Ensuring an unsuccessful candidate doesn’t feel disgruntled is vital for protecting your brand. After all, they might just become your company’s best ambassadors or future employees.
“We regret to inform you that your application has not been successful.”
“Sorry, but you’ve been unsuccessful…”
“You came very close, but we’ve decided to go with someone else.”
No matter how many times you re-word your ‘letting down an unsuccessful candidate’ speech, telling an applicant they haven’t got the job is never easy news to deliver – and it’s even harder for an unsuccessful candidate to hear.
Being rejected from a role can come as a shock, especially if the applicant has their heart set on the position, or if they’re a considerable way into the assessment process.
But there are ways to manage the process so as not to alienate an unsuccessful candidate from your company. Better still, it might even be possible to keep them on side and turn them into brand ambassadors or future employees.
Let them down easy
While the process for giving feedback to an unsuccessful candidate will differ depending on the position and industry, there are certain guidelines that can be applied across most situations.
Rebecca Houghton, founder of BoldHR, abides by a rule of thumb which requires the level of feedback to be commensurate with the level of effort (i.e., how far they are down the process).
For candidates whose initial applications were rejected because they didn’t meet the job criteria, she says an email is generally sufficient.
But if a candidate has progressed to the next stage and attended an interview or completed an assessment, a comprehensive phone debrief is “the correct value exchange”.
“I would go through their strengths, and if there are statistics available, I’d generally share those too. If they did an online assessment and are in the top quartile, for example, I’ll explain that to them,” she says.
“However, I’ll also tell them where in the overall application process we weren’t seeing the breadth or depth that we needed and say why it’s needed for the role, and potentially where they failed to show that.”
Alex Hattingh, chief people officer at Employment Hero, similarly advises providing thorough feedback in a timely fashion, and where possible, doing so by phone or video call.
“Place yourself back in an applicant’s shoes; preparing for an interview, researching, having your heart set on the role and organisation,” she says. “The feeling when you are not successful [in applying] for that role can be gut-wrenching.”
While part of letting a candidate down involves giving feedback to an applicant, constructive criticism isn’t always welcomed with open arms.
When the news comes as a shock or hits a sore point, Houghton suggests giving the candidate some breathing space.
“I usually wait a few days, let the candidate recalibrate and then they might get something useful out of the conversation,” she says. “That respects an individual’s need to compute the news.”
Hattingh also says offering feedback immediately means you “can end up being the ‘punching bag’” for their disappointment.
When offering feedback, HR professionals should also be mindful of their own, often involuntary, reaction to defend the company’s position.
“It’s human nature to be right,” says Houghton. “The minute someone starts arguing with your decision, you defend why you made that call. But that’s not the purpose of giving feedback. The purpose is to give them something valuable to walk away with, even if they’re not getting the prize they were wanting.”
Responding to a poor reference
In the rare instance that a referee paints a less-than-positive picture of the candidate, a recruiter might feel a responsibility to inform the applicant, however Houghton warns to tread very carefully.
“Negative references don’t happen very often. Usually it’s because the candidate didn’t check with the person, didn’t brief their referee, or maybe they aren’t experienced in job hunting and didn’t know to check,” says Houghton.
“Sometimes, in our desire to be helpful, we go into intervening and want to tell the candidate, but a desire to intervene is not always in their best interests. It’s not your relationship to manage.”
In some circumstances, it might be appropriate to relay feedback given by a referee – for instance, if the applicant is job hunting and plans to continue using the same referees.
If a few referees have noted a pattern of negative behaviour, Houghton says it might be suitable to relay that feedback to the candidate, but avoid mentioning specific names.
“You might ask the candidate if they fully briefed their referees on this particular job because some of them were a bit surprised and unsure whether it was the right fit,” says Houghton.
“That might be a nice way to talk it through without breaching the referee’s confidence.”
Given the tight labour markets we’re experiencing today, she also suggests not automatically rejecting a candidate based on a less-than-glowing reference.
“Instead, use your feedback to outline where the individual falls short and co-create a plan that will help them to bridge that gap quickly once they are on board,” she says.
“There are plenty of organisations where 60 per cent is a close enough fit if the person shows the right behaviours – like taking feedback and a willingness to learn – because skills are learnable; attitudes not so much.”
Keep an unsuccessful candidate on side
Treating an unsuccessful candidate with respect is an important means of safeguarding your company’s reputation.
An unsuccessful candidate who is disappointed about not securing a role is unlikely to bad-mouth your company, but one who is disgruntled by a poor process very well could.
“As we are working in tighter markets, you can’t afford for someone not to be friendly towards you,” says Houghton.
“The unsuccessful candidate is bound to know somebody, and there’s a high likelihood that if they are the silver medallist, chances are you’re going to revisit them next time for another job.”
For example, while working as an HR professional at a well-known brand, Houghton recalls the benefits reaped from nurturing a strong working relationship with a senior executive in the technology sector.
On four separate occasions the executive applied for different roles within the same company.
“For some positions she was interested in, we said ‘no’ at the outset. For another position, she went through the whole recruitment process and then we gave the position to a stronger applicant.”
Despite letting the applicant down a number of times, Houghton thought she would be an excellent fit for the company when the right role presented itself.
Over a three-year period, she made an effort to stay in close contact with the executive, and developed a detailed understanding of her career goals and expertise.
“When you know you have great talent and want that person in your company, it’s just a matter of time and building the relationship before you get them on your team.”
Eventually, when the right role appeared, the executive came on board and was promoted within the year because of her strategic capabilities.
Taking the time to carefully nurture the relationship allowed this to happen.
It goes to show that today’s unsuccessful candidate could be tomorrow’s success story.
Learn more about the recruitment process through AHRI’s short course on Recruitment and Workplace relations. Sign up to the next course on 29 June.