How to Turn Down a Job Applicant the Right Way

Estimated Read Time: 10 Minutes

  • HR teams struggle with some of the complex marketing principles and how to use them in an employment context.
  • HR professionals worry about the potential for the rejection letter to include language that’s vague and/or ambiguous 
  • Your employer brand is built brick by brick with those applicants lucky enough to engage with your hiring process. 
  • Transparency and timeliness can go a long way in the hiring process, especially when it comes to communicating critical information to your applicants.
  • Once you have completed the phone call to the candidate you should issue the official rejection letter to the candidate
  • If you’re rejecting a candidate due to the findings of a pre-employment background check or drug test, you must take additional steps to ensure compliance with federal, state, and local regulations. 

When it comes to building an employer brand, many HR teams struggle with some of the complex marketing principles and how to use them in an employment context. Streamlining their ATS (Applicant Tracking System) to make it more intuitive and applicant friendly, developing landing pages, maintaining a social media presence to increase the reach of their recruiters, creating curated content to attract top talent to your organization, etc. All of these tactics require a thorough, well-thought-out plan of attack before ever executing. But there’s a key element often overlooked when it comes to employer branding – and ironically so.

The human element.

Relationships, perception, engagement, emotion – all of these are critical pieces of the human condition and yet, when it comes to employer branding, the allure of new software features and exciting marketing tools causes many of us to focus on the numbers rather than what the numbers represent – people.

It’s a common issue within marketing teams as well. The age of big data and intuition allows us to operate very quickly and measure the results.

Now… I get it. You receive hundreds, sometimes thousands of job applications per week. I don’t expect an HR team to effectively review each and every resume that comes through their ATS. But that’s not an excuse for ignoring the experience that all of those applicants will have with your brand. Merely being mindful of this fact can help to steer you down the path of creating a successful employer brand if it is taken into consideration at every juncture within your applicant journey.

But we’re not here to talk about every nuance and bottleneck within your applicants’ journey through your hiring process. We’re here to talk about a step that we (the entire universe) are particularly bad at.

Rejection.

 

The Unspoken Reality (We’re Really Bad at It)

Turning down an applicant isn’t something that most employers like to talk about. Trust me. I’ve tried.

But why are we so bad at turning applicants away? It’s a logical piece of the hiring process that everyone has to go through. Yet we treat it as a dirty little secret that we’re ashamed of.

Everyone has an example. I was speaking with some other members of the team when Robert Sanders (you may recognize him from “The Water Cooler Podcast”) recounted a few times he’s gone in for an interview, sometimes a second interview, only to never hear from them again. “I was absolutely ghosted,” he lamented.

So what gives? Why are we “ghosting” everyone who doesn’t quite make the cut? They were at least qualified to some extend to have been under consideration and invited for an interview. Why are we going from “potential employee” to “shred bin” with no communication whatsoever?

Depending on who you ask, you could get a variety of different answers to that question.

Some claim that it simply takes too much time to send a personalized message to each candidate that was interviewed but ultimately rejected for the position. And with companies like Google reporting numbers upward of 50,000 applications per week, there could be some truth to that. But if we’re being honest, most organizations aren’t Google and don’t receive near the volume of applications. And if you are, your organization should be more than capable of implementing the technology necessary to manage the automated delivery of rejection notices.

Other HR professionals worry about the potential for the rejection letter to include language that’s vague and/or ambiguous – resulting in a candidate misunderstanding the communication or finding text that could indicate possible discrimination. You could be tempted to inform the candidate that you have decided to hire an applicant that is “more qualified” for the position as an attempt to circumvent potential ambiguity, but even that statement can invite a challenge – forcing you to prove the details of your rejection.

With all of these issues surrounding rejection, it’s understandable why an organization would simply choose to just avoid it altogether. On top of the fact that issuing a rejection notice is already an emotionally difficult task to begin with.

But we’re missing out on a huge opportunity.

 

The Missed Opportunity

Building an employer brand is much more than just putting together some social media advertisements and posting some photos of your recent company retreat – it’s built from the equity of your people. But it’s also much more than that. Your employer brand is built brick by brick with those applicants lucky enough to engage with your hiring process. Some of them, yes, will continue on to become great employees within a great organization. But most of them will not. And if you are ignoring the rejection process entirely, you’re missing a great opportunity for a gracious exit and the potential for a future relationship should that candidate re-engage your hiring process for a different role.

People talk, it’s what we do. Many successful businesses have been built entirely off of referral business. The last thing you want to do is convert a motivated applicant who has most likely bought into your organization and bragged about their interview with family and friends into “just another” applicant left with a sour taste in their mouth – left wondering what went wrong.

“Doing the right thing is always the right thing to do.” Build the organization and employer brand that you want to build. Do the things that may seem time consuming and emotionally difficult in the moment. But at the end of the day, this is your opportunity to prove those core values that make your organization great. And your candidates will notice.

 

When to Notify a Candidate

Transparency and timeliness can go a long way in the hiring process, especially when it comes to communicating critical information to your applicants. But this isn’t something that should be reserved for a rejection notice. Applicants spend a substantial amount of time modifying their resumes and catering their cover letters to the specifics of your organization. Simply responding with a confirmation that you even received their application can do wonders for setting the pace of the experience they can expect from your organization’s applicant journey. Your applicants should understand how your hiring process works and an initial notification of receipt can aid in managing those expectations. This step can be easily automated using modern applicant tracking tools.

Your applicants also need to understand the next steps of the hiring process and whether or not they’ve been selected for an interview. If you’ve been transparent and honest about the hiring process from the beginning, rejecting an applicant at this point should be fairly easy to manage with a simple notification that they have not been selected for an interview.

Depending on your hiring process from this point on, you may have a phone interview, live interviews, video interviews, board interviews, etc. The key for whatever your first point of contact is (typically a phone interview) should always be to explain the selection process to each candidate – ensuring that they understand the selection criteria as well as how the decision making process will be conducted. This gives them an understanding of your process and further helps to manage their expectations – reducing their stress of the unknown and helping to ensure a positive candidate experience with your organization.

Any determination of rejection beyond this point in the hiring process should result in a timely notice to the candidate.

 

Notifying the Candidate

It’s important at this point that you reach out with a phone call to the candidate that has not been selected. While it isn’t feasible to call every individual that applied for the role, candidates that have advanced to the round of interviews should be given the courtesy of a phone call. It’s important to take care with the tone and language you use when communicating this information. As stated earlier, this can be a particularly difficult task, but it’s important that you carefully craft a message that puts finality to the hiring process for the candidate you have rejected. Make sure to clearly state that you have selected a different candidate for the role.

Once you have completed the phone call to the candidate you should issue the official rejection letter to the candidate – stating in writing that they have not been selected for the role. Below is a list of best practices to consider when wording an official letter of rejection to your candidates:

  • Personalize the rejection letter using the candidates contact information (first name, last name) as well as the position they applied for and any relevant information concerning their interview. This will add a level of customization that helps to display a reciprocal level of effort and appreciation of the candidate’s time.
  • Don’t “fluff” up the letter or attempt to sound passive as a means to avoid a confrontational tone. This will only add confusion to the message letter and can even result in ambiguity that can lead to unintended interpretations of your rejection letter.
  • Don’t include any information that isn’t necessary. Unless absolutely critical, there’s no need to use an excusatory tone that highlights individual causes for the candidate’s rejection. This only serves to provide grounds for the candidate to challenge your reasoning and unless carefully thought-out, can even result in potential discrimination findings – whether intentional or not.
  • Be careful when providing additional information, criticisms, or feedback, even if a candidate requests this information. This can result in a dispute and even a legal challenge should you provide details that can’t be used in an employment capacity.
  • Remember that the candidate rejection letter is your last opportunity to build a lasting relationship with the candidate. Make sure to end the letter on a positive note and set the stage for future opportunities if you think the candidate would make a good cultural fit. This helps to foster the relationship between the candidate and your employer brand.

Compliance Considerations

If you’re rejecting a candidate due to the findings of a pre-employment background check or drug test, you must take additional steps to ensure compliance with federal, state, and local regulations. Specifically, the FCRA (Fair Credit Reporting Act) requires that an additional Pre-Adverse Action letter as well as an Adverse Action letter be sent to the candidate asserting the rejection of the candidate due to the findings of a background check.

You can read more on these requirements in our ebook that outlines the employment screening process and how to appropriately communicate the findings of a background check with your candidates and employees. Link to ebook, here

 

Maintaining Applicants for Future Consideration

Much of the conventional training for HR out there differs on whether or not it is a good idea to maintain previous applicants in a contact database with the intent of returning to these contact records should a similar position that better fits previous applicants become available. The current mindset of most HR professionals is that holding onto these contacts is not necessary and is in fact a hindrance to recruiting efforts because it incentivizes recruiters to settle on applicants that didn’t make the cut the first go around.

However, this strategy fails to account for the future development of these previous applicants. Yes, a candidate may have underperformed in an interview that caused you to pass on them for a role. But this doesn’t mean that the candidate will not develop their skill set over the next few years. Recalling this candidate for an interview 16 months later could result in an outstanding interview experience that results in an offer of employment.

There’s simply no telling what the future holds for your applicants. But regardless of your expectation, it’s important to understand that your previous candidates will continue to develop and progress through their careers and could go from “shred bin” to “all-star” within a relatively short amount of time. But if you’re cleaning out the shred bin every month, chances are that you’ll miss out on the all-stars that were once sitting in your office.

 

Closing Thoughts

Want to learn more on this topic? Well Check out our podcast episode “Hire People…Not Numbers”, below, where Robert Sanders and I discuss this topic in more detail. We’d also love to know what you think, or answer any questions you may have. So please leave a comment below to tell us your thoughts. If you have any questions, please email me at hzerbe@validityscreening.com. And for more great blogs and content please subscribe to our blogs here.