS and responds to the applicant within 48 hours with a polite response that explains the basic reason. Here are a few nice but succinct explanations: "The candidates we moved forward with have (choose 1 or 2): more years of experience / greater industry experience / more targeted experience in this particular type of role / more experience in a similar work environment (i.e. startup, large company, whatever we are as a company).” OR "We received over (#) applications for this role and because of that, our hiring team selected those who went above and beyond our minimum qualifications, and had experience in X, Y, and/or Z as well.” OR "As communication and attention to detail are extremely important to us, your resume and/or cover letter unfortunately: had a number of typos and grammatical errors / was addressed to another company / did not provide the information we specifically requested in the job posting.” OR "We did actually try to reach you by phone/email and did not receive a response from you so because of our tight timeline did need to move forward with candidates who got back to us quickly."

These are simple answers yet still not generic, and are honestly the most common answers to why people weren’t selected. On the last example, I will note that on any given recruitment I manage, I make it a personal policy to respond to them with follow-up questions (sometime hiring team questions, sometimes logistics info like when they’re available for interview, etc.) via email within 24-48 hours. I also send candidates I want to move forward with a LinkedIn invitation to connect while noting in that invite that I received and responded to their application, and look forward to their response. Yet, sadly,10-20% of applicants do not respond…at all (even the ones who went on to accept my invite).

Sorry folks, but if you don’t know how to manage your spam and other email folders, that’s not my fault. You gave the prospective employer your email address and you probably got the auto-confirmation of receipt for the job application you filed online – so no excuse for not checking your email daily for a response from the hiring team, as well as ensuring the info you provided online was both accurate and up-to-date.

Going above and beyond this is something I learned during my early days at Nordstrom. Don’t just do your job – go above and beyond. Give them more than the bare minimum. And for me? Whenever possible, that’s often in the form of a coaching tidbit- whether it be something to help them on their next interview, a resume content tip, or to let them know about what other companies are hiring in similar roles or industries they should check out.

It’s amazingly awesome to be thanked by someone who you did NOT give a job to, because you decided that your job as a recruiter or hiring manager is not to simply process applications but stand out as a voice for your company and the industry. With a real understanding that for a great majority of companies, applicants can be current, present, or future customers – or know folks who are.

And would we treat prospective customers like we often treat candidates?

Probably not.

"100% of customers are people. 100% of employees are people. If you don't understand people, you don't understand business." ~ Simon Sinek


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