How You Reject a Job Candidate Defines Your Recruitment Strategy

By Roy Maurer Sep 29, 2016
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An organization's HR team can create advocates out of any applicant—even the rejected ones—by ensuring each candidate has a positive experience. But too many organizations ignore, or blunder through the potentially unpleasant part of the recruitment process in which hopeful candidates must be told "Thanks, but no thanks."

Delivering bad news can be a daunting task, said Diane Nicholas, a consultant at WK Advisors, a division of executive search firm Witt/Kieffer, based in Oak Brook, Ill. "When companies fail to provide feedback and close the loop with unsuccessful candidates, they miss out on the opportunity to end the process on a high note and ensure that the candidate walks away with a positive lasting impression."

When candidates are rejected in a dismissive manner—or worse, if they never hear back from an employer at all—that news travels fast, said Brin McCagg, the CEO and founder of RecruitiFi, a crowd-based recruiting platform in New York City. "Whether it's through social media or word of mouth, potential candidates will get wind of your hiring process. Even a generic response is better than no response."

Experts agree that HR should be trained to consider the candidate rejection process a vital piece of the company's recruitment strategy, with immediate and long-term benefits to the company, if done well.

"Your response is a direct reflection on your company's brand," McCagg said. "There's plenty of reasons to put as much time into considering your rejection strategy as you put into your hiring strategy."

The Medium Is the Message

Experts agree that if candidates have taken the time to actually interview for a role, they deserve a phone call. "You owe it to finalists to speak with them directly," said Chad MacRae, the founder of Recruiting Social, a social recruiting firm based in Los Angeles and Vancouver, Canada. "Don't hide behind an e-mail. When the candidate answers the phone, inform them you have an update, ask if it's a good time to speak, and if it is, rip the Band-Aid off and get it out."

Nicole Belyna, SHRM-SCP, strategic recruitment business partner at Thompson Creek Window Company, in Lanham, Md., lives by hard rules when turning down candidates. If they have interviewed in person, they receive a call. If they went through a phone screen they receive a personalized e-mail. If they've applied, but did not interview, they receive a general e-mail letting them know that they were not selected. "I have never declined a candidate via text message," Belyna said. "Call me old fashioned."

To Be Safe or to Be Honest?

There are varying schools of thought on what recruiters should say to rejected candidates—for example, whether to give a general, neutral reason for not moving forward or instead offer constructive feedback.

The safe option goes like this: "Thank you for applying, but we have decided to pursue other applicants." This one is popular with HR and legal counsel because it's easy to maintain, and keeps recruiters from getting into uncomfortable arguments with candidates or making inadvertent, discriminatory statements.

Providing specific reasons for rejection or trying to coach the candidate is admirable, and some applicants may be grateful for the honest feedback. But the approach can backfire when the applicant debates the decision or uses what was said to file an employment complaint.

"I find that the best way to communicate rejection is to be honest and straightforward," McCagg said. "Be truthful with candidates and they'll appreciate your honesty. There's no need to string them along or tell them that a position may open up in the future. If that's true, fine. If you're just sugarcoating their rejection, then it's the wrong way to go about it."

Nicholas said that while she thinks it's important to give feedback, there are times when recruiters should hold back, especially if candidates are being rejected for something of a personal nature. "I tell them they have a great background, but they don't have a certain piece of experience that the employer was looking for," Nicholas said. "I always leave them with hope. I tell them if something changes, I'll be back in touch. I emphasize the positive and minimize the criticism."

McCagg sees every rejection as a chance for candidates to improve. "Maybe they're missing the necessary training or certificates, maybe they have a number of typos in their resume. If you find certain deficiencies, you can give them a tip or pointer on how to learn and grow for next time. Just make sure you're constructive about it."

MacRae advised those in the hiring process to debrief following interviews and record each candidate's pros and cons in the organization's applicant tracking system. "That way recruiters have it at their fingertips when they follow up with candidates," he said.

Danielle Marchant, a partner at Recruiting Social, explained that if communication with the candidate was open, honest and authentic throughout the hiring process, rejection will be less uncomfortable. "If you've nurtured your relationship along the way, there won't be as much recoil. They'll understand you see their value even if you're not moving forward."

Dealing with Pushback

Recruiters delivering bad news to candidates must be prepared to deal with emotional and confrontational reactions. Inevitably, candidates want to know why they were rejected.

Belyna said that in her experience, more candidates ask for a second chance. But some can grow nasty. "I had one candidate become very nasty and irate. He responded to my e-mail with a phone call to tell me what an unprofessional idiot I was for not selecting him. He demanded that I have someone else interview him. He went on to tell me that I had made a big mistake and he was going to contact my boss and CEO. He never called, and coincidentally, he recently asked to connect with me on LinkedIn." 

Nicholas tells rejected candidates: " 'I understand this is hard to accept, but ultimately do you really want to work at an organization where they feel you don't fit?' I let them vent for a while, especially if they are very emotional, then I come back and empathize with them and get them back on track to focus on something else."

She finds that offering a respectful decline will elicit a "thank you" from candidates more often than not. "Most are grateful that you got back in touch, because so many times they are left hanging, and they have no idea whether or not they are moving forward."

Thinking of the Future

For Belyna, ending on a high note is nonnegotiable. "If I feel a candidate may be better suited for another role in my organization, I will talk to them about it," she said. "If there isn't a relevant opening, then I encourage them to stay in touch via e-mail and LinkedIn."

Recruiters can attest to this strategy paying off. "Years ago, I declined a candidate because he wasn't right for the role I was filling," MacRae explained. "But twelve years later, I hired him for a different role, at a different company, in a different city. This time, he was the right person."

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