What do you do with job applicants you can’t hire? If you’re like most managers, you waste them.
A company's reputation in its professional community is affected profoundly by the level of respect it shows to job candidates. The reason is simple: Those people talk to one another, and what they say affects your ability to recruit effectively. If you don’t go out of your way to treat candidates well—especially the ones you reject—it’s going to hurt your reputation and ability to recruit more good people (see “Death By Lethal Reputation”).
A company invests a lot to make sure customers are happy, but it probably devotes next to nothing to manage the impression it leaves with people it interviews for jobs. It doesn't take long before the word gets out that Company X isn't worth applying to because it treats candidates impersonally and can't make hiring decisions in a timely fashion.
While it might seem acceptable to keep candidates waiting until your company makes a final hiring decision, consider how you feel when you're left hanging. Every time you leave a candidate hanging without feedback, you risk losing them to a competitor that is more friendly and acts more quickly. Every time you interview good people, you are establishing new relationships in your professional community. The more responsibly you behave toward applicants, the more effective a recruiter you will be when you need to fill positions. Applicants need and deserve feedback as well as updates about your decision process.
Your rule of thumb should be to treat candidates the way you want them to treat you: with respect. A good manager calls each candidate to explain whether they will continue to the next round of interviews. If they were not selected, they deserve to know why, and they deserve to hear from the manager directly. Many managers don't want to explain why because delivering a rejection feels uncomfortable. This is not acceptable—and it reveals poor management practices. When managers relegate rejection notices to the human resources department, that’s even worse. It damages your personal reputation in your professional community.
In an informal poll I conducted, only about 15 percent of managers said that they'd call a candidate themselves to reject them. But they’re the aces because when a rejected candidate is approached in a dignified way, he retains his own dignity, and that helps you maintain a relationship with him. That relationship can pay off in big ways.
How To Say It
Imagine this conversation. The manager calls and says, “I want to thank you for spending some of your valuable time with me to talk about working together. The two main reasons I think this job isn’t a match for you are X and Y. However, you’re the kind of person we like to keep in our company of friends. May I have your permission to recommend you to some other groups here? Or to contact you again when another position opens? While I’ve got you, I’d like to ask your opinion of our hiring process. This is a little awkward since you’re no longer a candidate for this particular job, but I believe that the best information about how we perform will come from our professional community. . .people like you.”
This personalizes the hiring process and helps you form a relationship. Not a word in the above statement is intended to be gratuitous. You must keep it honest. Don’t forget that feedback about your hiring process is as important as feedback from your customers. You might not always like it, but you need to hear it. More important, time invested in personally following up with applicants is actually time invested in recruiting. We discussed this in another article, “Invest 30% Of Your Time Recruiting.”
Once your discussion is done, consider taking one more step. I know this seems awkward, but it’s how good headhunters identify their next candidates. Close by saying to the candidate, “I’d consider it a great professional courtesy if you could recommend other talented people you know to us. In exchange, I will commit to talking to other managers I know about you for openings they may have in the coming months—whether in my company or in others I respect.”
Then close with these key words: “Please stay in touch. If anything comes up that you’d like to discuss with me, feel free to call. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.”
You and your company have invested a lot in finding, recruiting, interviewing, and getting to know that candidate. If you’re going to reject a good candidate, then do it personally. Don’t waste this new relationship.
Have you ever seen a manager go to this trouble to establish recruiting relationships that will pay off later? I have. Those are the managers who are stealing your best candidates.