a tale of post-interview feedback success

by Ask a Manager on September 8, 2010

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A reader writes:

I just wanted to write in and thank you for the way that your blog has helped me in my (ongoing) job search.  I have been looking for work after a summer spent travelling, and I had an application in that I was really excited about. The employer I’d be working for has a great reputation, I have lots of experience, etc. A week after I applied they emailed me and asked whether I was still interested, and what my desired salary would be. I wrote back and didn’t hear from them for about a week and a half.

Yesterday I received an email letting me know the position had just been filled.

A bit disappointing! But thanks to you I knew that it’s okay to ask for feedback as long as you’re not a jerk about it, so I wrote back:

Thank you for letting me know; I appreciate it. I hope that things will work out well for Mr. X and his new staffer. 

I know that I am not in a position to ask for favours, but if you have a moment to spare I would love some feedback. Is there anything in the way I present myself in my resume or cover letter whereby I shoot myself in the foot? Was my expected salary in a reasonable range, or should I adjust it?

Please do not feel obliged to answer these questions — but if there is something you noticed, it will help me in my continuing job search and I would be most grateful.

You can well imagine my delight when she replied with this:

You made it down to our top six out of more than 40 applicants. It was very impressive and you were about to be called for an interview. Within a day, however, three different contacts called us to endorse one particular applicant who had volunteered extensively for each of them. All three stated they would hire her themselves if a position had been available. Based on their assertions, and the fact that the applicant was only an hour away and was able to come to the office for an interview, Mr. X decided to move forward with her on a probationary term. 

Again, your application was great, and you certainly did not shoot yourself in the foot. The circumstances just aligned themselves perfectly for another applicant.

I do wish you every success, and will absolutely be in touch with you should any other opportunities come up with our team.

Hands down, that is the most encouraging rejection I’ve ever had — and I’m glad to know that I didn’t get passed over because I stink, but because someone else was perfect!

Thank you for giving me the savvy to write an excellent resume and cover letter, and the courage to ask for more information. It’s definitely paid off, and I’ll be jumping back into my job search with renewed vigor.

Hooray! This is great to see.

This is a good reminder about asking for feedback after a job rejection. Four things to remember when you do:

1. Not every employer will give you feedback (some of the reasons for that are here), but you should not be discouraged by that or let it prevent you from trying in the future.

2. When you ask, it’s crucial that you not sound even slightly defensive or argumentative, or there’s zero chance you’ll get a candid answer. Note that in the letter above, it’s very clear that the writer isn’t objecting to the decision or feeling irked; she’s asking for advice and assistance, and doing it in a way that’s so engaging that any normal person would want to help her.

3. Related to that, I’ve received requests for feedback that sound like a form letter, or like the person is only asking because they’ve been told they should ask. The request above doesn’t sound that way. It sounds genuine, shows personality, and underscores that there’s a real person behind it. That helps.

4. Say thank you if you get a response. Giving feedback is not obligatory. If someone takes the time to help you, that person is doing you a favor. They’ll notice if you don’t thank them.

{ 14 comments }

Julie O'Malley September 8, 2010 at 6:38 pm

I love both this job seeker, who (as you said) was very reasonable and not at all defensive, and the hiring manager who took the time to reply so thoughtfully.

If both sides could always behave so well, job hunting might be almost … pleasant!

jmkenrick September 8, 2010 at 8:06 pm

It sounds like this person didn't get asked for an interview – but that they knew they were being taken seriously as a candidate by their potential employer.

Is it acceptable for me to ask for feedback (after not receiving a job) even if there was no interview, or is asking for feedback generally reserved for candidates who know they were being seriously considered?

Ask a Manager September 8, 2010 at 8:34 pm

Really good question. In this case, they had engaged via email and it almost looked like her answer on salary might have disqualified her, so I think that opened to door to asking for feedback. If there hasn't been any engagement, I think it's harder to do — doesn't mean that you can't though. I think the most effective approach would be to do it when it's a company/industry/job that you're especially interested in, so that you can say that specifically — i.e., "I'm highly interested in moving into ___ industry, and I wonder if you can tell me if there's anything about my candidacy that I could be presenting differently at these early stages."

Also, this might just be me, but I think the OP's phrasing was really disarming — the whole "shooting myself in the leg" question makes you want to reassure her that she's not, if indeed she's not, or point out where she might be (if she is). So I'd try to use something along those lines.

Anonymous September 8, 2010 at 9:04 pm

Excellent post. One thing I would offer to the OP is maybe a bit more formal language. "Shoot in the foot" and other colloquialism do not come across very professional.

I have a similar story. I applied for an internship with a company shortly before I was due to graduate. Based on my other internships I knew that I would be a strong canddiate for this position. Well I got an email back a week later thanking me for applying but I did not fit their qualifications.

I emailed the HR contact at the bottom to see if she had any feedback on my resume that she could offer that would make me a stronger candidate. She offered up that my resume was great and they could not consider me because their company does not allow graduates to hold internship positions. She redirected me to a position that I could qualify for and I did end up getting that position.

It was a simply a matter of asking or I would have never know why I was rejected or would I have seen that other position they did have open. As my mother used to always tell me as a child, "a closed mouth doesn't get fed".

Juanita September 8, 2010 at 9:17 pm

WOW. This is a really great response. It warms my heart that there are true professionals out there who are doing a great job and looking at the person and not just another application.

Thank you for sharing…

shawn September 8, 2010 at 10:15 pm

Follow up question for you all, from the employers perspective…

The feedback the employer gave in this case was pretty basic, they found the perfect candidate in their eyes.

I sometimes get requests for feedback and often that feedback isn't so easy to deliver and/or positive. Many times the truth is no one liked you, we thought you'd be difficult to work with/manage, you stunk, your examples didn't back up the skills you claim to have on your resume, not a cultural fit, etc.

What do I do in these cases? I can dance around it by talking about overall fit but that's not really giving feedback.

Also, if you really would be difficult to manage do I actually want to help you cover that up in the interview process, only to dupe a potential employer later?

Ask a Manager September 8, 2010 at 10:47 pm

Anonymous, I actually like informal language as long as it's not unprofessional, and I think it can make you come across as more of a real person and create warmth in the conversation more than formality does.

Shawn, I think there are absolutely times when you're not going to want to offer feedback because it would be awkward/sensitive — hiring managers aren't job coaches and aren't obligated to deliver difficult messages like "you smell" or "you seem like a jerk." However, I *would* be willing to say "we're looking for someone with a stronger background in ___; to be honest, your resume may be creating a perception that you have more experience there than you do and that might be something to look at" or "this is a position where off-the-cuff public speaking is really important and we felt your skills were more in the area of ___" or whatever.

Anonymous September 9, 2010 at 1:48 pm

I interviewed for a positon with same title as my previous position held for over 6yrs. Company moving divisions to one location – adding numerous positions. In interview I stated willingness to assume other positions if not one interview for.
Received an e-mail – "not a match".
Wrote to HR/manager asking if ther was an area not discusssed in interview I might clarify……no response. Other position, listed with agencies (who call me to fill).
I know employers reject for many reasons, but with a new group being formed, I have the experience, qualifications, education, solid history, live in location, excellent companmy….frustrated with one-line response and no further communication on the other positions.

Class factotum September 9, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Yet another column I have copied and pasted into a word document and put in my "work" file for the day I resume jobhunting. Excellent advice here.

Ask a Manager September 9, 2010 at 3:16 pm

Anonymous, I actually think your example is an example of how NOT to ask for feedback, which is why you didn't get a response from them. You weren't really asking for feedback — you were asking them to take another look at you. (At least that's how I'm interpreting asking if there "was an area not discusssed in interview I might clarify.")

Once a rejection has been issued, they're not going to revisit it. They're not interested in you clarifying anything at that point. But a genuine request for feedback can get you some advice (sometimes).

jmkenrick September 9, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Thanks for answering my question. That makes sense.

working girl September 9, 2010 at 7:28 pm

This is so terrific – both the advice AND the hiring manager who took the time to respond so comprehensively. I think she should be recognized as a fine example for all hiring managers, or get some flowers from SHRM or something.

Anonymous September 10, 2010 at 1:10 pm

I think there is another lesson in here too–that landing a job can actually resemble running a campaign these days. Particularly for prestigious or in-demand positions, having respected people contact the potential employer on your behalf can tip the scales in your favor. Note this company's explanation had little or nothing to do with the candidate's skills and qualifications and everything to do with the testimonials presented.

Anonymous September 10, 2010 at 4:00 pm

What a great article. Thanks for posting. It also never hurts to keep in touch with the hiring manager if you have something substantive to say.

When I got my current job, I sent the manager a note since I hadn't heard anything about the position. A new site had been released and I said kudos on the site and suggested adding a new feature to it to help others.

I didn't hear back immediately, but I did a few weeks later and was offered the job. Plus, you never know if the person they hired worked out or another position comes up. Keep it sane, though, you don't want to scare them off by "friending" them on facebook. Ask if you can network on LinkedIn with them, though.

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