how to reject a job candidate

Most job applicants put a lot of effort into applying for jobs: reading up on the company, crafting a tailored cover letter, practicing answers to likely questions, and thinking about how they could best offer something of value. They may even take a day off work and spend time and money traveling to the interview. But all too often, they never hear back from employers, even after face-to-face interviews, and instead are left waiting and wondering what happened.

As an interviewer, be sure that you don’t do this to your candidates. Take measures to ensure that everyone who applies for a job with you hears some kind of response back. These candidates could be your future customers, after all, or they might be perfect for another opening down the road, and how you handle rejections will give them an impression, good or bad, of your organization.

If you don’t use an automated system that will send rejections for you, the fastest way to handle rejections is to have two standard email templates – one for people you haven’t interviewed and one for people you have. You can always tailor them if you want to add anything for a particular candidate.

For instance:

“Thank you for applying for a position with XYZ Company. Although we won’t be able to move your application forward, we really appreciate your interest in working with us and wish you the best in your search.”

“Thanks so much for talking with me last week. I really enjoyed speaking with you. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to move you forward in our hiring process. However, I greatly appreciate your interest in working with us and wish you the best of luck in your search.”

Should you provide feedback?

Some interviewers are willing to provide feedback to rejected candidates and others aren’t. And many employers have policies against giving feedback out of fear of inadvertently creating legal risk. But if your employer doesn’t prohibit it, offering feedback is a kind thing to do, especially if the reason is easily articulable, such as that you were looking for someone with more experience in a certain area, or stronger writing skills. (That said, you probably don’t want to explain to a candidate that she came to the interview dressed like a stripper or that he just seemed a little crazy, nor are you obligated to.)

What about internal candidates?

Internal candidates who are already working for your company deserve more. If you’re rejecting an internal candidate, don’t simply send a form rejection notice, or you risk demoralizing good employees. Instead, consider doing it in person, and try to provide feedback about what the person could do to be a stronger candidate in the future.

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Thanks for the article. I wish I could print this out and send it to every employer on the planet. The complete disregard for candidates’ time, money, and effort is rampant (as we all know) and by now it is shocking to get any kind of response. I once got annoyed when I had gone through a lot of hoops with one potential employer, and after hearing nothing I finally got a one sentence form email that didn’t even have my name in it. But now I realize that even a depersonalized form letter is more than most companies can offer.

    I do have one procedural nitpick that I experienced recently. I interviewed 2 times with a non-profit and was waiting for a response. One day I received a call from a number with their area code! Score!!!! Only to find out that they called me to say that they had picked someone else! I was stunned because before I picked up the phone I was brimming with excitement. I probably sounded way too happy to be getting a turn-down because I couldn’t even process what was happening fast enough. Long story short, please reject via email! Phone calls should be great news.

    1. Anonymous*

      This x∞

      After what I thought was a positive interview, I received a rejection email after the manager was unable to reach me by phone. She also left a VM. Good thing I saw the email first, because based on her voicemail, I would have totally thought I’d be moving on to the next round. She sounded so perky and positive. TOTALLY CRUSHED!

    2. Ariancita*

      Although one exception that I thought was appropriate: I went through a very rigorous interview process, was a top candidate (their words), and was called weekly by the internal recruiter (because they knew it was going to be a long process and wanted to stay in active touch since I was a top candidate). The job went to someone else, but they called me and told me personally (was a really nice conversation). I felt that was appropriate because of the kind of contact they were maintaining all through the process. It would have been weird to then get an email rejection.

      1. anon-2*

        Giving the unsuccessful job applicant a phone call after he/she has been through the interview cycle is one of the most professional things that you can do. It’s uncomfortable, to be sure, but most of the time a candidate appreciates the candor, and thanks.

        It also carries forward — there was one computer company in my area which failed and is gone. But in its heyday, it operated its human resources / interview process like a three ring circus, with three entourages of clowns.

        And that followed them into the commercial workplace and hurt them. Anyone who went through that cycle and was rejected (or, in my case, withdrew from the application process out of disgust) remembers what happened there — and remembered that when it came time to be a customer or client of that company later on down the road.

        If you’re a manager — unless sadism and/or disrespect is part of your psyche — do the right thing, take three minutes and make that phone call. You’ll be better off. And, just think, months or years later, the tables could be reversed and YOU might be seeking employment from today’s rejectee.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Except that there are tons of candidates who will tell you (as many of them have done here) that they don’t want a phone call and strongly prefer an email :)

  2. Anonymous*

    We just went through the process of hiring a new nanny, and I used an online website to screen candidates. Out of about 35 applicants, we phone interviewed two, Skyped with one, and in person interviewed 4. It was hard on the people we interviewed early on because we had to interview over weekends due to our work schedules so some folks had to wait a few weeks for a response. I did get an email or two through the site asking if the position was still available, and one person reminded me that they would need to give notice.

    I felt bad, but we were constrained by our interview schedule and did not want to respond to anyone until we had a formal acceptance from our candidate. I took care to email everyone through the service and thank them for interviewing and to tell them we had filled the job and that it was a tough decision with so many great choices. Pretty standard, and not true for all of them.

    There was one candidate that we were very interested in but a couple of little things bothered us- but there is no way I would ever provide that sort of feedback to someone. Sometimes it’s a gut thing-what are you going to say? Still, I wish there was a way to provide some helpful feedback to a few people about their appearance, spelling, etc but that’s for them to figure out.

    I’m glad I went through this on a small scale because now that I’ve been on the other side I get the whole process much more.

  3. I don't like rejecting people*

    Thank you!!! This is so timely, I need to send out some rejections this week and I have been dreading it :(

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Send them now, today! Those candidates are waiting and wondering if they have the job, and some of them (unwisely) aren’t moving as aggressively on other jobs while they wait to hear from you. Once you know you’re absolutely rejecting someone, don’t stall!

  4. Suzanne*

    I just got rejected a few weeks ago for a job I really wanted. They were nice enough to call (and leave a message–thankfully, I was not at home) and nice enough to tell me that I was their second choice only because I had less experience in the field that the person the chose.
    How sad is it, though, that although I was being turned down, I was excited to get the rejection personally and to get positive feedback about my interview?
    Employers, please, try to remember we prospective employees are human beings…

    1. Kristinyc*

      A company I was interviewing at sent me weekly, “So sorry this is taking so long! We’ll give you an update next week” emails for a few weeks after my interview, and ultimately ended with a rejection letter. Did I care? Not really. I was just happy to have any idea about where I stood in the process to begin with! I sent the HR coordinator and CCed her boss (because I had met them both) an email thanking her for updating me throughout the process. Makes SUCH a huge difference!

  5. Anonymous*

    I do the screening prior to interviews. It’s interesting being on the they side of the hiring process, even if it’s just the early stage. I always make sure to get back to the candidates, including if they weren’t picked to go to the next stage. I’ve been told by coworkers that if they don’t have the experience that I can just not reply but experiencing the interview process as an applicant keeps me from doing that.

  6. ChristineH*

    Great article Alison, as always! I like the email templates you suggest…I know that might be a tedious task, but as a job seeker, I appreciate the closure.

    As for phone calls – I have gotten rejection phone calls before. I can attest to how awkward they can be.

    And, for goodness sakes, don’t call or email to simply say you want to speak to me about a position! One time for an internal position, the HR person sent me an email asking me to come to her office at a given time to talk about the position. Didn’t say why, so I was hopeful. I get there only for her to tell me they hired someone else. The HR office was in another building, so imagine my annoyance for having wasted my time for that!!!

    1. Anonymous*

      And, for goodness sakes, don’t call or email to simply say you want to speak to me about a position!

      Had that one happen to me. Actually came home early, in the interests of having a good connection and peace and quiet to discuss things…. only to be told I was being rejected.

  7. Anonymous*

    I once got rejected personally in response to a thank you/follow up email a few weeks after I sent it. BURN

      1. Anonymous*

        Yes. Simple recap:

        Re: Thank You
        Dear XYZ,
        I’m just writing to let you know we have finally finished interviewing etc & so forth. We offered the job to another candidate and they accepted.

        CC’d to the other department members that sat in on the interview as well.

        Generic rejection letter would have been preferred or you know, just not in response to a thank you email.

  8. De Minimis*

    I’ve only had a couple of rejections by phone, they are awkward for both the interviewer and the applicant. I was not too surprised because the calls arrived at the late end of the timeline they had given me so I was prepared for bad news. I think it was harder on them than it was on me.

    Still really appreciate them making the effort since so many employers don’t even bother to send an e-mail, and one in particular lied about where they were in the process [they had already filled the position when I followed up with them, but told me that they were still evaluating candidates.]

    I have also had the e-mail where they responded to my thank you note by letting me know they were turning me down, that wasn’t fun either, but still better than never hearing anything at all.

    1. Shane*

      I know there are a lot of people here who think that employers should phone to reject candidates that they have interviewed but to be honest I appreciate even a form letter “dear applicant -impressed by your skills and experience but…” response.

      I wish more companies would send out even the simplest rejection email even if the person does not get an interview but the sad fact is that even those organizations with a big expensive online system tend not to even bother to change the status of a job to “filled”

    2. K.*

      I DEFINITELY don’t want a phone rejection. It means I have to manage my response so the rejector doesn’t feel awkward, which is unfair. With an email, if my initial response is to cry or curse or whatever, I can do that in the privacy of my home. And in general, as others have mentioned, a phone call is typically good news, so when it’s bad news, it hurts more.

  9. Demoralized Internal Candidate*

    I echo your advice to contact internal candidates and provide feedback. My employer sent me a form email rejection after they’d formally announced that the search failed and they appointed an interim internal person. At least they notified me, but . . .policy states they’re to notify all internal candidates in person during the hiring process. I understand that there are lots of great candidates, and I may not be the best fit. I do not understand the dismissive and sloppy breach of policy. It tells me I’m not valued and there’s no way I’m moving out of my current position unless I leave.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This is an excellent illustration of why employers need to pay more attention to these kinds of things, because not only have they left you demoralized, but they also might have communicated something they didn’t intend to communicate (“there’s no way I’m moving out of my current position unless I leave”). There might be plenty of opportunities for you to move up (and rejecting you by email instead of in person could simply be the work of a sloppy or new HR assistant), but they’ve left you with a very different impression.

  10. Demoralized Internal Candidate*

    I checked with HR . . . not their fault. Their form rejection goes out to all candidates, but the hiring manager was supposed to notify all internal folks well before that. HR was mortified (again, against policy) and promised to follow up with the HM. After a month, I’ve heard nothing. It’s possible it’s an honest mistake, but on something so important as hiring and retaining good candidates, it’s not one I’m inclined to excuse, especially after they’ve been alerted and given a chance to fix it.

    I’m considering emailing the hiring manager to ask for feedback, but in this culture, that can look aggressive and clueless (as in, “didn’t you get our unspoken message?”). Aaaand another reason to get out.

  11. JustAQuestion*

    Quick question for the political among us: How do you build a community partnership with a nonprofit that rejected you for a marketing/communications/community outreach position?

    I ask because two weeks ago I received a formal rejection notice from a small nonprofit that shares the mission of a large nonprofit with which I am currently volunteering. The interviewers both knew of my volunteer work, which incidentally helped me land the interview, and are aware of the work I’m doing. Despite our shared passion for the cause, the organization opted to go with someone who has more marketing experience, which is their prerogative.

    Now, I am in the position of gathering resources for the annual fall event, and will likely need to contact the person who was hired for the position. My organization and the one that turned me down have collaborated for at least the past two years, so normally it wouldn’t be a point of concern.

    I remain a bit self-conscious about approaching the new hire, especially if she mentions my request to the executive director, who made the decision to reject my application.

    Any thoughts, ideas or suggestions on how to handle this? Should I just pretend like I never interviewed with the org, and make an ask of help as I would for any other fellow nonprofit?

    The comments from this blog usually give me much food for thought, so I am eager to see if anyone can provide some assistance and/or reassurance about this. My main anxiety is about embarrassing myself, my org, or alienating the new marketing person.

    Thanks for reading!

    1. Henning Makholm*

      The only way that can become embarrassing is if you go out of the way to make it so.Their new hire probably doesn’t even know that you were in the running for their current job, and there seems to be no reason for you to even mention it. That is not “pretending you never interviewed”, since irrelevant details like that are not that person’s business, and not something anyone would reasonably expect you to disclose to them spontaneously anyway.

      Their executive director might remember your name from the interviews, but so what? From what you write, there is no reason to think they would find it annoying or strange that someone they once interviewed is now in contact with their organization for other reasons. Simply because they didn’t hire you doesn’t mean that they think you stink and would prefer never to be reminded of you again ever under any circumstances. It just means that the one they did hire was even more fantastic than you.

    2. fposte*

      There’s a lot of small-worldism with our hiring, and we do a lot of subsequent work with people we rejected. It’s no big thing on our side–we get lots of good people applying and we’d be happy to have you working with us even if we didn’t have you working for us. There’s no reason for a candidate to be embarrassed about having applied for a job–that’s what job postings are there for.

      I do feel more awkward when it’s a volunteer at my organization who’s been rejected for a paid position, but that’s something I need to get better at, not something that should be the applicant’s problem.

      1. JustAQuestion*

        Thank you for the lovely response, fposte!

        I suppose I’m feeling silly about it because I’m relatively new the the closely knit world of nonprofit organizations.

        Your kind comments about working with someone to whom your org did not offer the position are taken to heart. They go very well with AAM’s interview guide that makes a point of stating anyone interviewed for a position is qualified for it, but others may be more experienced and present an even better fit.

        Again, I truly appreciate your words and sentiment.

      2. V*

        I agree. The fact that you were chosen for an interview means that they have a high opinion of you. The exception to that would be if you completely blew the interview and, even then, I’d think it would need to be something really egregious. They can only pick one person for every job, doesn’t mean that they weren’t impressed by anyone else.

  12. Suzanne*

    I wonder, too, what is the protocol for asking to link on LinkedIn with a hiring manager that just rejected you? I would love to be considered for another position at the company I mentioned above and would like to connect with the people who interviewed me, but I’m not sure if that is proper or a big faux pas. Ideas, anyone?

  13. ruby*

    Caveat: I know this is nit-picky but I know from reading this site (and my own experience), that job seekers scrutinize every communication from potential employers.

    “Although we won’t be able to move your application forward,”
    “Unfortunately, I won’t be able to move you forward”

    I think the “won’t be able to” language is a bit of a cop opt. I think the employer should own the decision rather than using a passive voice.

    “Although we have decided not to move your application forward,”
    “Unfortunately, I have decided not to move you forward” or “Unfortunately, you will not be moving forward in the hiring process.”

    Consider the nit picked :)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’ve actually thought about this a lot. I think the softened language is nicer, and that “you will not be moving forward” is unnecessarily abrasive/harsh.

      In my opinion, it’s not really that different from choosing not to say “I don’t want to attend your party” in favor of “I’m not going to able to attend your party.” I think it’s reasonable to be able to use softer language that still conveys what you need to convey.

      1. Merck*

        Read the comments *after* sending an email rejection. When I got to this part, I put: “Unfortunately, your candidacy did not move forward in the hiring process.”

  14. Elizabeth West*

    Ha! Two jobs I interviewed for, one at a non-profit and the other at a benefits administrator company, are back up. !!!

    The non-profit blew me off completely. I thought about sending them one of AAM’s “you’re rude” things, but didn’t. It was gratifying to imagine it though. :)

    The other one did send me an email, but their website is a joke and I was told it’s because the boss thinks he knows how to write (he doesn’t) and won’t let anyone fix it. I’m deathly afraid that one will call me back and ask me to come in again. I really liked the lady who would be my boss, however. But if they didn’t want me they won’t now either. Maybe I dodged a bullet with that one, because honestly, the website is AWFUL. I don’t know how rigid the boss would be over other things.

  15. Catbertismy hero*

    I absolutely agree with treating internal candidates differently, both before and after the interview. Since we want to promote from within, we talk to the candidates ahead of time and suggest they treat the process as if they are an outsider (do research, understand what that part of the organization does, dress up for the interview, etc.), but also to take advantage of their status as an insider (talk to the hiring manager in advance, talk to the incumbent if possible, talk to other people in the department).

    1. Catbertismy hero*

      Almost forgot that we also debrief the internal candidates afterward if they are unsuccessful.

      For external candidates that we interviewed, we send rejection letters.

  16. W*

    I was recently rejected as an internal candidate. They called to let me know that it was a tough decision and they decided to go with the other internal candidate. Second place sucks.
    When I asked for some feedback she went on and on…. Not that she was going on and on regarding my lack of skills but just couldn’t stop talking. Possibly she was uncomfortable and wanted to make me feel better (she didn’t).

  17. M*

    Having some incredible experiences too. My worst was as a journalist being exploited by a media company (fixed contract so much a month that only paid for a couple of hours a day when much more was hours’ input required to do job so like a mug I’d done the extra time for no payment). They decided to amalgamate by job with others’ jobs and I could apply. No one else being amalgamated wanted to apply so didn’t bother. Here’s what happened to me. I had to wait seven weeks for an interview while I carried on working in my contract (you can imagine how hard I worked to try to get the job). When I got to the interview the interviewer mucked about and did not start on time. She then pulled out stacks of CVs. Although I had been working there for a year she did not seem to know what I had done and what experience I had. She had never done my job before. After the interview she did not ring. I contacted her a week later, she said she had more to interview. On the last day of contract I was updated work I had written on my last article on the website when my access went down. At this point I knew I had not got the new job which was 4 times as much work and reduced pay per hour. I hoped I would be paid for the last month at that point. About a week later I got a call from the interviewer (my previous boss) to say sorry I had not got the job. I said I’d worked that one out by getting cut off. She said I would be OK for a reference and she would consider me for future roles. I said no thankyou I had felt too exploited. This made her start arguing with me. I said I just wanted a reference and to go. She said she would tell employers what she thought of me. I said I did not want to get into an argument I just wanted the fair reference I deserved as did all the others. So don’t know what sort of ref I am getting but I have not got another job. I do have an email from her from previously congratulating me on good work and saying that it was only due to restructuring that my job was going. Go time to get out. Don’t want to get involved with any potential stressed out working bunny boilers do you?

  18. M*

    Sorry just re-read what I said and see I made some typos (due to getting used to my brand new glasses) I meant I was still updating work when my access went down and was still waiting to hear if I had got the new job so knew I had not got it. I also meant to say Good time to get out not Got time to get out. I was coming up with the ideas and running and writing a local news website for the company. Took big galleries of pics and video too. In all doing 55 piece of work p/m for £500 gross. I had had to provide my own computer, camera and video camera. I bought a smartphone because the new job required it for pics. All in all I spent over £1,000 out of the £6,000 I earnt gross on this equipment. Going the extra mile I had been up writing til sometimes later than 1am to beat other town journalists to get stories up to get page views to make money for the company. Not long after I discovered a Twitter site that had been started by my replacement months before. I found a post dating back before we were told our jobs were going in which the new hire had let out to someone on twitter that she was the new journalist. So I had been lied to about the new job being open to me throughout the last 2 months of my contract. I wouldn’t mind but the new person is clearing putting in less effort to the site.
    As they say that’s life, but at least I know they have lost out as well as me!

  19. M*

    Sorry to post again. Just re-reading and see there were a lot more typos in the text I typed here. Not going to correct them you know what you have seen. Got new varifocal glasses yesterday and clearly the prescription is not right! Retaining sense of humour here as I used to be a very good subeditor employed by same company for several years. Must seriously go back to opticians before I apply for any more jobs!

  20. A_broken_man*

    From a position I really wanted many years ago I received an email with an option to call to discuss why I didn’t get it, which I did and they gave me constructive criticism which I could use. I think this is the best and certainly will serve both employer and employee better.

    Unfortunately this was the last time I have had anything like that and now I am looking for a position with huge companies who apparently pride themselves on their employees and how well they treat them are absolutely horrible to candidates. I have been to interviews with 7 stages before, interviews, presentations, logic tests, case studies etc and then to have a generic email at the end after weeks is crushing. Suddenly no one wants to talk to you recruitment companies suddenly won’t take your calls and the company won’t provide feedback. All you can do is dust yourself down put the money and time wasted and continue the search, it’s painful and hurtful and wonder if any of these Partners/Mangers in these firms actually think about what it was like.
    rant over…

  21. Sydney*

    I know this article is old, but I wanted to add that this was extremely helpful. I am currently hiring for a position at my company and have to reject many candidates. Thank you, Alison!

  22. anxious*

    I just got a mail from HR of a company I interviewed a month back (phone + onsite) and having passed one stage of hiring (committee, what else) and waiting for review from second committee. The mail simply said “do you have time to talk today” I missed the mail before end of working hours, now have to wait for 5 days (christmas hols) :( to know whether it is good/bad news! Considering earlier mails began by saying “good news” and stuff like that, i am almost sure it is a rejection phone call, but the wait is killing me — just venting here !

  23. D88*

    I recently received a strange reply around 3 weeks after interview. I had gone through an initial interview with a technical demonstration and was taken out for lunch afterwards, within a week I was invited to meet the CEO at short notice. This turned out to be a chat with almost no work related questioning aside from availability questions. It was highly enjoyable, and I was told I had performed well at the initial technical demonstration. After 3 weeks of no reply, I sent a brief follow up reaffirming my interest and asking when a decision was likely to be made. I received this:

    “Sorry that it’s taken a while to respond, but I’ve been out of the office for a couple days. We haven’t forgotten about you, but we also have not finalised our selection for the position. This will take another week or so. In the meantime, if something else turns up for you job-wise then please consider it seriously, we wouldn’t want to hold you back.

    Best of Luck”

    I’m pretty sure this is a rejection but don’t know the best way to respond. Everything has been very cordial and amiable. Any ideas. Everyone I know is stumped :(

    Regards

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s not a rejection. It means exactly what it says: They haven’t finished their process yet and that will take another week or so. But they don’t want you to turn down other offers because they can’t make you any promises (in either direction).

      1. D88*

        Ahhh thanks for replying so quickly. I love your site. What I personally gathered from the email was that it’s not final, but you are not the first choice.

        Would you recommend replying with “Thank you for taking the time responding to me, I look forward to hearing from you when you have completed your selection process. Company X remain my ideal organisation to work for”?

  24. K*

    I was rejected after an interview, but have just been called for a telephone debriefing. what does this mean?

  25. MC*

    We are a new small company and need to tell an unsuccessful candidate that we decided not to go with him. Although he was very close to the person we chose (only they had more experience), we would like to consider him if any suitable role comes up in the future. The only thing is I called him earlier in the week that we would like to see him for a one on one interview… but now obviously we’re not going ahead with that.

    How should I tell him? email or phone call?

Comments are closed.