reader update: the rejected candidate who was promised a whole document of feedback

Remember the letter-writer in January who was rejected for a job and then told that the employer was compiling a whole document of feedback for him?  I asked him to update us when he finally got the document, and indeed he now has. Here’s his update:

Just wanted to follow up as I’ve finally heard back from the company! They did, in fact, compile a lengthy email with feedback. As it turns out, the principals of this firm volunteer at student portfolio review sessions, so a big portion of the email was content they already had on hand. They covered everything from different types of creative agencies, to recommendations for job searching in a tough economy. Some of this was pretty basic stuff, but there were also things that I was not at all familiar with.

They also included specific comments about my application. Honestly, as much as I appreciate their feedback, some of this was very difficult to read. I know it’s necessary to learn to accept constructive criticism, but wow, they were kind of harsh in their comments. When I first read through the comments, I was quite upset/frustrated. However, once I let things settle, I was very grateful that they were so direct with me as my job search hasn’t been going too well. No sugarcoating, just brutally honest feedback.

They mentioned that I showed a lot of potential, but felt that my qualifications were in the junior-mid level range. (I had originally applied for a position in the mid-senior level range at this company. Turns out I was way under qualified.) Now for the good news. They asked if I would be interested in freelance consulting for a few projects and have also brought up the possibility of an late spring/early summer internship. This internship could lead to something more permanent. I’m really excited about these opportunities!

{ 45 comments… read them below }

    1. Anonymous*

      Unfortunately, a lot of companies and recruitment agencies are afraid of legal issues if they do try to help you with honest feedback.

  1. JT*

    Very cool. Nice how the application process is leading to benefits for both sides even thought it didn’t work for this specific job.

  2. Dawn*

    Good for them!

    Also sometimes harsh feedback is the best feedback, once you get past your gut reactions to it. The truth can be ugly, but it will always set you free!

  3. Anonymous*

    That’s great! I agree, hearing what you need to hear isn’t always easy. My mentor gave me some brutally honest feedback when I was in college that I definitely needed to hear. It kept me from making mistakes and ending up in a career I wouldn’t have wanted.

    The freelance/internship opportunity sounds really promising. I am really impressed with the company for taking time to give you specific feedback. Even if you don’t end up with a job with them, it will be very helpful to you in your job search, I’m sure.

    I can’t tell from your posts, but are you a recent graduate? It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you are more qualified than you really are. :) I have a masters degree and 5 years of work experience under my belt, but I know I’m nowhere near my coworkers who have 10+ years of experience. Education is important, but it isn’t everything. Experience really does count.

    1. Piper*

      This is what I was thinking, too. If the company is offering you an internship, it sounds like you may have fallen into the recent graduate trap of thinking you were at mid-senior level. Generally, mid-senior level requires several years of experience. Heck, I have a master’s plus 10 years of experience (plus a management title from my previous job) and I get rejected as under-qualified for some of those positions!

      It’s good that this firm followed up! That’s huge!

      1. Original Poster*

        Actually, I graduated 5 years ago from an Art Institute, not a 4-year college. I’ve often felt that my education was a decent foundation, but not quite enough to get me to where I want to be. I’ve been working at in-house creative positions, which can often be not quite as challenging/rigorous as the work in companies like this one.

        I suppose it’s less about X years working and more about real, applicable experience. A lot of the issues which this company brought up in their emails are completely new concepts to me. I guess my education and past positions really have not trained me for this.

        I’ve been interested in applying for internships, but many companies limit internships to recent graduates. It’s refreshing that this company makes internships available to anyone who is interested in growing.

        1. Piper*

          Ah, yes well, but with only 5 years of experience I can see why you aren’t quite qualified for those senior level jobs, especially the ones that like to pre-qualify people by requiring a 4-year degree (whether that’s right or wrong is probably a different post) plus 7-10 years of experience (which is typically the number I see in my industry). Although, when I said years of experience, I did mean relevant, applicable years of experience (I haven’t been waiting tables and then trying to get a job as a senior widget maker or anything). :-)

          It’s a competitive world out there and it sounds like you’re in a similar field to me. Experience counts. Good for you for exploring your options and count your blessings that you can afford to do an internship to gain experience where this company feels you’re lacking.

          1. Original Poster*

            Thanks, Piper! I honestly didn’t realize that senior level could start at 7+ years of experience. Good to know.

            In general, I wish all companies would make their job postings more specific. It can be hard to get a sense of what firms looking for when they just say junior, mid-level, senior, especially when that also differs from company to company even if the job title is the same.

            1. saro*

              I agree, I do wish that the job postings would be more specific.

              Good for you for actually paying attention to the feedback.

  4. Mike C.*

    That’s really great that they did this for you. It’s never easy to take criticism like that, but in the end they basically gave you a bullet point list of what you need to do to increase your odds at landing a new job. That was incredibly cool of them to do so.

    Good luck in your search!

  5. fposte*

    Wow, I really didn’t expect that. I wonder if they do that for all candidates, or if the fact that they saw you as hireable in another category made them want to take more time with you?

    Either way, congratulations!

  6. just another hiring manager...*

    I have to admit, I’m curious about what the “harsh” feedback was… Regardless of what it was though, the OP needs to actively work on addressing the areas of improvement laid out. Moreover, if the OP takes the freelance and/or internship opportunities, addressing the feedback is even more important.

    1. Lisa*

      I’m nitpicking here, but I’d say he needs to evaluate the feedback and select areas of improvement to work actively on. Taking all the feedback you’re given without thinking critically about it can be as bad as not taking any of it.

      1. Original Poster*

        Hmm, I’d have to say the feedback was not so much harsh in terms of its content, but rather the way it was delivered. They made some valid points, but if I were in their position, I think I would have been a little more tactful and delicate in my language? Something like that.

        You both make good points about addressing the feedback. I will definitely be evaluating their comments further. After all, this is the response from just 1 company. Thanks!

        1. Anonymous*

          I’m curious too. Can you give an example or write something along the lines of how it was delivered?

          1. fposte*

            I’m curious as well. Was it really harsh (“This layout totally sucks”; “Nobody of your claimed experience would actually make this rookie error”) or was it just not softened (“Here are the flaws on this page: this layout is garish and unbalanced, the font is thematically inappropriate, the relationships inconsistent, etc.”)? When you’re working off of bullet-point-type notes, it takes a lot of time to turn that into a softened narrative, so that can happen a lot.

            But mostly I’m just curious.

            1. Original Poster*

              Some examples. I’m paraphrasing a little here.

              “Your projects show great potential, but your website is poorly executed and severely lacks a certain level of sophistication. Web design may not be your main area of expertise, but your website looked like something designed by a student, not a designer with 5 years in the field.” (They, however, did include some specific ways to improve.)

              “Your cover letter was significantly weaker than your resume. It sounded like you were fresh out of college with little to no experience. We couldn’t pinpoint exactly why it gave us that impression. Perhaps you should revise some of the language to be more compelling, especially when talking about design.”

              (In an earlier email, they asked what my dream design project was.) “Your answer sounds completely generic and kind of boring. I’ll be completely frank: if that really is your DREAM project, the agency setting is not a good fit for you at all. You may be better suited to do production instead of design.”

              “With your skills and background, you’re going to have a hard time finding an employer who will be willing to pay you $45-48k.” (They basically suggested that my range was about $10k too high. Granted, I am currently earning about $35k at my present job. I guess I was too ambitious.)

              Thoughts? Was it fair of me to feel that this was a bit harsh? Did I overreact?

              1. Anonymous*

                It certainly seems to be quite blunt, but I think the key thing is that specific suggestions were included (e.g. for the website). Look at those carefully, and assess them on their own merits, ignoring what you feel about the tone (you may have to come back to it a few times with a day or so in between to be able to do this). And remember – in email, lots of nuances get lost in both directions.

              2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Yes, it’s definitely worded more harshly than it needed to be (although the substance is valuable feedback). Some people aren’t especially skilled with putting feedback diplomatically, particularly in writing.

              3. Ouch*

                I certainly think that criticism was rather harsh and while I do welcome criticism, it certainly would have hurt my feelings if directed towards me.

                There were good suggestions in there, true, but they were worded poorly.

              4. fposte*

                It’s certainly tough to read about your own stuff, but it’s not mean or personal. And boy, is it informative.

                So I don’t think you were oversensitive to find it daunting–yeah, I’d have put that away for a few days until I could read it without my heart pounding–but I also don’t think it was inappropriate on their part, especially given the considerable generosity of the feedback. I think it would be really rare to get this level of helpful candor with this extent of detail from somebody who took the additional time to gently start up and sandwich the advice with encouragement. It was a great and unexpected gift in a unattractive wrapping, and it sounds like your response, which was to quail a little and then really think through the points made, was perfectly appropriate.

              5. Anonymous*

                That critique is actually well done for the creative world. It gives you clear cut comments on what is weak or at cross purposes to your interests. An example of a bad critique is the one my husband got where the interviewer looked at his portfolio, laughed at him, and said “You think you’re going to get work with THAT portfolio?!” then basically ended the interview. (Side note: that was over 20 years ago and my husband is a highly regarded person in his field, while the interviewer has fallen off the face of the earth.)

                It sounds like after you got over the initial shock, you are handling the criticism well. All of the professional artists I know never consider their work beyond criticism, and most routinely spend time soliciting tough criticisms from other artists. It’s also good to keep in mind that this is a pursuit in which time dedicated generally means very little if the skill isn’t there. In other words, if you continued working for the next 7 years but never addressed the issues they brought up, you’d be no closer to that senior position than you are right now. I know plenty of artists in their 40’s and 50’s who are no closer to senior positions today than they were in their. 20’s bc they never bothered trying to fix anything. I also know kids that are only 2-3 years out of school but are helming major projects bc they worked like crazy to hone their skills. So always keep an open mind and constantly work to get better, and you’ll do well!

        2. Ellie H.*

          This would really bother me and maybe turn me off from working with the company. I freely admit that I am over-sensitive but my reaction to what I perceive as “harsh criticism” is to totally shut down and want to slink away. It just ruins me for anything subsequently productive – I can’t react pragmatically to harsh criticism at all. If I’m in a position of having to criticize others (e.g. with editing or interview reports) I take great pains to word it precisely and diplomatically and I wish others would do the same with me. I totally get that this is my problem alone and not something other people have a legitimate responsibility to change their behavior about, but that’s how I’d react if I were in the OP’s situation.

      2. Anonymous*

        I tend to agree with this. Let’s use a close parallel: resumes. If I give my resume to 20 people, I’ll get 20 correction, with the last 15 likely not being materially beneficial. If I try to keep everybody happy, then I’m just wasting time.

        One other piece of advice I’d give the OP: Pay close attention to “fit” issues. If you’re really not a fit for the organization, think twice about changing the behavior if you’re comfortable with who you are. On the one hand, don’t take this to an extreme, but OTOH, if they were (as an example) to come across as an overly formal organization, and that’s just not you, accept it without losing any sleep.

        1. Original Poster*

          Thanks for the advice! I’ll keep that in mind throughout my job search. I agree that I wouldn’t want to change my behavior just to fit in with an organization.

        2. Lils*

          I agree that you should consider fit. I would think twice about working permanently for an organization where this kind of communication *could* be an everyday experience. Although the feedback was an unusual and helpful opportunity for you, I do agree with you that it could have been just as helpful if written more diplomatically. I’ve got to wonder if the tone of the email reflects the tone of everyday work life at this company. Be cautious…but the internship is a perfect way to find out more, though, so I still think that’s a great idea.

  7. Joanna Reichert*

    The fact that this company cares enough to visualize where you could be happy and want to give you a hand to get you there . . . . . . is there a “Hope for Humanity – Like!” button?? : )

  8. Steve G*

    Sorry for this….I had the same sort of frustrations in my 20s – on paper, we all look the same. One person works 55 hours a week on all of the difficult assignments and is rated the same as someone doing the minimum of 40 hour, paper pushing, and you look the same on paper because of your years of experience. At some point, you will demand more $ than that other person, and I wish you happiness until that happens for you.

    1. Piper*

      Sorry, but I don’t think the length of time (ie, hours put in) is directly correlated to effectiveness and accomplishments. I strongly disagree with the notion of working longer just to put in face time. Someone who works 40 hours per week can have a huge list of accomplishments because they are an effective worker whereas someone who puts in “face time” may not have as many accomplishments even though they spend more “time” in the office. If you really feel that the “paper pusher” is rated the same as you, try taking a look at your accomplishments (beyond “I worked more hours!”) and stand out that way.

      The bottom line isn’t how many hours you worked. It’s what you accomplished and that’s what makes your resume stand out, not time punched into the clock. I don’t think people are just looking for x years of experience. They are looking for relevant years of experience that show a track record of accomplishment.

        1. Anonymous*

          Agreed that it is not about hours at all. Just because someone consistently pulls longer hours at work doesn’t necessarily mean they are getting more work done or performing their job better. People with great time management skills and are great at their job may be able to accomplish their assigned tasks much quicker than someone who is inexperienced and poorly organized— this certainly doesn’t make the latter a better hire.

          1. XYZ*

            It’s definitely not about hours. Just because someone is physically in the office for a longer period of time, doesn’t mean they’re actually accomplishing more.

            I once worked at a company where my coworker (similar responsibilities and job title as me and a couple other coworkers) was frequently staying late to complete projects. At first, it gave the impression that she was working much harder than the rest of the team. In time, our supervisor realized that it was because she was frequently taking long lunches, surfing the web all day, and chatting with friends on the phone. She may have spent more time IN the office than we did, but she certainly wasn’t accomplishing more.

  9. TMM*

    I’d say you are really lucky they took the time to help you out with feedback since companies/recruiters rarely have time to do something this time-consuming.
    As a long-time recruiter, I think you come off as a selfish for dissing them because they weren’t diplomatic. Seriously? Count your blessings they even bothered and let’s hope they don’t ever read this blog or you won’t be getting that internship they so generoulsy offerred.

    1. Original Poster*

      I do consider myself to be incredibly lucky in this situation. However, this company has never met me in person or even spoken with me over the phone. Communication has been entirely via email. That’s the reason I was a little bothered by the lack of diplomacy. Certain elements of communication (ie. tone of voice) do get lost via email. Perhaps I was overrating and need to develop a thicker skin.

      1. Anonymous*

        Though I think you overreacted, you recovered quite well. None of those comments struck me as harsh – in fact, I believe that was a strong critique. (Oddly, I have mental image in my head of your work, as I have given or thought this feedback before!) I think how you accepted the critique speaks volumes for your potential; this may be something to refer to in an interview or cover letter down the road.

        1. saro*

          I agree. OP recovered quite well, let’s not criticize him/her for the initial reaction – it’s not like s/he wrote anything in response (right?!).

  10. Anonymous*

    The one red flag that popped up in my head is, the commentator may be a total control freak as this somewhat resembles passive aggressive behavior on the part of the employer. It is great, but is it also a way in which he/she keeps their own ego inflated? Would you be working for this person directly? and would every project be treated this same way? never to reach their ideal of perfect? Just something to chew on.

    1. fposte*

      Wait, how is this passive aggressive? They gave feedback when it was sought, which boiled down to a candidate’s aiming too high for his current skill set, and then offered him a more fitting position, which he’s considering taking. And it sounds like they were correct. It’s not like it was an unsolicited assessment included in a rejection letter. And none of these criticisms seem really picky–the cover letter thing is a little subjective, but they’re so knowledgeable in other ways that I suspect they’ve made a fair call there as well.

      I totally agree that a candidate needs to consider fit, and that if you really aren’t comfortable with bluntness this isn’t a workplace for you. But there are a lot of knowledgeable, helpful people who don’t take a lot of time to save feelings when asked to give advice, and they’re more likely to tell you something tough but important to hear than anybody else.

      There is, in fact, a lot of kindness in this; it’s just not in the manner of expression.

      1. Anonymous*

        Well put. I’d also add that if a candidate can’t take being told about perceived flaws in their artwork without feeling like it’s a personal attack, they are probably not suited for an industry where constant negative feedback is a daily occurrence.

        Professional artists and designers must be prepared to face a barrage of criticisms, some of which are fully justified and reasonable (and which the artist/designer may already be aware of, but might not have a solution for), but some of which are completely out of left field and either ridiculously vague (“Can it have more pop?” — Pop? Do you mean contrast, colors, or the images themselves? Or are you just trying to tell me to use Comic Sans because you think it’s more ‘fun’?) or absolutely unreasonable. (“Even though our website is all green, we don’t want you to use green in this ad, because green is unprofessional.” Unprofessional, really? And if it’s so unprofessional, why is your website saturated with it?!) A huge part of being a successful artist is learning how to respond graciously to feedback because it’s going to come to you from every single person who has the ear of the client or manager you are working for. EVERYONE feels they are creative and have an eye for what ‘looks good’, and they love nothing better than to feel like they are rolling up their sleeves and helping you get your job done.

        I’ve worked in the trenches generating artwork and I’ve also been the project manager who gets tasked with sending feedback to the individual artists. Trust me when I tell you there is no way to avoid being asked for tweaks, and the people who get excessively frustrated by that don’t tend to stay in the industry long-term. The only trick I’ve learned to help reduce overall tweaks is to leave a somewhat obvious flaw in the first draft–sometimes just finding that is all a client needs to feel like they’ve given their input, heheheh. ;)

        1. Christine*

          I was hoping someone would bring this up. At a creative agency, designers would need to be prepared to get much more harsh criticism than this from clients (although typically filtered through an account manager/PM who might soften the blow a bit); clients are paying top dollar for something that fits their sometimes vague idea of “awesome.” Ability to accept the feedback, not take it personally, and go back and try again is really key.

          Congratulations on the opportunity to freelance with this company; it sounds like a great place to learn. Now, I’m off to continue speculating about who it is. :-)

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