Interviewing Best Practices: Rejecting Unsuccessful Applicants

It might not seem like turning down an unsuccessful applicant will have a significant impact on your bottom line, but in fact the repercussions can be huge, affecting both your revenue and sucking up a large portion of the manager’s time. In the age of social media, word-of-mouth from a disgruntled applicant has far more reach, affecting the company’s reputation and possibly impacting your ability to recruit the top candidates in the future.

Rejection Method
Larger companies tend to send rejection letters by mail. This option has several advantages:

• Quicker and easier

• Consistent wording

• Can be delegated

But also disadvantages:
• Impersonal

• Does not allow for individual feedback or questions

Some businesses prefer to contact each applicant personally by phone to explain the rejection. Again, there are pros and cons to this approach. On the plus side:

• More personal touch

• Can provide constructive criticism

• Can encourage a good candidate to apply again

The negatives of rejecting an applicant over the phone include:

• Time consuming

• Liability (potential to say something damaging, or for the candidate to assert that you did)

Whichever approach you choose, some basic rules apply.

Choose Your Words Carefully
Be positive, not negative. Carefully review what you will say—even if you are rejecting applicants by phone, plan the wording in advance—to ensure you use positive phrasing.

Don’t say:

• “Unfortunately…”

• “I regret to inform you…”

• “You failed to…”

Instead, say:

• “You weren’t selected”

• “Competition was strong”

Make sure to thank applicants for their time and let them know that you were fortunate to have several well-qualified candidates to select from.

Reasons for Rejection
Giving applicants a reason why they weren’t selected can help you avoid potential discrimination complaints. Without a reason, candidates will be more likely to speculate about the cause—for example, thinking that you didn’t give them a fair chance because of age. However, they are more likely to understand if you tell them that the lack of managerial experience was a concern.

If you give a reason, be honest, but word your statements extremely carefully, and stick to job-related, factual criteria. Don’t talk about the applicant’s personality, appearance or traits—if you cannot provide a job-related reason, don’t give a reason at all.

In some cases, it makes sense to provide detailed feedback to internal candidates only, so that you can then structure their regular duties to help them succeed in a future opportunity.

Discussing the Successful Candidate
Avoid getting into a discussion about the successful candidate. When rejecting applicants in a letter, this isn’t typically an issue unless the unsuccessful applicant goes out of their way to call and ask. On the phone, however, applicants are more likely to ask questions about who got the job.

Minimize liability by refusing to discuss the successful candidate’s age, sex, race or other factors that could lead to a complaint. If you’re pressed for details, limit the information you provide. Don’t give generic, meaningless statements like the applicant was the “best fit,” because this doesn’t provide anything useful to the rejected applicant, and may even increase your liability.

• Conversation Tip: “We were fortunate to have many highly qualified candidates to select from. The successful candidate has a great mix of qualifications and experience that’s suited to this position.”

What Not to Do

• Don’t include typos if you’re writing a letter. Nothing adds to the sting of rejection than when the company can’t even spell the candidate’s name right.

• Don’t leave a voice mail with the bad news.

• Don’t waste the applicant’s time on small talk—get to the point. The applicant wants to know the answer.

• Don’t lead applicants on. Don’t tell them to apply for the next opportunity if you have no interest in interviewing them again.