What to do when a rejected candidate asks for feedback

Sunset on the beach in Nicaragua

Here’s part two of yesterday’s post, “How to turn someone down for a job when you’re the hiring manager.”

So you’ve rejected a finalist for a job and they’ve asked for feedback. What do you say? This can be challenging for a few reasons, not the least of which that it puts you on the spot. Here are a few tips to lean on the next time an unsuccessful candidate asks for feedback.

You don’t have to share anything

It’s worth stating upfront that you’re never obligated to give feedback when rejecting an external candidate. You’ve done your part by closing the loop on their candidacy. Some companies outright prohibit giving feedback to rejected candidates, but even if your company allows it, remember that it amounts to expending extra effort on a person you’ve already decided not to hire.

Don’t let guilt from disappointing someone force you into it. There are plenty of good reasons not to share feedback even when you have it (more on this later).

How to give effective and appropriate feedback

Candidates may ask for feedback because they genuinely want to know how they can improve. Good on them. If someone has made the request in good faith and you’re willing to give them a few pointers, go for it. Just follow two important rules:

  1. Be specific; avoid vagueness
  2. Keep it related to the candidate’s ability to do the job

Perhaps the easiest situation is when you can give the candidate a practical reason for not selecting them. For example:

  • “We determined it would be best for the person filling this position to be located on the West Coast. Since you’re on the East Coast and unable to relocate, it ended up not being a match.”

Ideally, you’ll already have filtered out candidates who don’t meet your practical needs, but sometimes needs evolve during the hiring process.

Another approach is to frame the feedback around the successful candidate. Talk about why you chose your new employee rather than why you didn’t choose this candidate. For instance:

  • The candidate exceeded the required skills: “The candidate we chose has led six full-cycle implementations, which is much more than any other candidate we interviewed.”
  • The candidate has bonus skills: “Although speaking French was not required for the job, it was listed as a big plus in the job posting. The person we selected meets our requirements and is fluent in French.”
  • Hiring this candidate has extra benefits for our company: “The candidate we chose was a strong match for the job and will bring in a large client network in our industry.”

Then there’s the more sensitive stuff, like when a candidate exhibited behavior that caused you to question their judgment or professionalism. It can be a great kindness to point this out, especially to more junior candidates, but it’s also the trickiest to handle. For example:

  • “We went with a candidate whose experience more closely matched what we were looking for. But we also felt like you were unprepared for the interview: you arrived late, you struggled to answer our questions, and you had no questions of your own. We share that not to criticize you but to help you see behaviors you might not realize are working against you.”

Tread carefully when sharing this type of feedback, since it is more personal. You don’t want to insinuate that your interpretation of this behavior is discriminatory. Get guidance from your manager or HR if you’re not sure how to approach this type of conversation.

How and when not to give feedback

For a certain type of candidate (i.e. the type that doesn’t like to take “no” for an answer), providing feedback is just giving them something to argue with. They may ask for feedback solely so they can contest your decision. Don’t take the bait from these folks; tell them you can’t share anything and wish them well.

Other candidates request feedback for more superficial reasons, like to stay in touch with you, or to impress you, or because they feel like it’s what you’re “supposed to do,” or because their college careers center told them to. If the candidate doesn’t seem to have a good reason why they’re asking for more of your time and effort, or they’ve made a clearly perfunctory request, skip it.

A more serious risk when giving feedback is that you can end up in discrimination territory if you’re not careful with your words. Giving a stranger direct criticism (e.g. “We didn’t feel your writing skills were strong enough for this position”) can feel harsh if you’re not used to it. So you might be tempted to fall back on something like, “you’re not a culture fit,” because vagueness can feel more polite. But the candidate could hear something different behind those words and wonder whether it’s code for a protected characteristic of theirs (e.g. race, gender, disability). Some companies have policies against sharing feedback with rejected candidates for exactly this reason. Unless you can effectively communicate specific, job-related reasons behind the rejection, it’s best not to share anything.

What do you say if you’re not going to share feedback? Something neutral like, “I appreciate your interest in feedback, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to provide any,” will do the trick.

When you really should give feedback

The big exception to the “you don’t owe rejected candidates feedback” rule is internal candidates. If a current employee at your company was a finalist for your open position and didn’t get the job, the kind and constructive thing to do is to discuss with them how they could strengthen their candidacy for future opportunities. Make this a face-to-face conversation if you can. Still be specific and stick to job-related reasons, like, “We chose a candidate who had full-cycle implementation experience. Since you’ve only been involved in partial cycles, we’d like you to go through a full implementation before we’d see you succeeding in this new position.”

If the employee has genuine potential for the role but maybe just not enough experience yet, tell them so! It can be very motivating. Share this same feedback with the employee’s manager if it’s culturally appropriate for your organization. It can be nice to get the employee’s blessing before doing this. A good boss will use your feedback as a tool to help the employee grow.

But if the position may never be in the cards for the employee, don’t give them a vague promise that they’ll be considered in the future just to make them feel better. There’s a good chance they’ll reapply. Be sure to share this with the employee’s manager, too; it will help the manager steer the employee toward other pursuits (or eventually toward the door).

What if I give someone feedback and they’re a jerk about it?

If someone makes a snarky comment or starts to rant at you, don’t engage, just end the conversation. You can say something like, “I’m sorry to hear you’re disappointed. Our decision is final and we wish you the best of luck. Thanks so much for your time.” And then hang up.

If this happens with an internal candidate, be sure to document the behavior and share it with the person’s manager.

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