How to turn someone down for a job when you’re the hiring manager

I hate generic stock photos, so here’s a nice picture I took in the Faroe Islands a few years ago

Turning down candidates is one of the un-fun parts of being a hiring manager. It’s not enjoyable to disappoint people, and some people get testy or weepy or awkward when they’re disappointed. But I’m a firm believer in doing unsuccessful candidates the courtesy of closing the loop, especially once they reach a certain stage in the hiring process. My philosophy is this:

If the candidate has reached…

  • …the initial resume screen, they get an automated decline from the applicant tracking system or a form email
    • This is the only step where no response can be appropriate if application volume is high and automation isn’t possible; recruiters only have so many hours in their days
  • …the initial phone screen with the recruiter, they get a slightly more personalized (but still form) email from the recruiter
    • This can also come from the ATS, but try not to make it too generic, like “Dear applicant…”
  • …a technical/subject matter/panel/etc. interview (i.e. not with the hiring manager yet), they get a similar email from the recruiter as the phone screen rejection
    • In my experience, trying to wrangle interviewers’ schedules is hard enough, so recruiters, don’t make it harder on yourselves by trying to get them to do any candidate communication; it’s not really part of their role as an interviewer, they’re not usually equipped for it, and you might just have to keep chasing them down to do it anyway
  • …the final interview with the hiring manager, the hiring manager should call them (or in the case of internal candidates, meet with them) to turn them down personally

If you’re a hiring manager, you might have just groaned at that last bullet. But I promise it doesn’t have to be painful or time-consuming, and I insist that it’s the right thing to do in most situations. Remember: by the time the candidate pool has reached you, it should be small enough (3-4 people max unless you’re hiring multiple people into the role) where you’ll only have to do this a couple times. Here’s the process I use. It should take less than five minutes total per candidate.

How to turn down a candidate in five minutes

  1. Email the candidate to ask if they have a few minutes later today for you to call them with an update about the hiring process. Offer times that you are available.
    • This helps prevent phone tag, having to leave the decline on a voicemail, and surprising them with disappointing news at a bad time.
    • If you really don’t have time to do this step, ask your recruiter or an admin to set it up for you.
    • If the candidate has become impossible to get in touch with, don’t spend too much time chasing them down. If they don’t get back to you within a day or two, it’s fine to send a decline email and move on.
  2. Call the candidate at the chosen time and use the following script:
    • “Hi, [candidate]. This is [your name] from [your company] calling. Is this still a good time to talk? Like I said in my email, I have an update about the [job title] position you interviewed for. I wanted to take a moment to let you know that we’ve elected to move forward with another candidate. We appreciate the time you spent with us and thank you for your interest. We wish you all the best in your search.”
    • Watch your tone here. Be confident and matter-of-fact; don’t be wishy washy or too brusque.
  3. Stop talking. You might be tempted to try to soften the blow by apologizing or asking things like, “Is that okay?” or “Do you have any questions?” Resist this impulse or the conversation is bound to get more awkward. You may even risk leading the candidate into thinking the issue is still open.
    • If you shut up after delivering your speech, the candidate might say something to continue the conversation, but they usually will just thank you for calling and get off the phone as quickly as possible.
    • Don’t be a weirdo and give them a perky, “Have a nice day!” at the end. A sedate, “thanks for your time” or “take care” will be fine.
  4. It can be a good idea to follow up with an email confirming your conversation so you have something in writing, but since you’ve already given the personal message over the phone, you can ask your recruiter to take care of the written communication. It might already be part of their wrap-up process. If you write it, CC the recruiter. A sample message could read like this (choose your own greeting and closing):
    • Thank you again for your interest in our [job title] position. As we discussed on the phone, we have elected to move forward with other candidates for this opening. We appreciate your time and wish you all the best in your search.

“But what if the person was terrible/weird/someone I never want to talk to again?”

Unless there’s a legitimate risk (legal, safety, etc.) to continuing to engage with a candidate, just take two minutes to have a slightly awkward conversation and be done with it. If you handle the conversation right, that’s all it should take. Remember that treating all candidates well is, in addition to being the kind and ethical thing to do, a smart way to keep the door open for good referrals from them in the future. Candidates who have a great experience with your company are a lot more inclined to send their talented friends your way. Also, there’s always the chance your paths could cross again, so do your future self a favor and leave things on good terms.

If it is risky or unsafe to continue contact with the candidate, notify your manager, document the situation, and hand it off to your HR team to handle. In the absence an HR team or guidance from your manager, still document the situation and then send the candidate a form email similar to the example above, or simply stop engaging. If the candidate escalates their behavior (e.g. makes threats), escalate the situation with your boss and HR immediately, even if their initial response to you was lukewarm.

“What if they ask me for feedback?”

Giving feedback to rejected candidates can be tricky. Stay tuned for a post dedicated to this question.

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