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Breaking Bad News: How to Communicate Rejection

As a hiring manager, it’s always a tricky balancing act when someone doesn’t move forward in the interview process or fails to get a job. You want to empathize while trying to help them feel good — and not angry or defensive — about the experience.

The worst thing you can do is avoid having the conversation altogether. Some people wait days or longer to tell job candidates they have not been chosen. Others “ghost” applicants or refuse to provide any feedback at all, fearing arguments or lawsuits. Those are not good or decent choices, either.

Sure, you don’t want to tell someone that bad breath or a timid personality cost them their coveted position. But it’s time for everyone in the hiring game to treat others the way they would want to be treated, and that means giving job applicants the courtesy of honest and respectful communication.

An experienced recruiter can help you deftly handle the process while maintaining your company’s reputation and keeping the door open to future talent. Here are some ways you can help make that happen, too:

Share real-time data. Be professional, and keep job candidates current about their status.

The aspects of the application process that job seekers/workers find most important to a positive experience are clear and regular communication (58%), clear expectations (53%), and feedback regarding rejection (51%), according to a 2018 Glassdoor survey of 1,100 US adults who were either currently employed or unemployed and looking for work.

Close the loop. Ignore job applicants at your peril, and keep in mind that your method of delivering the bad news should be proportionate to the scope of the application process.

In other words, if someone has spent more than three hours with your firm, has completed an in-person interview or otherwise expended a considerable amount of effort, you owe them a personal phone call. In fact, however much you may dread it, that should be company policy. Rejections by email, text message, voicemail or IM are unacceptable for this kind of applicant. Depending on the position and process, you may even hold an in-person meeting.

If someone has had a single phone interview, then a well-crafted email or letter is likely sufficient. Your HR department may have a template with specific language and guidelines that can be personalized. It’s also a gesture of goodwill to offer to be available for any questions.

Even if someone has applied online for a job and not received an interview, be sure an acknowledgement of receipt is sent for their application and thank them for their time and interest. No one appreciates a Black Hole.

Rehearse your lines. Be prepared for the conversation, especially since the applicant might contact you first.

Write down and practice what you are going to say. You can start off with the positive and then the, “Unfortunately,” or “I’m sorry, but…“ before delivering the bad news. Mention that the application pool was highly competitive or sincerely compliment their effort without overdoing it.

Send a clear message. Be decisive as well as empathetic and appreciative. Understand that rejection can be a big deal to someone who badly wants the job, and your words have impact. (Obviously, avoid the word “rejection.”)

You can say, “We’ve decided to move forward with other candidates at this time, and we thank you for your interest.”

Try to leave the door open if you think there could be an opportunity for them in another position down the road or elsewhere in your organization. In that case, you can say, “We’ll keep your information on file and make sure that our hiring or talent acquisition team keeps you in mind.”

And if you don’t feel that there is a future for the candidate with your company, kindly close the loop and thank them for their time and interest. Wish them well, but don’t lie and say you’d like to stay in touch if that is not your intention.

Don’t get personal. You can ask if the candidate wants feedback (not everyone does), but be sure to steer clear of subjective, personal critiques that can cause hurt — or spark litigation.

As in dating relationships, it’s not fair (or nice) to blame candidates for something they cannot change (e.g. their values or personality type). Whether it’s limited experience in analytics, lack of a deep technical knowledge base or interview errors such as getting factual interview questions wrong, come up with a legitimate reason for the rejection that is related to a hard skill.

Provide information without provoking an argument by saying, “We’re pursuing other candidates who have a deeper skill within [a particular hard skill] area.” Or, “We’re seeking a candidate who has more experience with [a hard skill].”

Think long-term. It’s important to think of every person interested in your organization as a potential brand ambassador. If they have a positive experience and are treated with respect, there’s a chance they could tell friends and colleagues with similar skill sets that they should consider your organization.

Consider this: 69% of job seekers would not take a job with a company with a bad reputation, even if they were unemployed, according to Corporate Responsibility Magazine.

Think, too, about the speed at which bad news travels in an era of social media and online reviews. The job candidate whom you impolitely shunned is likely to share their negative experience not with 10 or even 100 friends and colleagues. It’s going to be more like 1,000 or more. A scorched earth policy will burn both your reputation and your ability to attract talent, so take a little time to treat applicants well.

Offer a way forward. An experienced recruiter can discuss next steps with you and figure out how to move others along the process or recruit more talent, if needed.

Turn to your recruiter to help you earn respect, build trust, and maintain your reputation through hiring challenges as you build your team.

What is your best or worst rejection story? We would love to hear from you.