Rejection Letter Dos and Don’ts: How to Treat People With a Little Decency

A number of years ago I got rejected for a job.

I know, I know, you are probably as surprised as I was. The funny part is, I got the hard copy, snail mail rejection letter 18 months after I had apparently applied. I went back into my email to try to figure out what really happened.

You see, as a Recruiting Pro, I wouldn’t actually apply through an ATS, especially for an executive position, which this was. My email confirmed that fact; I had sent the Chief HR Officer of a large organization my resume directly. This rejection letter was from that contact.

Not an ideal candidate experience

Yes, it took 18 months. Send a resume. No communication for 18 months. Then I get a rejection letter. That’s the time line.

How’s that for a solid candidate experience!

Ever since this happened, I’ve had strong beliefs about what you should and should not do when it comes to sending out rejection letters. So, here’s my deal about rejection letters:

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Do …

  • Send personally signed letters to all people you have had personal contact with (i.e., over the phone, in person, referred by someone internally – you get the idea).
  • Draft a letter(s) that builds your brand.
  • Once a candidate is a “no,” send the letter. And if they’re a “maybe?” Keep them in the process.
  • If they never had any personal contact with your organization, send them the ATS mass email.

Don’t …

  • Send a letter to everyone who applies. Within your recruitment/sourcing process should be a communication when someone applies. In that communication, let them know that only those chosen for interviews will be considered part of the recruitment process – meaning we will communicate with those individuals directly moving forward – and for all others thanks, something that says “please apply for other positions that come up that fit your experience and background.”
  • Tell people you chose someone with better qualifications or someone who is more qualified. You really don’t know that; who you chose was a person who best fit your organization at this time.
  • Tell people you’ll keep them on file for future consideration. You and I both know that you don’t. Tell them the truth – if you ever want to work here, apply again and possibly make some internal connections to help move your resume to the top.

What you want rejected candidates to feel

In the end, you want your rejection letters to make people feel like, “I’m glad I applied, and I would apply again and I would continue or will start using this organization, and/or buy their product or service.” It’s not easy, but it can be done.

If you really want to know what people think of your rejection process, pick up the phone and call a few that have made it to different levels of the hiring process and just ask them. People who get rejected are more than happy to give you feedback!

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.


9 Comments on “Rejection Letter Dos and Don’ts: How to Treat People With a Little Decency

  1. Tim, you and I both have strong opinions on this one! (I agree with everything you’ve written here, BTW.) I’d add:

    DON’T send me ANY kind of rejection more than two weeks after the interview. If I don’t hear from you within two weeks, I already know the deal, and I’ve forgotten about you, which is how I like it.

    DON’T reject me and then add me to your mailing list. I don’t need to be spammed by you, thanks. You may call that a good business decision, I call it presumptuous and skeezy.

    And hell yeah, don’t tell me you found someone better qualified (thought I’d repeat that one it was so good), because I’ve been working forever and know how THAT goes. Also do not tell me I’m not qualified AT THIS TIME, as though this is a coaching moment and you’re hoping to motivate me to take a course or something and then reapply. Again, presumptuous AND condescending.

  2. The timing on this is perfect, as I just had a conversation with an HR leader from an educational institution about sending rejection letters 6 months after the fact. His response was: “Well that’s just the way we do things around here.” I reminded him that he too is competing for top talent and that continuing to do things the way it has always been done does not make it right, and tarnishes the institution’s brand.

    Two days later, I received a follow up letter from another educational institution stating the position I applied for had been canceled, but had been reposted as a different position, and that if I wanted to reapply I was welcome to do so. And so I did. #CandidateExperience is for real.

  3. I’m just shocked that you even got a letter, albeit 18 months later. Not notifying a candidate of their status soon after an interview (multiple interviews) is just plain rude and unprofessional.

  4. In my experience, getting a rejection letter is far from the norm. If I had a dime for every interview I went to, and never heard back from someone. Not even HR or a form letter. Pretty much tells me all I need to know about the organization. (Though small companies get a bit more of a pass from me on this.)

    My favorite verbal rejection was when I followed up with someone I had interviewed with maybe a week or so earlier, and he told me they had gone with another candidate. I inquired if there were any qualifications or experience they were looking for that the other person had and which I lacked. “Oh, not really. They were just better,” was the response. I have loads of confidence in my professional abilities, so I don’t believe that to be true for a second, however that was the interviewer’s perception. But come on, if you’re going to interview people you ought to be prepared for the candidates to follow-up with you and have something less offensive and stupid to say.

    1. “I have loads of confidence in my professional abilities, so I don’t believe that to be true for a second…”

      Ugh, honestly, this is the worst attitude to have in this circumstance! You can have as much confidence in your abilities that you want, but you have no idea who else applied. You have no idea how qualified any other candidate was. Employers reject well-qualified people all the time, because there is only one opening.

      The employer was telling you that, no, you had no glaring specific gap (you probably would not have advanced so far if you did), but another candidate was better. They don’t want to get into why, in part because they might not be able to tell you exactly why. They’ve given you the useful information, which is that you were qualified for the role but they liked someone else better. Would you prefer they lie?

      1. I’ll never agree that having confidence in one’s abilities is the worst attitude to have. Especially since it costs one *nothing* to have this attitude and belief in myself after another candidate has been chosen. The example I provided was of a hiring manager not prepared to handle follow up calls from job candidates and fumbling it pretty bad.

        It goes without saying that employers choose candidates for a variety of reasons. Some times simply because they like the candidate better because the candidate is more like themselves than other candidates, came in to the interview with a Yankees cap tucked under his arm, is a graduate of the hiring manager’s alma mater, is is willing to work below market rate. None of that has to do with one candidate being *better* than another.

        What’s a far worse attitude is to believe that someone was “better” than you when your work speaks for itself. That’s a lack of confidence, and a million times worse in any interviewing situation (and post-rejection) than believing yourself.

        1. Eh, I don’t think self confidence is bad. I think it’s bad to assume you’re the absolute best when you can’t possibly know that, and to assume that anyone who thinks differently is lying, even when they have more information than you do. I wasn’t presenting a binary where you either have undue confidence or no confidence at all. There are other options.

          1. you do create a binary for all other comparisons when you state something is the “worst.” No other attitude can be worse, because confidence (or over confidence perhaps in your perception of my statement) is the worst.

            I clearly stated “however that was the interviewer’s perception” so my story included no accusations of lying on the interviewer’s part. If you state what your perceptions are, that’s not a lie. Given that I know the position, my relative skills compared to others in the industry, the company, and the industry, I get to believe that it’s simply not true that someone else is a better “insert job title here.”

            Going back to the post, which is about how to treat job candidates with decency, I’ll submit that is inherently insulting to simply state someone else was “better.” Especially when the passed over job candidate has just been told by the hiring manager had all the skills and experience needed for the position. That’s not treating people with decency, and as I noted earlier, demonstrates the interviewer — who handed out his card and surely must have expected some follow up calls from people he interviewed — didn’t have a clue how to respond to people he interviewed.

            Samples of phrases that wouldn’t have been inherently insulting:
            * “The person we went with felt like a better cultural fit for our company.”
            * “The person we hired had just a bit more experience in X area, in which we are launching a line of products in next quarter.”

            Or you know, if there actually was experience they wanted — like say in media relations you might want someone with experience working sports, beauty, and business media — that the candidate has less of than the person ultimately hired, just say that. That has nothing to do with someone being a “better” publicist, and you won’t insult someone if you just say that.

  5. Thanks for writing this! I only have one disagreement: why not send all applicants a letter? If you want to do an ATS form letter, fine, or even a form email, but I don’t understand why sending a form rejection when a candidate is no longer in the running at all stages is such a bad thing? It requires almost no time, and improves the candidate experience; that’s the point, right?

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