How To Decline A Job Candidate (& End On A Good Note)

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From explaining why to managing push back: this advice will help you pick up the phone, inform a declined candidate, and end on a good note.

Man in an office listening on the phone.

Image: Adobe Stock

“Unfortunately, we’re not moving forward at this time.” Could there be a more unpleasant thing to have to tell a job candidate? Apparently not: according to a 2016 study by CareerArc and Future Workplace, only 61 percent of employers say they notify declined candidates about their decision. And according to the Talent Board’s 2014 Candidate Experience Report, only one in five candidates say they’ve received “quality” final communication from potential employers.

So either recruiters and hiring managers aren’t informing declined candidates, or they’re doing a bad job of it.

Not good. Declines are tough to do, yes. But they don’t have to be no-win. Done with care, they can even end the candidate’s experience on a positive note.

Three recruiters – no strangers to tactfully delivering bad news to hopeful candidates – share their best advice:

“You owe it to finalists to speak with them directly. Don’t hide behind an email.”

Phone 99% of the time

Chad MacRae, the founder of Recruiting Social and principal recruiter, says that if a candidate invested time interviewing for the position – possibly even taking unpaid time off from their current job – they deserve a phone call. “You owe it to finalists to speak with them directly,” says Chad. “Don’t hide behind an email.”

Recruiter Danielle Marchant agrees: “Pick up the phone as soon as you find out.” But she also points out that there are occasional exceptions to the always-by-phone rule. If you’ve established that the candidate prefers to communicate by other means, it might be appropriate to inform them that way. “I had a passive candidate recently who was still working full-time, couldn’t take calls during the day, so liked all communication to be by text message. He texted asking for an update just as I received word he was being declined – so I replied with the news.”

Be authentic, not over-prepared

Though it might be tempting to write a script for what you plan to say, it’s best to not over-prepare, advises recruiter Lara Pinto. “People can tell when you’re reading to them. It’s like having a rejection email read to you out loud – you sound robotic!”

Danielle notes that if your communication with the candidate was open, honest, and authentic throughout the hiring process, the decline will be less uncomfortable. “If you’ve nurtured your relationship along the way, there won’t be as much recoil. They’ll understand you see their value even if you’re not moving forward.”

Deliver the news up front

“Rip the Band-Aid off,” instructs Chad. “When the candidate answers the phone, inform them you have an update, ask if it’s a good time to speak, and if it is, get it out.”

“If you’ve nurtured your relationship along the way, there won’t be as much recoil.”

Tell them why

Once told they’re out of the running, almost all candidates ask the same question: why? Providing an explanation helps them understand and accept the decision, explains Lara. “I had a married couple vying for the same design role,” she divulges. “The husband was selected over the wife because his specialized interaction design skills were more advanced. The couple’s personal relationship made sharing the news with the wife tough. But, by pointing out his more advanced experience and his better-developed portfolio, she took it well. She even suggested the rejection was a good thing, and would push her to brush up her skills.”

Give feedback (if possible)

Offering constructive feedback can help turn rejection into a positive experience for the candidate. “You’re not putting them down, you’re giving them tips on how they can improve next time,” says Lara.

Everyone involved in the hiring process should debrief following the interviews and discuss each candidate’s pros and cons, advises Chad. “Feedback should be recorded in your applicant tracking system. That way recruiters have it at their fingertips when they follow up with candidates.” However, sometimes managers are resistant to provide feedback. “As a recruiter, I try and push for it,” says Chad. “I’ll ask the manager: did you ever interview for a role, get rejected, and not get any feedback? How did it feel?”

Before giving feedback, make sure you know if you’re even allowed to: some organizations adopt policies that restrict the practice. “Make sure you follow your company’s policy,” says Chad, “but give as much information as you’re allowed to give.”

“Providing an explanation helps them understand and accept the decision.”

Accept push back

Inevitably, some candidates won’t like what you have to tell them. “Sometimes they will scramble to try and prove they have more to offer,” explains Lara. “I’ve had candidates try and debate with me against the decision,” adds Danielle.

How do you handle push back? Reinforce the truth of the situation: “Tell them you understand their disappointment, but if an offer has gone out to another candidate, the decision on this particular hire is final,” says Danielle.

Chad suggests scheduling a follow-up call for the candidate with the hiring manager. “It can be more convincing, hearing the decision-making rationale and feedback from a peer or someone with more authority than the talent team member.”

Declines aren’t forever

“I always tell declined candidates that I want to keep in touch and hear about their next role, or where they end up,” says Danielle. “They might just be the right person for another role in the future.” Chad knows this to be fact: “Years ago, I declined a candidate because he wasn’t  right for the role I was filling. But twelve years later, I hired him for a different role, at a different company, in a different city – this time, he was the right person.”


Christian De Pape, Recruiting Social’s Head of Marketing and Content
About the author

Christian De Pape is the head of brand experience at Recruiting Social. Connect with him on LinkedIn.


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