Cut & Polish

Best Practices for Giving Feedback to Rejected Candidates

If you were a recruiting professional in the early days of COVID, you may remember a viral LinkedIn post by a recruiter who’d lost her job due to the pandemic. Sophie’s grievance had to do with her experience of rejection emails during her subsequent job search. And her post offered some insight—straight from an industry professional—about the importance of offering feedback to rejected candidates:

Sophie’s advice—“give them a call, thank them for their time, and give some actionable feedback or at least insight into why the decision was made”—is no less pertinent today than it was in the spring of 2020. Indeed, if the span of the pandemic has taught talent acquisition anything, it's that candidate experience is—and will continue to be—the ultimate differentiator between a miss and a hire.

We get it: having to tell someone that you’re not offering them the role they’ve invested both time and emotional energy into is not an enviable position. It’s not easy to be on either side of bad news; but when done well, giving feedback to rejected candidates benefits everyone involved. It gives talent actionable advice that makes them even stronger candidates over the long term; and it does a world of good for your talent brand—because you’ve humanized the candidate experience through to the end, with empathy and compassion and goodwill.

Of course, you likely won’t be able to give feedback on every application sent your way; but if a candidate has engaged in anything from a phone screen to an onsite interview to a technical test, they deserve some acknowledgement of their time and effort. A good rule of thumb is that the more time the candidate has spent in process, the more feedback you should give.

We’ve heard plenty of reasons why recruiters and hiring managers don’t take the time to give feedback. It takes time out of a busy day or a bustling search to find the right candidate. It’s uncomfortable. There’s a fear of “doing it wrong,” of upsetting the candidate, or of creating legal risks or backlash for your organization. And since giving feedback isn’t a legal requirement, the majority of employers don’t give it: 70% of candidates receive no feedback after being rejected post-phone screen, and 54% receive no feedback after being rejected post-interview. It’s much easier to send out a carefully-crafted rejection letter and carry on.

But you don’t have to put yourself in talent’s shoes (though you should!) to imagine how that silence affects the candidate experience, because the data is already there: 94% of candidates want to receive feedback after they’ve interviewed with you. They don’t want to be left wondering or guessing what they did wrong—especially if they were under the impression that the interview went well. And they want to know where they can improve, so they can do better in their next interview with their next company.

These are professionals you’re working with; and you’re doing them a great disservice if you’re not helping them along their career paths by offering valuable insights and information that will help them thrive. Doing so is a show of kindness and respect—for their present time, and for their future career.

If your company allows recruiters and hiring managers to give feedback to rejected candidates, we recommend building it into your hiring workflow. Not all candidates will request feedback and personalized insights on their performance after they’ve been rejected, though most of them will if given the opportunity to ask. And you should have a clear and consistent policy for those that do. Giving feedback right—with timeliness, clarity, compassion, and an evident desire to help—can build (and keep) bridges. There are plenty of other upsides. We’ll discuss these—as well as best practices—below.

Why Giving Feedback to Rejected Candidates Matters

There’s the obvious reason for feedback, which is respect and professional courtesy. But here are a few other reasons why giving feedback is an important element of candidate rejection:

It improves your candidates. Providing interview feedback allows candidates to grow professionally. We hear what you’re thinking: why would you spend valuable time helping the candidates who are going to find work elsewhere improve? Because when candidates are offered constructive feedback, they’re 4x more likely to consider your company for a future opportunity. So think of this current work as benefiting your future pipeline.

It improves candidate experience—and therefore, your talent brand. Offering feedback after an interview process shows that your company values the professional development not only of its future employees, but of the talent market as a whole—and of them, specifically. This fosters goodwill and enhances the candidate experience.

You know the numbers: 72% of talent will shout out their bad candidate experiences; 82% of talent say they wouldn’t work at a company with a bad reputation; 64% of talent say they’d be less likely to be customers of your business after a bad candidate experience. But the reverse is also true: positive experiences increase the likelihood that talent will talk you up to their networks, purchase your products, and apply for open roles with you again. This translates to positive public perception—which ultimately makes hiring easier.

It strengthens your hiring process. Having a structured system in place for delivering feedback means you have a detailed process for sorting out finalists. It demands clarity on what makes a good candidate, because you’re forced to articulate why certain candidates don’t make the cut. And the more clarity you have on what makes a good candidate, the better you are at spotting them and inviting them in. Identifying patterns in your candidate feedback can also help you observe weak spots in your hiring process.

For example, if you discover that you’re consistently telling candidates they don’t have the experience you’re looking for, this may alert you to the fact that your job description needs to be clearer about requirements. On the other hand, you may discover that your phone screens need to do a better job of weeding out candidates early on in process—perhaps you’ve overlooked a necessary skill set, or the questions posed during those phone screens haven’t been rigorous enough. Collecting these data points helps you refine your hiring. “The feedback conversation” is clearly a crucial candidate touchpoint.

How to Give Feedback to Unsuccessful Candidates

1. Standardize Your Process

Thing one before you pick up the phone to give any candidate feedback is to ensure you have a system in place. Your interview process should be standardized so that you’re asking the same set of questions of every candidate; and your interviewers should take careful notes immediately after every interview so you can stick to the facts and ensure the insights you provide each candidate align with the role’s qualifications and demands.

Candidate scorecards are great for this. They ensure that everyone involved in interviews delivers feedback in the same format, and according to the same set of criteria. Having that feedback in one place makes it easier for you to deliver it to the candidate. Plus, maintaining detailed notes on why candidates were hired or rejected ensures you don’t find yourself in any precarious legal positions. Other things you’ll want to standardize include channel (we recommend the phone for those who’ve been deep in process with you) and the timeframe in which you get back to them.

2. Be Timely

The moment you know you won’t be moving a candidate to the next round, they should know too. It’s nerve-wracking waiting on career news; and even bad news dissolves the anxiety of the unknown and allows candidates to move on—which may mean accepting other offers that are on the table. A best practice is to contact candidates within 48 hours after their interview. Don’t put them in a position to delay or turn down other offers in the hopes of working with you; and certainly don’t wait until the new hire has signed or begun working for you. Leaving candidates in limbo will only invite frustration or antagonism. (While we’re at it, the same goes for applicants who don’t even make it to phone screen. These folks you can contact by email; but give them something. Never leave a candidate or an applicant hanging.)

3. Use the Telephone

We know: it’s tempting to avoid a real-time conversation when you’re delivering bad news. But there are a few reasons why a phone call is essential. The first, most obvious, is the humanity of it. The time and effort you take to deliver the news personally—as bad as it may initially feel for the candidate—will translate into professionalism and respect. It gives the candidate an opportunity to ask questions. It gives you the opportunity to ask for feedback on your own process (more on that shortly). It makes it more difficult for rejected candidates to use your words against you—which they can more easily do if the rejection is in writing.

Finally, it’s what candidates want: according to Talent Board’s latest Candidate Experience Benchmark Report, candidate experience improves by nearly 30% if you reject candidates over the phone, rather than through email or text. As LinkedIn’s VP of Global Talent Acquisition Brendan Browne puts it: “Never ever reject a candidate that you’ve spoken to or met with over email. It’s an absolute crime if you do.”

4. Be Specific and Stick to the Facts

Once you’ve delivered the bad news (“we’ve decided not to move forward with you for this position”), ask if they want feedback (“and I’m open to chatting for a few minutes about why—but only if you think those insights from the hiring team would be valuable to you”). You should only ever give feedback to rejected candidates who are open to it. Though if you offer it like this, most of them will.

Your feedback should deliver meaningful, actionable advice that the candidate can take and apply to improve themselves for their next interview—wherever that next interview happens to be. Stick to the facts of what happened in the interview; and wherever possible, correlate your feedback with the job description tied to the position. (Thanks to the JD, candidates already know what would be expected of them in the role. It’s an objective document that laid out the role’s requirements long before you met them; so using the JD as a measure of where the candidate may have fallen short holds you to impartiality.)

But what do we mean by “specific”? Compare these two pieces of feedback: 1) “We were looking for someone with more experience.” 2) “This role requires a lot of interfacing with customers without any managerial oversight; so we need someone with more than two years in a customer-facing role.” The former doesn’t give the candidate any insight into what they can work on, or experience, if they want to be a stronger candidate down the line. The latter lets them know specifically what activities they should focus on—and where they should show leadership—if they ultimately want to come work for you.

As you consider what you’re going to say, cut out any “feeling” language, as well as any language that could be perceived as subjective. If you find yourself starting a sentence with “We felt that…” or “It seemed like you…” those are cues to stop yourself. Try a sentence that begins with “For example…” because it steers you toward the facts.

Maybe you send them their writing sample back with grammatical errors highlighted, rather than just telling them you’re looking for someone with “better writing skills.” Maybe you share the assessment of their technical test. All of this can provide insightful, useful information. What specific skills have yet to be developed? How, specifically, can they improve their interview performance? (“When you asked for a break to collect your thoughts, we realized it might be valuable for you to put yourself in more high-stakes, high-pressure situations in your current role, so you can be a stronger candidate for this one in the future.”)

5. Be Tactful

This means a few things. Pay attention to whether you come off as critical or condescending—and check yourself if you do. “I wasn’t fully convinced by [element X] of your presentation” sounds a lot more generous (and specific!) than “Your presentation wasn’t convincing.” Remember that it’s not just the language, but the tone, that matters. Talk to the candidate like you would a friend—candidly but gently, as if everything you say is in their best interest, with genuine concern for both their feelings and their futures. And don’t argue. The vast majority of candidates will take your feedback well; but if you get a defensive response from a candidate rather than a real desire to understand, have an exit strategy in place.

6. Don’t Compare Candidates

The candidate knows they didn’t get hired because you found a stronger candidate; that’s a given. There’s no need to refer to “the stronger candidate” you found who “showed better leadership skills” than they did. Remember: the point of the feedback is to help the candidate improve. Knowing someone else has better leadership skills is too vague to be useful—and the comment can come off as insulting, or as an “easy out” for you. Keep the feedback focused on this candidate, their performance in the interview, and their relationship to the role. How can they become a stronger candidate in the future?

7. Try a “Praise Sandwich”

Feedback doesn’t just show a candidate where they need to improve; it also emphasizes what they do well so they can keep doing it. Your candidate certainly has strengths. After all, they got the interview in the first place because there was a lot about them that you felt enthusiastic about. Reminding them of these things gives them the encouragement to move forward in their search, and lets them know what to continue to highlight in themselves.

The praise sandwich begins on a positive, offers critical feedback and advice for improvement, and ends on a positive again. Thank the candidate for the opportunity to get to know them. Recognize the time they took to prepare. Point out their strengths and tell them what you value about their experience. As with constructive criticism, give specific examples of what you were impressed by. This sets the tone of the conversation and lowers defenses, opening the candidate up to really hearing your feedback.

(A note on this: avoid the impulse to offer false praise out of a sense of guilt. Overly-glowing praise can cause mixed signals, as can statements like “the only additional thing we would have wanted to see was [skill X].” Statements like this can be misinterpreted as a promise of future employment, which may not be the message you want to give.)

After you tell them why you’ve decided to pass on them, look to the future. If they were a strong enough candidate that you can imagine circling back around with them, say so (but without false hope! If you say you’ll circle back, circle back.) Do you have resources you can share to help them in their job search? Are you willing to connect on LinkedIn and introduce them to folks in your network? These offerings are forms of praise, because they suggest you believe enough in the candidate to support them into their next role. Wrap up by reminding them that you value their experience; and if they improve on the areas you’ve mentioned, they’ll be standout candidates for similar roles.

8. Speak Only to What the Candidate can Change… and Offer Action Items

In offering feedback to rejected candidates, your mantra should be: “actionable critiques only.” If your evaluation refers to something that’s out of the candidate’s hands, it’ll feel like a personal attack rather than a reflection on their experience or performance. This means personality and “cultural fit” are off the table. Skill sets can change. Attentions and awareness can change. Some behaviors can be changed. But don’t point to something essential to the candidate’s character as the reason you’re passing on them.

It helps if you can suggest actionable items. If the candidate is still employed, what skills might they try to hone in their current role? Are there training programs or industry credentials you’d suggest? Are there professional organizations they might check out to find mentors or discover more learning opportunities? What would stronger answers to your interview questions have focused on? Ultimately, this is the most valuable part of the feedback—concrete next-steps the candidate can take to grow themselves into more marketable talent.

9. Ask for Feedback from Rejected Candidates

Feedback is a two-way street. Ask rejected candidates to assess your hiring process. How was the interview for them? What did they appreciate? Was there anything they were disappointed by, or would have liked to see done differently? This is a place to gather valuable insights to pass on to your hiring manager and interview teams to iterate on, and strengthen, your process. Maybe you ask them for this feedback over the phone and record their answers. Maybe you let them know that a candidate experience survey is coming their way, you value their opinions, and you’d be grateful if they’d be candid in their answers.

Candidate experience improves by 148% when candidates are asked to give feedback on their interview process. We suspect this is because your request for feedback indicates that you respect their professional insights, and you’re invested in a good candidate experience—including theirs.

10. Consider Them Again Down the Road

Candidates who’ve previously applied to roles at your org did so on the strength of your employee value proposition (or any element of it). If they’ve spent any time in a hiring process with you, the know something about your company’s values and its culture; and those things have resonated for them. And while you may not have hired them the first time, they’ve gone ahead in their careers, picked up new skills and competencies, and accomplished remarkable things. What’s more, they’re already in your database… so it takes very little effort to find them when that next req opens up.

With Gem’s Candidate Rediscovery, recruiting teams can search across the talent profiles in their ATS and CRM to find top candidates among their former silver medalists. Filter by rejection reason, hiring stage reached, interview feedback, demographics, source, and more, so you’re not starting each new search from scratch—and so you’re reaching out to talent that’s all the more likely to accept your offer to chat. Assuming, of course, that you treated them with kindness and respect when you rejected them.  

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Content Strategist
August 26, 2020
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