We’ve written a lot about how to hire the perfect candidate for any given role in your company. A lot of that process involves starting with a large pool, narrowing it down through progressively steeper requirements, and then finally arriving at your chosen candidate.
What happens to those who make it most of the way through the process, but ultimately don’t get the job? You have to reject them, but you have to do it the right way.
What Happens When You Reject a Candidate Incorrectly
Before we get into how to politely and tactfully reject a candidate, let’s talk about how the process can go wrong.
One of the worst things you can do is simply ghost the candidate. Cutting them from your roster, not contacting them to tell them they didn’t get the job, and ignoring all attempts at communication is a terrible way to do it.
Another mistake many companies make is waiting too long before informing a candidate about their rejection. Many people who are applying to these positions are trying to find one quickly, which is difficult to see as the company in charge of reviewing candidates. To the candidates, whether or not they get the job can be the foundation of major decisions moving forward. The longer you leave them hanging, the worse they’ll feel about it.
Many companies also make the mistake of beating around the bush. Candidates want a firm answer – something to the point so that they can move on to the next phase of their job hunt. It’s fine to explain why they didn’t get the job, but if your rejection letter is too lengthy, you could be wasting your time that is better spent elsewhere (not to mention the candidate’s time).
Why do you want to avoid these mistakes? Several reasons.
First, the candidate you choose might not work out. If you need to go back to the drawing board, the natural first place to look for their replacement is the list of candidates who almost made it the first time around. If you left those candidates on bad terms, they’re less likely to want to work for you after all, and you’ll have to dig even deeper, or worse, start the hiring process over again.
There’s also the possibility that another role will open up, and a candidate who made it to the last rounds of interviews is a great choice to fill that role. If you cut communications or otherwise burn that bridge, that candidate will be less interested in working with you. Again, you’ll have to go back to the start of the process or settle for a less qualified candidate.
June Javelosa, from HireRabbit, also recommends soliciting feedback from rejected candidates.
“Candidates, even the rejected ones, can give you a lot of feedback about your hiring process. They can tell you which areas they found difficulty in and how you can improve on those. Asking for feedback gives the impression that you still value their opinion even if you’re not hiring them. The impression he or she takes away may affect other potential candidates for your jobs. Candidates do talk and often, like birds, flock together to pursue an employer of choice.”
According to Kelly Services
- 95% of candidates are more likely to apply again if they had a positive candidate experience the first time.
- 97% of candidates who had a positive experience would refer others to apply.
- 88% of candidates with a positive experience would increase their purchase with the company.
- 55% of candidates with a positive experience would tell their social networks about that positive experience.
As you have probably already figured out, it feels bad to be the one to reject a candidate. Doing the right way minimizes hard feelings and makes it easier for everyone involved.
Tips for Politely Rejecting a Candidate
When it comes time to reject a candidate, you have to decide how you’re going to do it. Establishing a process for rejections allows you to minimize the emotional impact of the rejection, leverage it into possible future value, and keep a relationship with a candidate alive.
First, you need to pick a method of communication. Different channels have different pros and cons when it comes to rejecting a candidate.
- Email is good for your early filtering. Most applicant tracking systems have either their in-house templates for rejection emails, or the ability to create one. It’s easy enough to find email templates to base yours on. On the other hand, an email can feel impersonal or cold and can be poor at incentivizing continued communication with the candidate.
- Phone calls. A phone call is a more personal means of delivering a rejection, and it allows your hiring manager to leverage their charisma and tone of voice to portray a considerate and thoughtful rejection. It also allows you to follow up with additional recommendations, opportunities, or offers, if you have them on hand. Remember, though, that there’s still some distance with a phone call, and it can be more stressful on your hiring manager, especially if they have to call dozens of candidates in a row.
- Video messaging. Sending a customized video is a sort of a cross between an email and a phone call. You can leverage tone of voice, as well as visual presentation, to soften the blow of the rejection via video. It’s not real-time, so your hiring manager doesn’t need to worry about answering questions immediately. You can still offer additional opportunities through video as well. On the other hand, video can be complicated to produce if you don’t have a process already established for it.
- In-person meetings. An in-person meeting to reject a candidate is very rare and can be dangerous because an in-person meeting often means a meeting to sign paperwork for a hire. It can augment the emotional distress of a candidate to find they came into the office only to be rejected. This is only a viable option for very high-power roles, or for cases where you have an immediate secondary offer you’re willing to extend.
Once you have your communications channel pinned down, you have to work out what to write or say. We have some tips for that as well.
Personalize your message. At the very least, when writing a rejection email, personalize the name and pronouns of the recipient in the template. In general, the deeper into the hiring process a candidate made it, the more personalized their rejection should be. So how can you personalize such a rejection?
- Mention something they did well or a reason they were in consideration as long as they were.
- Offer a piece of advice they can use in future interviews.
- Consider linking them up with another recruiter who can get them in elsewhere.
Candidates will remember the results more than the communication, so leaving them with some level of value will help maintain a positive impression of your overall brand.
Make sure to avoid anything that can be construed as discriminatory. Susan at The Balance Careers says:
“Make sure the applicant cannot misconstrue the words you use or find evidence of unlawful discrimination. For example, you may be tempted to tell the applicant that you have decided that you have candidates who are more qualified for the job. The candidate could well ask you to detail the differences. Why go there?”
There are a lot of different ways a stray comment can be leveraged into a lawsuit in the right circumstances. Even if you have no outward bias and didn’t intend to be discriminatory, you can be found at fault, and a lawsuit can be devastating even if you win it.
Give honest, useful feedback. As part of personalizing your rejection message, offer some precise feedback the candidate can use in future interviews, either with your company or with another. While you can’t speak for every company, you can point out things they did that left a bad impression. If they interviewed perfectly, but simply weren’t qualified for the job, you can give them guidance on perhaps applying for jobs they are more qualified for.
Encourage candidates to apply to other positions. If you liked a candidate enough that they made it to the final rounds of your interview and hiring process, but they didn’t quite make the cut, that means they had something that fit with your company. You can, then, encourage them to apply to other roles within your company.
There are several ways to do this. You can refer them back to your careers page and point out a specific role they can apply for, and offer to forward their information to the manager in charge of that segment of hiring. You can simply offer a general “you’re a good culture fit and have the skills, but we don’t have room for you right now, but if you would like to apply for another role, we can then consider you for internal transitions later.” You can also just tell them they were close to being hired, and that if a similar role opens up, they will be at the top of the list if they apply.
Just make sure that if you extend this kind of offer, you’re not doing it just to be nice. If they do apply later, and they don’t make it through a second time, it leaves a bad taste in their minds. They’ll lose faith in you personally, in your company in general, and perhaps even more.
“If you know they will never fit in successfully at your organization, don’t go making a point of telling them to apply for other roles in the future. While it may make you feel better to say so right now, the reality of them applying again isn’t practical.” – Social Talent.
Connect with a rejected candidate on LinkedIn. If the candidate is talented and promising and if you want to keep them as an active part of your candidate pool, you may want to link up with them on social media. LinkedIn is generally the most appropriate social network to use for professional networking. That, combined with your applicant tracking system keeping them active in your pool, allows you to call on them specifically if a job opens up in the future.
Ask for feedback on your hiring process. As mentioned above, it’s usually a good idea to solicit feedback about your hiring process. You can do this in your rejection message, or you can send it as a follow-up email later. A simple survey or open feedback form for comments can help you streamline your process for the next time around.
Deliver your rejection as soon as possible. Remember that the longer you leave a candidate hanging, the worse it will feel for them when they get that rejection. Yes, sometimes there are delays in decision-making, but you can explain those. Be respectful of the time and effort the candidate has put into their part of the hiring process, and free them up to pursue other leads as soon as possible.
Following Up with Rejected Candidates
In addition to keeping a candidate active in your ATS, and linking up with them on LinkedIn, you should consider other ways to keep your relationship with a talented candidate alive. Some ideas include:
- Invite the candidate to job fairs and other events you’re either participating in or hosting, to give them more opportunities they might not otherwise have known about.
- Watch what they post on social media and, where relevant, leave positive comments and encouragement.
- If you know a new job will be opening up, reach out early to see if they’re still interested in a role with your company, or if they’ve settled into a new job since.
All in all, as long as you keep your connection alive, you should be able to tap that candidate as a future employee if they’re still available. At the very least, by showing interest in their progress and being supportive of their ongoing career, you can build a positive impression of your company.
That impression can go a long way, both towards encouraging that candidate’s future and in building a positive reputation as a good company to apply to among other candidates.
Andrew Greenberg’s roots in recruiting date back to 1996. He has experience both on the agency-side and corporate-side of the staffing business, with a focus in the financial services space at companies like Bloomberg and UBS. He also has core experience with information technology staffing, and has worked for major software companies such as SAP Business Objects and IBM/Informix Software. To get in touch with Andrew, you can reach him by email or by phone at (800) 797-6160.