Rejecting Great Candidates

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

We are all familiar with the old recruitment trope of interviewing for a job only to get a generic, impersonal rejection email with no quantifiable feedback or, worse, no clear reason for the rejection. This trend has bothered me for years and it’s also a practice I’ll admit I have been guilty of committing in the past. In this post I want to take you behind the scenes to help clarify why this practice has become commonplace and what can be done to address it.

The initial application stage is the most susceptible to the generic rejection email, although I suspect that most candidates fail to receive any response at all at this point. Some companies are fortunate enough to attract a large volume of applicants for their open roles and sending a personalised response to each one of those candidates is incredibly time consuming. Most Applicant Tracking Systems (think salesforce but for humans) have a function that allows you to send a generic rejection email to selected candidates with only a couple of clicks. That generic “thanks, but no thanks” might be weak, but at least you now know your application isn’t just floating around the ether waiting for someone to notice.

The further you progress through the interview process, the harder it becomes to justify the ‘volume’ excuse. I’ve made it explicitly clear over the years that the interview process should always be a mutually beneficial process. It should never be weighted in favour of the employer or the candidate. Working on the assumption that both parties equally respect each others time, failing to provide feedback when the process ends is disrespectful, unprofessional, and potentially harmful to your companies reputation.

Human Resource functions are a bastion of compliance and liability. They are literally paid to ensure the company avoids any form of liability in regards to interactions with their employees and potential employees. All too often I’ve been fed the excuse that actionable feedback is subjective and therefore prone to misinterpretation which can lead to legal issues for the company. A company can be held liable if feedback is interpreted to be biased based on the candidates gender, age, race, etc. whereas no feedback at all means the company is bulletproof (at least from a legal perspective).

A fear of legal action is a terrible excuse for not providing candidate feedback. You may as well place a sign over your door that says “we aren’t confident that our interview process is fair, appropriate, and legally compliant”.

Let me present you with a hypothetical example of what often happens when you interview more than one great candidate but you only have one open vacancy on your team.

The Role: Lead Designer on a small team that’s expected to expand further down the line.

Candidate 1: Stacks of amazing, relevant design experience but limited leadership experience.

Candidate 2: Stacks of leadership experience but not quite as much relevant design experience.

The Process: Candidate 1 demonstrates outstanding and highly relevant design experience as well as demonstrating that they are clearly ready to step up into a leadership role. Candidate 2 demonstrates fantastic leadership experience as well as some really great design experience. Both are asking for the exact same salary.

The Internal Review: The team is small right now. Collaboration is arguably more important than strong leadership. Both candidates are clearly great albeit for different reasons. What is going to be most beneficial to the company right now is the candidate that can bring stronger design experience as they will have ample time and support to adapt and grow into the leadership role.

The Feedback: Congratulations. You now find yourself in the miserable position of having to explain to Candidate 2 that they are not being offered the role, despite demonstrating fantastic experience and despite having the strongest leadership experience. What are you left with to say other than “Candidate 1 had stronger and more applicable design experience which we feel is going to be more beneficial to us despite the fact that this is a Lead Design role and you clearly had stronger leadership experience”?

Regardless of how you frame that feedback, it’s going to be a frustrating for Candidate 2. It will be understandably difficult for them to appreciate the nuances that led to the decision and there is very little feedback you can provide that will help them improve their approach for the next interview they participate in. Those conversations suck. As a result, it’s far too easy to procrastinate on delivering that feedback and even easier to avoid the conversation entirely. You see, when you send the candidate a rejection email instead of picking up the phone and calling them, you don’t have to worry about your logic sounding weak, you don’t have to tolerate the awkward silence as they try to wrap their head around your reasoning and you don’t have to immediately field difficult follow-up questions.

You owe it to the candidate to pick up the phone and speak with them. They have invested time, effort and emotion into your process. You owe it to them to field their difficult follow-up questions. You owe it to them to do your absolute best to help them understand the decision and what (if anything) they can focus on in order to improve.

I’d love to be able to say that the more you do this, the easier it gets but I can’t. If anything, it gets harder and it’s your obligation as a Good Human™ to make that call regardless.

Co-founder of Honest.Work | Hiring & HR Advisor to startups | Organiser of @HNLondon