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How to Reject Job Candidates as Painlessly as Possible

Nobody likes to be the one to break things off, to have to do the ’Dear John’ letter, or make that call. It’s nothing personal. It’s just not working out for us. But explaining that can be painful, not least because there will always be the candidate who tries to reject the rejection and really doesn’t want to take no for an answer.

Rejecting a candidate, especially after an interview, is never anybody’s favorite task. Or, if it is, you should quit your management role immediately. But with every candidate (even those who are wildly unsuitable for your role), a potential business ambassador or customer, giving quick and respectful feedback is a business imperative, even if it’s not much fun.

Here’s how to reject unsuccessful candidates as painlessly as possible.

1. Don't Delay

Once you have made a decision, don’t hang about or put off making those calls. If you have received a large number of applications, then closing those that don’t meet the mark sooner rather than later makes things easier to handle. If there are applicants that really don’t fit, remove them from your process quickly to allow the great candidates to shine through.

If you have spoken to a candidate face to face or on the phone and agreed a timeline for feedback, then try to stick to it. Of course, things change, and if it transpires to be impossible to meet agreed deadlines, send a simple courtesy email explaining this.

A delay is not good, even for a successful candidate, so get the recruitment process wrapped up as quickly as you can. If managed poorly, a delay could lead to a successful candidate turning down a job offer if they feel poorly treated, or have doubts about company culture.

2. Think About Your Choice of Words

Managing a graceful “no” starts long before the point you have to call with interview feedback.

Interviewers sometimes let their mouths run away with them a little, as every half decent candidate causes great excitement. Of course, this is a perfect way to build great rapport and have a more successful conversation with the candidates in front of you, but you do have to bear in mind that the vast majority of those who you talk to will not get the job, and manage your tone accordingly.

A comment like, "I can see how you might be a great fit" might feel completely harmless at the time, but it could be interpreted as a “yes” even if you say the same to several candidates. Be wary of giving too positive a message, even if it’s all for the most harmless of reasons.

3. It's Good to Talk

It can be tough to know what sort of contact is appropriate with your unsuccessful candidates. As a rule of thumb, if you have not interacted with a candidate beyond receiving their application, then a brief mail is sufficient. If you’ve recently applied for roles yourself, you will recognize that getting any recognition for an unsuccessful application is appreciated. All you need is a few minutes to mail merge a simple note, and you’re done.

If you’re rejecting a candidate after interviewing them, and particularly if they have proceeded through more than one selection stage, then prompt and personalized feedback is only fair. If you really cannot avoid it, then use an email but feedback delivered in person – by phone or video call – is infinitely preferable. In written communication, too much tone and reaction is lost. Hearing someone say, “It was a real pleasure to speak with you and I wish you all the best for the future”, goes a long way for a rejected candidate and can make a profoundly negative experience easier to stomach.

4. Own the Decision

When you make the call, it can be very easy to panic and fluff your lines. Practice what you’re going to say if you’re nervous, and have some notes in front of you to help. Explain first that you have decided not to take the application further, and take ownership for the decision. Don’t be tempted to say, “It was decided” as though someone else made the choice, or suggest your boss vetoed the candidate; it only makes you look weak.

Finally, give an outline of your reasoning – this could simply be that there were other more qualified candidates – and thank unsuccessful applicants for their time and interest.

5. Be Human

Deliver your message with empathy. Sometimes, in the hurry to get the conversation done with, this can be left behind, and you sound cold and stiff in saying thanks but no thanks to candidates.

Don’t forget that every applicant eagerly awaiting feedback will be nervous. The behavior of a prospective new business and boss makes a massive difference. Who knows, they might not be right for this role but perhaps for something else in future – how you treat an unsuccessful candidate at this crucial time can lay the foundations for a fruitful working relationship, or at least limit the possibility that they’ll turn to social media to deride your processes.

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6. Give Useful Feedback

If you have explicit feedback to offer the candidate – especially if you met them face to face for an interview – then this can be hugely valuable. Try to frame your thinking in terms of the strengths and development areas you saw in them.

If the reaction of the applicant suggests that they are not interested in hearing more, they may simply need time. Extend the offer to give more details at a later stage, and give a contact number.

7. Know When a Little White Lie Will Help

Of course, telling a mediocre candidate that they were just a bit vanilla for the job is not the most constructive of messages. Sometimes, a little white lie can help – for example, describing the high volume and caliber of résumés received for the role (regardless of the exact figures) and explaining that, unfortunately, the application was unsuccessful on this occasion.

Don’t be tempted to give false hope – for example, saying you will keep details on file if you have no intention of doing so, but equally, a little sugarcoating can sometimes be kind.

8. Start a Talent Pool

It is good practice for employers to ask if they would like to hold candidate details for future opportunities, so consider creating a talent pool for future roles. Although this might have previously been literally a paper file full of résumés, these days it can be enough to start a dedicated “recruitment” page on Facebook and ask candidates to “like” it to see new roles as they arise, or ask applicants to look you up on LinkedIn to continue the conversation at a later stage.

See Also: How Hiring Managers Make Decisions

Recruiting a new person for your team can be really exciting – you get to meet loads of new people and find the exact talent your team needs to complete it. But you also have to go through the pain of rejecting the unsuccessful candidates as you go. This is especially hard when you first start out in a management role, and the temptation can be to put it off and then rush through the uncomfortable conversation at a point when you really cannot avoid it anymore. That can make you seem cold and heartless, which is probably not really a fair reflection of your intention.

What’s much worse is that a poorly handled rejection can have more widespread consequences as people head to social media and sites like Glassdoor to vent their frustrations. Soon, your rejection molehill could be a mountain.

Best to get it right the first time. Be fair on both the candidate and the company by offering useful feedback and trying to help applicants understand and learn from the experience.

Have you ever rejected a job candidate? How did you go about it? Share your experiences with us in the comments section below!

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