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Rejection feedback – learning to say no

Every rejected candidate craves feedback... does that mean you should always give it to then?

In a previous post we discussed how to reject and give feedback to unsuccessful hiring candidates in a timely and appropriate manner.

Best practice on the subject is broadly in consensus – make sure every unsuccessful candidate is properly rejected, and try to give feedback. The further along the process the candidate was, the more it’s incumbent on you to give feedback.

The first point we’re in total agreement with. The next… not so much, as it turns out. The more we thought about accepted best practice in rejecting people, the more we wondered who that best practice is really for, and what it really achieves. 

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Why reject someone in the first place?

You might question why we even need to cover this, but unfortunately many companies simply don’t bother to contact unsuccessful candidates, even ones that they’ve interviewed. The Juggle platform makes this sort of “ghosting” impossible, but we still hear about it all the time from new professionals as they get onboarded.

Aside from being bad manners, failing to reject unsuccessful candidates is poor practice for a variety of reasons:

  • People talk. Every job-seeker hates being ghosted, and there are plenty of forums they can share this displeasure, potentially impacting your overall hiring process.
  • If more than one person is involved in the hiring process, not formally rejecting candidates muddies the waters. It’s important everyone is aware of who is still in the running and who isn’t.
  • Ghosted candidates will potentially seek clarification, meaning you’ll either have to keep ignoring them (which is downright rude) or respond, meaning all you’ve really done is wasted time.
  • Learning to express why a candidate wasn’t right – even if only to yourself – will help you find someone who is.


More time, more human

OK, so you’re committed to rejecting every unsuccessful candidate. You’ve already distinguished yourself among employers. And luckily, the process is straightforward.

The more you've interacted, the more human you need to be in your rejection.
The more you’ve interacted, the more human you need to be in your rejection.

The longer someone has invested in the hiring process, the more human you should be in your rejection notice. Email is fine for the early stages – and if you’re rejecting them at CV stage without any direct interaction taking place a generic statement is fine – but those emails should grow more personalised the more invested the candidate is.

So far, so simple. This is little more than good manners. The next bit is where it gets more complicated.

A jobseeker is only interested in feedback that will help them in their search for employment. This is why generic feedback is so frustrating – if there’s nothing constructive to be done with it, it’s essentially useless.

Even worse is feedback that’s inapplicable or inaccurate. Focusing on the wrong thing might actively harm a candidate’s search. We’re not suggesting that employers would ever deliberately or maliciously lie in their feedback. But we are suggesting it might happen by accident.


When feedback isn’t really feedback

To satisfy the only goal of feedback, you need to be specific and you need to be honest. This is the part we think is easier said than done, and the reason why a lot of feedback from employers is useless for the jobseeker.

Challenge 1: the hiring professional needs to be able to clearly articulate why the candidate wasn’t right. There’s no shame in admitting that you’re finding this tough. A candidate might not be the right cultural match for a dozen interconnected but diffuse reasons that can be difficult to put into words.

Challenge 2: the hiring professional needs to be totally candid. Interviews are a high-pressure environment, where candidates are judged on their personality and presentation as well as their skills and experience. Telling someone that their personality or presentation is the issue is tough. It’s hard to be honest without also being cruel. It’s hard to be constructive without the opportunity to converse on the subject, and this simply isn’t a conversation you can commit to.

Challenge 3: a “specific” point is no good if it’s really representative of a wider issue. Saying “you said X on your CV, and that didn’t come across in the interview” makes it sound like the candidate simply needs to try harder to get that point across next time (or remove it from their CV). If what you meant but couldn’t admit was “you sounded insincere/you didn’t inspire trust” then your feedback isn’t really helpful, it just obscures the genuine issue.

Challenge 4: sometimes there’s simply someone better. A candidate with more developed skills or experience. Someone more personable in interviews. Someone who came with incredible recommendations. Occasionally a candidate maye be great… just not the best you see. It happens; it’s nobody’s fault.

Challenge 5: hiring professionals don’t always agree. You think a particular candidate is fantastic, but your colleague doesn’t (or vice versa). Any feedback you’re going to give is already a little suspect because one of you probably thinks it’s inaccurate.


It’s OK to not give feedback – as long as you’re honest

“We didn’t feel 100% comfortable that you were the right fit.” This phrase is probably totally accurate. Best practice tells us it’s too vague to suffice, but we wonder if businesses are really doing candidates any favours by refusing to use it.

We understand the frustration that comes from a lack of feedback. Everyone in the Juggle office has been a jobseeker at least once in their life. But much of that frustration comes from the suspicion that the feedback giver isn’t being honest. That either they haven’t given it a moment’s thought, or that they can’t be bothered to explain.

That something is too complicated to be neatly explained is also frustrating to hear – but at least it’s the truth. Better that than a half-baked or inaccurate reason that might actually end up hindering their search.

Our recommendation? Try as hard as you can, and try to adhere to the consensus on best practice, until you honestly can’t (and we suggest really being honest). Once you can no longer speak candidly – for whatever reason – dismount gracefully with something generic but accurate.

Flustered? Follow the feedback flowchart.
Flustered? Follow the feedback flowchart.

If you aren’t finding what to say straightforward, forcing yourself to give feedback in every instance is probably doing your unsuccessful candidates a disservice. If you find yourself searching for something useful to write, stop. Ask yourself – can I say something that will really help this candidate in their next interview? If the answer is no, for whatever reason, don’t grasp at straws. Simply tell the truth – that you didn’t feel 100% comfortable saying yes, that you need to get to 100% to be satisfied – say sorry you can’t be more helpful and wish them good luck.

This might not make you feel helpful or good about yourself, but this really isn’t the point. The point of feedback is to aid in their search. And if you can’t say say something truly useful, best to say nothing at all.


Why you should always try to give feedback (it’s not you, it’s me)

One last point. The difficulty in giving feedback is not an excuse to stop going through the process in every case. And the main reason why is actually business-focused: forcing yourself to articulate why a candidate wasn’t right is a great way to check for bias. There’s every chance that the problem actually lies with your expectations, and you won’t know unless you interrogate them. If the reason why you passed on them isn’t obvious then it’s even more incumbent on you to figure it out (even if you never tell the candidate about it).

Trying to give feedback is a valuable process, regardless of outcome. Reducing it to a box-ticking exercise benefits no-one, the candidate least of all.

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