If you’re a hiring manager or recruiter, chances are you’re faced with a difficult decision when you’re down to your final few candidates for a job. Perhaps you’ve found a winner, but you’d like to keep other interviewees in mind for future job openings or freelance work. Or maybe you just dread penning rejection letters and would like to offer constructive feedback.
“In our office, we all kind of joke about how recruiting and making hires is so much like dating,” says Sydney Hayes, marketing lead at Betts Recruiting. “You might have a couple of really great ‘dates’ with people—and really great conversations—but sometimes you can’t set your finger on what it is that’s not the best fit.” Whether the issue is experience or culture fit, here are some tips for crafting a rejection that can be mutually beneficial.
Pick up the phone
Samantha Wallace, the market lead of the tech practice at recruiting firm Korn Ferry, recommends always picking up the phone—or, depending on the position and interview process, even making time for an in-person meeting. “It should be a conversation,” she says. “I don’t think I would ever lead with an email rejection, particularly if they’ve come in and invested time.” (If you try calling and don’t hear back, she says, email is a fair next step.)
In other words: The rejection should measure up to the interview process itself. Being lazy when rejecting candidates affects companies, too, if they want to maintain a good name and attract top talent. (One of the worst things a hiring manager or recruiter can do is to not tell a candidate—not even via email—that someone else got the job.) “If you get a generic ‘thanks, no thanks’ email back, it doesn’t feel like the investment of time was taken seriously,” Wallace says. “The company wasn’t as thoughtful as the individual was.”
A rejection that happens over the phone is usually more of a “deep breath conversation,” according to Wallace—though she says it’s not very common that candidates prolong such a call. Still, a hiring manager or recruiter should be prepared to share feedback and answer questions.
Offer specific feedback
Wallace says that if a candidate is in the final group—say, as the second or third runner-up—you should try to “reframe” a rejection to acknowledge how far they made it in the interview process. “I don’t think [that rejection] is, ‘Sorry you didn’t get the job,’ she says. “I think it’s, ‘Congratulations on making it into a really competitive final group.’”
It’s important to share why you chose one candidate over another, even in cases where it feels more difficult to articulate, and the feedback should be tailored to each job candidate. “It’s a coaching moment as well as an information-sharing moment,” Wallace says, noting that you should use language that seems appropriate for the candidate based on your interactions with them. Hayes suggests highlighting a candidate’s strengths and saying something like: “We’re looking for someone who has more strength in this area, but that being said, we think you can be a valuable asset for the team.”
If you’re keen on considering the applicant for future job openings or freelance work, make that clear. Hayes recommends telling particularly qualified candidates that you’d like to reconnect when you’re hiring again a few months down the road or might have other opportunities for them.
Don’t give false hope
That said, employers shouldn’t “dangle a false carrot of hope,” Wallace says. Don’t tell an applicant that you’d like to stay in touch if there won’t be another opportunity for them anytime soon—or if you don’t plan on following up.
But if you genuinely want to keep the applicant in mind for future opportunities, Hayes says, you need to maintain the relationship and set expectations around when you might have something for them. Hayes usually sets a reminder on her calendar to reach out to a candidate a few weeks (or months) later for a coffee, and she makes sure that happens within the timeframe she quoted.
“Be as genuine and real and transparent as you can,” she says. “Nobody likes to feel like a transaction.”