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How to communicate with unsuccessful candidates

You’ve finally found the perfect candidate to fill that open position! As a business owner or hiring manager, this is an exciting stage in the hiring process. You’re probably feeling a sense of relief that you’ve found someone so well-qualified. 

A sense of foreboding falls over you, though, as you look over at that stack of applications, you’re going to have to file away or toss into the trash. 

What happens to the candidates who you know you’re not going to hire? 

Turning down qualified yet unsuccessful candidates is a situation that’s not pleasant for any of the parties involved, and there’s no uplifting way to break the bad news to a candidate you rejected. However, you can avoid common pitfalls like sending a form rejection letter – or worse, not replying to them at all – once you’ve chosen your preferred candidate. 

Approaching this delicate situation will not only reflect your company’s hiring culture; it will also speak to your character as a person. Here are four options for communicating with unsuccessful candidates, ranked in order of the most effort you’ll have to expend to the least:

1. Notifying unsuccessful candidates with a personal email or call

Sending an email to each candidate or calling them on the phone might not be realistic – or humanly possible – if you’ve got a large number of candidates that you interviewed for the position. Some hiring managers will get thousands of applications for each open position, and in this case, most of the applicants will never even have direct contact with the hiring manager. 

Should the hiring manager be personally responsible for communicating with unsuccessful candidates? Of course not. However, for those candidates who have been asked to come in for an interview, it is best to communicate their lack of success in obtaining your open position with a more personal touch. 

The more personally you can deliver the bad news, the better. Though they will not like receiving the call, they will most likely thank you and eventually think of the experience in a positive light. It’s best not to close any doors here permanently: remember that when your company is hiring again, it’s possible that this person could be a better fit for a future position that needs to be filled.

2. Sending a rejection letter or email

You’ve most likely received one of these before. The letter might include stock phrases such as “dear candidate, thank you for your interest in our company” and “unfortunately, we do not feel that you are the right fit for us at this time.” They will wish you the best of luck in your job search, but ultimately, they are letting you down easy. If you are a hiring manager, this type of letter isn’t the worst way to go, especially if you have a large number of unsuccessful candidates. 

If you have a few candidates that you contacted by phone, or who put a lot of effort into applying (by taking qualifying tests, completing preliminary stages of the interview process, etc.), you might want to consider sending them a form rejection letter to soften the blow.

3. Updating the candidate’s hiring status on your portal

This might not apply to your hiring department or your company, especially if you run a start-up or a small business. Large companies or hiring departments that are more tech-savvy, however, sometimes use a virtual interface similar to a college application system. 

This system gives the candidates status updates over whether the job application has been reviewed, is being processed, or has been accepted or rejected. If your candidate is accepted, you’ll probably communicate this verbally over the phone, and you’ll probably even send out new hire paperwork and tax forms for them to fill out. 

For the unsuccessful candidates, they could be easily forgotten if you have interviewed a lot of people in a short amount of time, or if the job is one that will take place months away. It’s best to provide closure for these unsuccessful job-seekers. If you don’t, there’s a chance that you’ll receive an avalanche of emails from these candidates in your inbox asking about their application status.

4. Choosing not to reply

Your mother might lecture you for being rude if you don’t send a thank-you card to a relative for a gift they sent you, but do the same rules of etiquette apply to follow up with unsuccessful candidates? Yes and no. 

If it’s just someone who sent in an application or filled out a form or test to determine whether or not they’d be a good fit for your company, you could get away with this option more easily. However, it’s not the best look for your company to put people through an interview process and then ghost them. 

Put yourself in their shoes: wouldn’t you want to know what happened? If they have gone through one or more rounds of in-person (or during quarantine, virtual) interviews, you’ll want at least to update their status in your company’s hiring system or send them a form email communicating that they didn’t get the job. 

If you choose this non-communicative option, do remember that the candidate you decided in favor of everyone else might still be weighing their options. In a worst-case scenario, your first choice candidate might reject your job offer. You would then have to fall back on your shortlist to pick another candidate if your first pick falls through (or if they accept another job offer before you can reach them). If your second choice is someone you ignored at the end of the hiring process or sent a brief form email, this will not look good for your brand or your company as a whole.

Rejections are never fun, but when you follow proper etiquette and make an effort to follow up with someone who gave you their time, the candidate will feel hurt and upset for a short time but move on. 

Let’s be honest: it’s not a fun part of the job to have to tell unsuccessful candidates that they didn’t get a job that they wanted. It’s best to be courteous and kind – but honest – when delivering this type of bad news. 

Think of it as going out on a date with someone and realizing halfway through the date that you’re not a good match. If you don’t return their calls or texts, they’ll most likely peg you as being a jerk. 

If you take the time to politely tell them that you had a good time with them, but you’re not interested in pursuing a relationship, your words will be much better received. The other party will likely not feel great about the call or email, but at least you know that you did your part to make it a polite, kind encounter.

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