Weekly Wrap: It’s Sad We Don’t Send Out Rejection Letters Anymore

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Everyone should have the experience of getting a few rejection letters sometime in their lives.

I was thinking about this today because, a) I have gotten my fair share of them over the years; and, b) I was amused by this recent blog post in Mental Floss about 10 Rejection Letters Sent to Famous People.

Just the names of the people who got these rejection letters should make you sit up and take notice: Bono, Andy Warhol, Madonna, Kurt Vonnegut, Tim Burton, Steig Larsson (author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the Millennium trilogy), and Hunter S. Thompson, among others.

Early critics rejected the Beatles

I’m always amused by rejection letters because they seem to reconfirm what we already know — that people who are paid to assess and measure talent frequently get it very, very wrong.

That’s especially true of people who have talents that are groundbreaking or that don’t easily fit into current concept of what will be successful. This was on display just last month in all the hoopla over the 50th anniversary of the Beatles coming to America in a roundup the Los Angeles Times published of what critics had to say about them in February of 1964.

Here are a few examples:

  • From William F. Buckley Jr. — “The Beatles are not merely awful; I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are god awful. They are so unbelievably horribly, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music.”
  • From Newsweek magazine — “Visually they are a nightmare … Musically they are a near disaster, guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of “yeah, yeah, yeah”) are a catastrophe.”
  • From George Dixon, The Washington Post — “Just thinking about the Beatles seems to induce mental disturbance. They have a commonplace, rather dull act that hardly seems to merit mentioning, yet people hereabouts have mentioned scarcely anything else for days.”

Corporate America stinks at responding to candidates

Yes, people who evaluate talent frequently and repeatedly get it so wrong that you wonder how they manage to keep their jobs. And, the Mental Floss article just simply makes this point again by showing us how people who we know today to be great talents got rejected, too.

But there was something else that jumped out at me from this article: who actually gets a real, live rejection letter any more?

Yes, I know it would probably be a rejection email today, and even those can sometimes go terribly wrong, but for the most part, people today get no rejection at all — no letter, no email, no nothing.

In fact, job applicants are lucky if they even get an acknowledgement that they applied for a job, much less a rejection.

Gerry Crispin and Mark Mehler, who run Career Xroads, have researched this for years, and the sad fact of the matter is that their work shows that 75 percent of the companies on Fortune‘s 100 Best Companies to Work For list don’t even bother to tell job applicants if they are even being considered for a job they applied for.

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In other words, as bad as the people evaluating talent may be in doing their job, they (and their organizations) make it worse by not even being courteous enough to respond to those who took the time to apply.

Yes, Corporate America really stinks at responding to job candidates.

A famous rejection by Hunter S. Thompson

Say what you will about the old-fashioned rejection letter, but it actually showed some degree of civility in giving applicants a final answer about their status. On top of that, rejection letters frequently fuel the recipient to work that much harder to do what they need to do so that they don’t get rejected the next time.

My guess is that some of those featured in 10 Rejection Letters Sent to Famous People reacted in that very way, and probably now view such letters as part of the fuel that lit their fire of success.

We’re a lot worse off today by taking that old-fashioned rejection letter out of the process. 

And one more thing: the letter listed for gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson was actually a letter he wrote back to William McKeen, who was the author of a biography of Thompson. The response from Thompson is such that I thought it worth repeating here:

McKeen, you s**t-eating freak. I warned you about writing that vicious trash about me.

Now you better get fitted for a black eyepatch, just in case one of yours gets gouged-out by a bushy-haired stranger in a dimly-lit parking lot. How fast can you learn Braille?

You are scum.


Of course, there’s more than rejection letters in the news this week. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Now applicants need to serve up SAT scores — even after many years on the job: This is a disturbing new trend: recruiters wanting the SAT scores of candidates even if they have been in the workforce for a while. As The Wall Street Journal reports, “Proving the adage that all of life is like high school, plenty of employers still care about a job candidate’s SAT score. Consulting firms such as Bain & Co. and McKinsey & Co. and banks like Goldman Sachs Group Inc. ask new college recruits for their scores, while other companies request them even for senior sales and management hires, eliciting scores from job candidates in their 40s and 50s.”
  • Google is looking for people who are humble and argumentative. There has been a lot written about Google’s hiring process lately, and here’s the most recent from Fast Company. They report that  “Google now opts for a refreshingly human hiring process. … They’re looking for a multifaceted qualities …  (including): learning ability, appropriate leadership, humility, ownership, and expertise. The most surprising is humility — because it’s not exactly the quality you’d expect from a company made up of the smartest folks in the room.”
  • California is looking for a new HR chief. The Sacramento Bee reports that California needs Gov. Jerry Brown to pick a new state HR leader. “The answer,” the newspaper says, “will tell us how much he cares about retooling how the state recruits, trains and retains employees. His last pick to lead the charge, Julie Chapman. abruptly took her pension last week after nearly two years running the Department of Human Resources. Her departure was announced just ahead of a report that blasted CalHR’s leadership for lacking “the holistic skill set” to pull off Brown’s orders to reform state government’s ancient and out-of-touch personnel practices.”
  • Kronos Time Well Spent cartoonKronos, the company that probably makes your organization’s time-and-attendance systems, publishes a regular Time Well Spent workplace cartoon by Tom Fishburne. I post them here from time to time in the Weekly Wrap.tws19-rev-600-overtime

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


3 Comments on “Weekly Wrap: It’s Sad We Don’t Send Out Rejection Letters Anymore

  1. Great roundup! A friend of mine is an absolute Hunter S. Thompson fanatic, so I’ll have to put her on to that Mental Floss article. I agree that rejection is sorely lacking in modern life, but I wouldn’t even narrow it solely to the world of work. There’s an entire generation that has never faced rejection before – ever. While I’m all for remaining positive in the face of adversity, I’m also fairly certain that never officially losing at anything cannot be healthy for developing brains. No one likes getting rejected, but there are practical upshots to every situation. As you say, rejection lets you know where you stand, and can spur you on to improve. It would be wonderful if every rejection could have one small piece of personal improvement advice, but I understand that that would be impractical, if not outright impossible, especially for situations with hundreds of applicants. Perhaps, though, the ones who were picked out for interview could be given the gift of constructive criticism through slightly personalized versions of a rejection form letter? Just a thought.
    Cheers! Lisa Chatroop, Good.Co

  2. I’m not sure the demise of the rejection letter is a bad thing. At best they are uninformative form letters. I recently received one of those computer-generated form letters nearly six months after I had submitted my initial application, followed up a couple of times and, subsequently, found another job. If you aren’t going to use them correctly, you may as well stop using them at all.

    Now, if a company wanted to take the time to be effective with them, they provide an excellent opportunity for building employer brand and play a content marketing role in that they can create a connection that keeps a person engaged with the brand. This kind of connection is at the core of social recruiting and this letter could play a pivotal role if used correctly. But, that would require effort and attention, not form letters.

  3. Back in the day, I remember getting (snail mail) rejection letters of various styles. Sadly, many had a tone along the lines of: silly you for thinking we would hire your sorry ass. Most contemporary ones take a more neutral, less dismissive tone. A few times companies subsequently interviewed me anyway. Now rare to get feedback even after a complete interview sequence.

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