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As recruiters and hiring managers it’s inevitable we have to say no to candidates more often than we say yes—or in sugar coated phrasing, “We’re sorry, we’ve decided to move forward with a candidate who better fits the qualifications for the role.”  But turning down candidates isn’t always easy.  For some of us it brings the inevitable stomach tied in knots and leaves us tongue tied when we pick up the phone, while we wonder: Is it really necessary to contact them, can’t I just move on?

For those of us in control of our anxiety or momentary apathy, we know the answer: Yes.  And we know the many reasons why the answer is yes.  Your company’s reputation is on the line for starters.  Once the gossip mill gets rolling, a bad reputation for poor follow-up can have skilled talent turning their nose at your next job opening.

Not only is your company’s reputation on the line, but your personal reputation is as well.  You never know when or where you might run into that candidate, when you might need to reach out to them again for another opening, or if someday that candidate might be interviewing you for a job. It’s best not to burn bridges by leaving candidates in the lurch, if you can prevent it.  For those of you still left with not knowing how to handle the ‘It’s not you, it’s us’ conversation, here are a few pointers to address different stages of rejection in the interview process.

The Absent Candidate

In today’s job market you may receive too many resumes for each opening to keep up—not to mention the unsolicited resumes.  If you’re operating a small business without the help of an applicant tracking or automated system, this can be even more overwhelming.  You don’t have time to sort through every applicant that comes your way.  But you can create a simple form email (of which there are many examples online) to kindly respond to each candidate.

You can either respond to every applicant letting them know you received their resume and will be contacting only qualified candidates, or once you’ve selected your new team member, send a polite declination letter to everyone you did not consider for the position stating that you appreciated their interest but have filled the position, or both.

There are many ways to setup personalized automated mail messages. If you are working with an ATS, see if this can be automated through the system to save you even more time.  Candidate’s will begrudgingly appreciate their resumes weren’t submitted to a black hole.

The Personal Connection

When you’ve parsed through your stack of resumes to the chosen few, it’s a great step to phone screen candidates to narrow down the field.  One key to phone screening and avoiding awkward conversations later is to never promise more than you can deliver.  This means, if you are uncomfortable turning down candidates, don’t leave yourself open to excessive follow up for yourself or from them. At the end of the conversation clearly state when the decision on next steps will be made and how that will be communicated.

You can say, “We will notify you by phone or email regarding the position.”  By stating they may be notified by email, this gives you an out to write a nice personalized note to them declining their candidacy, in case you’re not up for calling them directly.  This also lets them know what to expect so they are not calling you every day to check up on the status of the position.

Remember, you have made a personal connection at this stage, so a phone call is appreciated if you’re up for it, especially when senior-level candidates are involved.  Keep the phone call brief and express the company’s decision to move forward with a candidate more qualified or suited for the position.

Some candidates will ask for feedback; if you feel inclined to provide it, this can be extremely advantageous to their success in their next interview. However, try to keep feedback general and non specific to the role they interviewed for.  You do not want to express anything that could leave your company open to a lawsuit.  Try to end the call on a positive note by offering to keep in contact regarding future openings or providing connections within your business network.

The Face to Face

Rejecting a candidate after the face to face interview is probably the most difficult.  You’ve had a chance to get to know them better, they’re excited about the opportunity, and let’s face it, there’s a different kind of connection when you finally have a face to attach to the name that used to be represented by a piece of paper.  And you’re not just a name or a voice to the applicant now, either, you’re a living, breathing, human being.

The same tips apply for the face to face interview as for applicants you phone screened. Clearly state expectations during the interview; do let them know you are seeing other candidates so they do not assume they are a shoe-in for the role.  After you’ve made your hiring decision, candidates you’ve met with in person deserve a phone call, at minimum. Graciously thank them for their time throughout the process, and follow the same steps outlined above for your outreach to them.

The Internal Candidate

Internal candidates require more finesse after the interview.  Because retaining great talent is important to an organization, it’s best to be more open with them.  Provide actionable feedback they can utilize to become stronger candidates the next go-round.  If there were other factors that affected the decision, navigate through these with care and attention to the employee’s growth.

If they’re truly motivated about moving up in the company, suggest they work with their manager to build out a plan to address any deficiencies brought up in the interview and to showcase their potential for promotion.  Help to identify future opportunities they may be a fit for.  After all, if internal candidates are not provided opportunities for growth, they will look for opportunities outside your organization.

One last tip to remember, avoid turning down any potential candidates until after you have made your hiring decision and the applicant has accepted the offer.  No one likes to be told they weren’t your first choice, and negatives feelings can adversely impact the new hire’s outlook in the company should they decide to take your offer after you turned them down.

Turning down an applicant is an art, not a science.  There is no one proven method or approach that will spare every person’s feelings.  But done thoughtfully and graciously, and by addressing the possibility of rejection upfront through each step of the process, you can save yourself time and energy and save your candidates days of needless frustration, all while building positive relationships for the future.

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