How to respond to unsuccessful applicants

HRM online


written on August 19, 2014

In today’s job market, the sheer volume of applicants for a single position can overwhelm an HR department. But for many unsuccessful applicants, the lengthy process of applying deserves a bit of quid pro quo.

After all, they’ve put the effort into meeting the criteria and possibly even fronted for a face-to-face interview. Yet often they wait in vain for acknowledgement or, rarer still, some constructive criticism that might help them in their next attempt.

The topic came under discussion recently among AHRI’s LinkedIn group members and revealed a disparity of opinion among the 74 HR professionals who engaged in the discussion regarding notification protocols, or the lack thereof, for candidates whose job applications had been rejected.

Right of reply

About half of those engaged in the conversation agreed that the type of notification depended on which stage of the recruitment process the candidate reached.

An email was considered appropriate for those who didn’t progress to the interview stage, while a phone call was required for those who’d had face-to-face contact.

Others argued the merits of whether a simple notification should suffice at any stage of the application process or if it were necessary, indeed common courtesy, to provide additional tailored feedback, especially if requested by the applicant.

Numbers game

When HR departments are inundated by applications it can be an operational challenge to respond appropriately to everyone.

The LinkedIn group concurred, expressing regret that while formal contact (though not necessarily feedback) via email or phone was the preferred method of rejection, it was sometimes impractical to provide that to all candidates. And where multiple positions were available, there were often far too many people to respond to personally.

There was, however, general consensus that a lack of feedback was potentially damaging to the employer’s image, raising questions about the role of corporate responsibility in the process.

Agreeing to disagree

Participants in AHRI’s LinkedIn Group hold disparate views on notification protocols:

“I believe it is okay in many instances to send a generic ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ letter. However, when you have asked people to spend a lot of time on addressing selection criteria (and applicants can spend days on this), it would be nice to include a way for them to seek feedback on their application if they wish. Next time their hard work could lead to a better outcome.

As HR professionals, we have a duty to help jobseekers in this regard if at all possible. These people really want to work or they wouldn’t put the effort in, and these are the people we want in our labour market. Perhaps we should look at this as our corporate social responsibility.” – Pamela Basden

“I’ve never seen it as HR’s job to make every applicant ‘feel good’ and give them encouragement. It’s a big world out there and in the job space it’s survival of the fittest. If you don’t have the goods, you won’t get a call, and you need to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move on.

When an applicant myself, I don’t expect anything from a company unless I have progressed past the application stage. Even then, I would only really begrudge them if I had been for an interview and heard no further, which would be poor form.

I don’t understand what positives can be taken out of a bulk email telling you you’re unsuccessful. Surely if you don’t hear back after several weeks, you can deduce this yourself.” – Matthew Francis

“On my advertisements I always write that only shortlisted candidates will be contacted. If someone presents for an interview and is not successful, I like to try and give them feedback, especially if they ask.

It’s not always possible to give feedback to everyone who’s applied. However, if someone takes the time to call about their application and they haven’t been shortlisted, I’m more than happy to let them know the reasons why.” – Kay Willmore

 Comments have been edited for publishing.


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24 thoughts on “How to respond to unsuccessful applicants

  1. The problem with giving too much feedback is that it can be used against the company in a dispute. I would love to give feedback if an applicant phones to ask about their rejection or non progression to the next stage. But it needs to be done very delicately and you certainly need to be up-to-date with all laws and regulations. I also keep in mind what I personaly would expect from an employer [if I were the applicant] and give the appropriate responses that way.

    Due to our companaies size I am able to run an advert and still deal with the 50 odd applicants that are likely to apply for one position. I set up a reply template which outlines the process and notification as information for the applicant so they know what to expect and when. I keep a spread sheet for applicants as they hit the inbox [separate address for advertising only]; this works well for me.

    Upon receival of applications I send the reply template in my email. This shows them confirmation of receival of their application. I generally state in the template/email that only successfully shortlisted candidates will be notified from here on in. I try to speak to the possible candidates on the phone before their interviews [can learn a lot from a phone call]. Interviewees are notified by formal letter [via email] and possibly phone call [if not too many].

    The successful applicant receices a formal letter [via email and mail] and phone call. Sometimes a second round of interviews need to be conducted and this process changes a bit.

    So lots of work – but have managed to find suitable candidate every single tim’; and they are all still with the company.

    I do not like receiving applications which have blatantly NOT read and addressed the selection criteria and it does annoy me as I feel this is a time wastage excersise [could stem from job seekers having to apply for 40 jobs per month to be entitled to their dole payments].

  2. Given todays technology, not responding at all is a poor excuse. It is common courtesy, or actually, uncommon these days. It gives an applicant closure and for the amount of time you probably spend responding to phone calls enquiring as to whether there is a short list yet or not, is it really THAT hard? It does do the company image damage not to reply. Really, aren’t these job seekers our external clients?

    1. My sentiments exactly! It is common courtesy to notify an applicant that they have been unsuccessful. A simple generic email/letter is all that is required.

      1. Sending out a generic response to unsuccessful candidates will also likely save you time from dealing with all of the people ringing to find out the status of their application.

        1. Even the Seek job management system allows generic bulk emails for unsuccessful candidates. This isn’t appropriate for candidates who have sat F2F interviews but for the 300+ candidates who are screened out immediately, it saves time and maintains a professional company image.

          1. Then why don’t recruitment staff use it? As an applicant it can get soul destroying after a while as you NEVER know where you are up to with your application. It can take an hour sometimes per application so it is too much to ask from professionals to give closure to an applicant.

            Doesn’t necessarily mean that they need feedback as that takes a lot of time.

  3. A reply needs to be sent to those who have gone past the application stage. If a person comes for an assessment or an interview and is rejected, it is courtesy to send them a reply via email at least. It does effect the company’s image if they do not respond after interviewing or assessing someone. Also, sometimes if a candidate inquires after an interview , company’s have a tendency to respond by saying ” if you have not heard from us it means you’re unsuccessful” . This is not a professional way of responding. A company should send out emails for unsuccessful candidates after an assessment as a simple courtesy and for their own goodwill.

  4. I think the response to this issue changes depending on the economic climate. When labour supply greatly exceeds demand, it can be challenging to respond to each applicant versus when there are only a few applicants for some positions, particularly highly skilled or niche ones. Everyone is right, but perhaps a more focused, personal approach should be used for highly skilled employees. They may not be suitable for this particular position, but from their resume, you can see that they do hold a lot of potential value. Putting them in a ‘follow up’ pile for a quick phone call after they have received the ‘generic regret e-mail’ could go a long way in establishing a strong employer brand that would work to your benefit when skills become scarce.

  5. As a HR professional, I will respond to every initial application, it is time consuming but I feel it provides a somewhat personal acknowledgement in what I find these days as a very impersonal process.
    Now as a job seeker, a mature job seeker, I am disgusted by the treatment I have received by both potential employers and recruiters. I have attended interviews without any feedback on the outcome. With one organisation that advertised privately, I attended two interviews, on both occasions the interviewer left me waiting in reception 1/2 hour beyond the appointment time, I had positive feedback at the end of each interview and was told I’d be contacted by the end of the week. However I never received a call, when I call them – I was told they were unavailable and would return my call – it never happened.
    I am not the only job seeker that has experienced this poor treatment, so I am speaking out for everyone else also.

    1. Yeah its good practice to inform candidates about status. From my point of view, its not time consuming activity. Because sending an email to unsuccessful candidates is far better than receiving phone calls by applicants and let them know bout the status of job.

    2. I agree totally with the above comments. Having gone full circle from HR professional to looking for work, it is very disheartening to not hear anything back after attending an interview or be kept waiting for over a month since the last contact – it so un-professional and slack. I have experienced having a phone interview, then going in for face to face interview and then hearing nothing back and then finding (to my great surprise) the role was re-advertised again without any communication that this organisation was doing this and to date the HR manager has never got back to me – ever! For a candidate this is a very sloppy organisation and does not create a good impression at all. Maybe recruiters should really think about this also too..

  6. From my experience in Queensland I have come across a few good organisations and recruiters while there seems to more unprofessional ones out there.

    One organisation setting a high benchmark and worth mentioning is the Sunshine Coast Hospital and Health Service (SCHHS) in Queensland. At every step of the process (even shortlisting) I was notified by email of my application’s progress. Even though I was unsuccessful for the position, the Chairperson contact me over the phone and provided feedback on my application, CV and interview.

    Congratulations SCHHS!! Make great happen.

  7. I always try to contact all the applicants and at least acknowledge them. I have applied for positions in the past and you don’t even know if they have received your application. I return phone calls and let everyone know whether they are short listed or not. In fact it’s plain rude not to advise people of whether they are successful or not.

  8. As a recruiter and a HR professional, running a small office I endeavour to respond to every application by ‘phone and/or email. I will give advice (taking care to remain within the law), create a dialogue with the candidate and generally ensure that I present my client in a professional and positive way. This is essential as Recruiters overall do not always have a ‘good’ reputation. This is not necessarily their fault, often it is a lack of training and/or a lack of appropriate employer focus! My reputation hinges on my ethics and the importance of putting the candidate first for without candidates there would be virtually no business, aside from what a one man organisation could achieve.

  9. I had been interviewed once on the phone while in the middle of doing hard housework. I don’t have time to think exactly what to say and end up to fail as I had never heard of from the employer again although the guy told me to give me another call. This is demotivating.

  10. To many young recruiters out there …who have no life experience other than mobile phone …and computers
    and fill in the blanks….forms

  11. Variation in opinions about contacting candidates who aren’t shortlisted comes as no surprise – although I agree with those who acknowledge that in the era of mail merge, a simple standard ‘thanks, but no thanks’ email lets the applicant know that application has reached its end.

    What I have found quite staggering as an applicant myself, is how much more common these days it seems to be not to contact applicants who are unsuccessful at the interview stage…and I’m not talking bulk recruitment in my case. I’m referring to mid senior level, specialised roles where I have spent an hour in the company of the panel and put a huge amount of effort (and time and money) into the process only to never hear from them again. I feel it’s more likely that this is due to a level of incompetence rather than policy, but those speculating are absolutely right – in these cases I’ve been sufficiently ticked off not to engage with the company as a stakeholder in any other way. As my career progresses, this could well come back and bite one of them some day!!

    Generally it seems that at interview stage, the successful applicant is telephoned fairly promptly by the hiring manager, and unsuccessful applicants are telephoned about a week later by someone more junior (in cases where I was contacted at all). Given in my case only about 6 applicants reach interview stage, why it’s so hard to make 6 quick phone calls at the same time eludes me. No one likes doing it, but given you’re the more senior manager you should be competent at this kind of interaction.

    Treatment of job applicants is a subject I’m passionate about and the disparity of opinion only highlights that it is an issue our industry needs to deal with better and discuss openly.

  12. I find it confronting that so many people who call themselves “professional” should think that applicants should just suck it up and move on. If you go out and ask someone for something, and they provide it, you have an ethical obligation to that person. If you think you don’t, not only are your ethics problematic, you clearly have little empathy. You are in the wrong job.

  13. The quality and usefulness of the response depends on the quality of the shortlisting and interview process. A number of not much better than key word searches shortlisting may see themselves challenged (even legal) if they responded with anymore than a generic response (no excuse for not replying in this day and age).
    The quality of the shortlist/interview is dependent on the clarity and quality of the specification and we do not see this improving although there are great approaches for position design these days. We say define right, recruit right and apply the competence you have just acquired.

  14. The next great applicant may be the one you rejected last time so be positive and encouraging in the reject and if you have a good system you can also be helpful in the response.

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