by Paul MacKenzie-Cummins
Rejection. All of us will have been subjected to it at some point in our lives, whether it was being turned down for a job we really wanted or when we were subjected to an outright No after asking someone out on a date. Being rejected is hard – doing the rejecting can be even harder.
One of the hardest parts of my job is telling people ‘Sorry, but…’ – the writer whose articles weren’t good enough to make the cut, the freelancer who is no longer needed, or the PR consultant who didn’t get the job because they weren’t as strong as other candidates. I can feel for them.
Rejection, whichever side of the desk you are sat, is never easy. Because of this, many of us put off doing it or simply avoid it altogether in the hope that our silence does all the talking.
But this is not only damaging to your personal reputation and that of the organisation you represent, it is also a missed opportunity.
HR lessons from school
My other half is a departmental head at a well-known private school. When a job comes up at her school, the decision over who gets it is made with 24 hours of the final interview taking place – each candidate is immediately informed and the hire is made. There is no faffing around, they just get on with it.
In the corporate world, it is an altogether different affair.
Before I went self-employed in 2006, I would attend two, three and sometimes four interviews for a job. It would take a further week or two after the final interview to find out if I had been successful or not.
I would then have to give three months’ notice and by the time I started in my new role, some 5 months may have passed. This makes no sense to me whatsoever.
At the time, that was ‘how it was’. But in today’s ultra-competitive candidate-driven market, expecting candidates to undergo such a drawn out recruitment process is damaging to your brand.
After all, if you’re any good at your job you will already know what a great candidate looks like when you see one. And, while there is no guarantee that they will become a great employee too, you can easily identify those who won’t.
So what is the purpose in keeping people hanging on? A quick No is better than a drawn out maybe or even a Yes.
A lot of people think that by providing a reason for rejecting a client they open themselves up to a plethora ‘But why’s?’ they would rather avoid. This is rarely the case, providing you reject in the right way of course.
We’re not talking about responding to everyone who has applied, only those who have gone through the interview process.
The key to rejecting an applicant – especially one who only just missed out on the role or someone you think you might want to work with in the future – is to be encouraging and offer a reason for their rejection.
A few years ago, I was interviewed for the role of Communications Manager for FIFA, based in Zurich. I made it through to the last two and lost out to another great candidate who was fully deserving of the role.
The team at FIFA explained their reason for rejecting me in favour of the successful applicant and stated they wanted to keep in touch because a similar role was due to be created a few months further down the line.
And they did, but by then I was in the midst of launching ClearlyPR and my focus was on that. By being transparent, honest and incredibly swift in making their decision my impressions, thoughts and feelings (never underestimate the power of emotional attachment with brands) of FIFA as an employer were overwhelmingly positive. I had in effect become a brand ambassador for them.
Know whom you are rejecting
The people applying to work for your company or the client you represent are not just candidates. They could be potential future employees, current or even future customers. Take the example of Virgin Media.
In 2014, the company undertook a ‘Rejected Candidate Survey’ of those who applied to work at Virgin Media and were subsequently unsuccessful. 1 in 5 (18%) applicants were current customers and 6% of them switched to a competitor as a direct result of a poor recruitment experience.
On its own, 6% does not sound like much, but when you attach a monetary value to that figure you will see that Virgin Media lost £4.4 million in a single year.
These applicants had obviously liked and admired the Virgin Media brand, but they no longer saw them as a great place to work and that also prompted them to withdraw their custom.
Conversely, if the company had been able to convert 6% of applicants into new customers on the back of a great recruitment experience, they could have added an additional £4.4 million to their bottom line.
Rejecting in the right way
How should you reject an unsuccessful applicant? You need to understand people for starters and recognise that rejection can be de-motivating and could leave a candidate questioning themselves over their suitability for similar roles elsewhere. So handle the rejection with care.
For example, you could say:
Thank you for taking the time to meet and discuss with us the role we are looking to fill. I am sorry to say that your application has not made it to the next stage and after careful thought and discussion we have decided to offer the role to another applicant.
While we have no doubt that your skills and experiences to date would have seen you become successful in this role, we felt we really need someone with more top-level experience.
We would very much welcome the opportunity to keep in touch with you. As the company continues to grow, there will be more opportunities coming up this year and we believe you would be a good fit here in the right role.
Thank you once again and we look forward to speaking with you again.
I actually wrote something similar to this for a candidate who applied to work with us. Several months later, when she applied to work for another organisation, she called me to ask for advice on how to prepare for her interview; she had appreciated the honest feedback we had provided previously given to her and that ensured we would remain an employer of choice in her eyes.
Standardised cold, empty and vague responses portray you as en employer or recruiter who quite frankly doesn’t give a crap about the people you meet. Yet these people could be more important to your organisation than you think.
Keep your rejections personable – avoid stock phrases such as “Your application has not been successful on this occasion”, and focus on “We have decided” rather than “It has been decided”. Finally, avoid sending automated rejection letters – recruitment is a people business after all and we’ve not been replaced by robots just yet.