The Etiquette of Rejection

When I was on the other side of the hiring fence, wading through virtual stacks of cover letters and resumes, I made a point of communicating as quickly and clearly as possible with the poor souls waiting to hear about their chances of success.  Before the internet was widespread, it was understandable that an institution might not be able to spare the resources to mail multiple notices to job-seekers.  However, with the ease of email, lack of timely contact suggests incivility and disrespect, a poor reflection on company culture.

Thinking about how I would like to be treated myself, I found that a generic friendly message worked well:   “Thank for you your interest in this position.  We will contact you if we wish to set up an interview.”

Or, even better, add a timeline:  “Our search committee will be reviewing files next week, and we will contact candidates by the end of the month.”

And ease the pain for the unlucky ones who didn’t make the cut:  “We had many talented candidates for this position.  We are sorry to have to tell you that you will not be moved further in the process.  We wish you the best in your job search.”

For candidates who did make the cut, but didn’t get the job, a personal email, with positive comments and compliments, was always indicated:  “Thank you for your time and interest.  We enjoyed getting to know you, and we were impressed with your skills and knowledge.  It was a difficult decision. “

It surprised me how many people sent emails back to me, thanking me for the contact, even when they didn’t make the first cut.  Occasionally one would mention that he or she appreciated just knowing that we had looked at the application.  Quite a few politely asked if I would tell them why they didn’t make it or how they could improve their application.  I made time to answer those queries and give honest, kindly worded advice that might help either their egos (great resume, just the wrong combination of skills for this particular position) or communication skills (write a cover letter specific to the position instead of a generic piece.)

I did this because I remembered too well what it was like to be job hunting (as I am, again).  I remembered how slowly the days pass when you are waiting to hear about a job application.  You rev yourself up, mentally putting yourself in the new position, to write the persuasive application and sell yourself.   You finally push “send”, and then the waiting begins.  You know it’s stupid to check email hourly, but you do so anyhow.  Then daily, you scan for some response.  If there’s a deadline for applications, you wait impatiently for it to arrive.   You make excuses for delays – an office crisis, a key person on vacation.  If you’re lucky, there is a generic confirmation of receipt.  Then days and weeks pass, sometimes months. When there is no response at all, you wonder if the application was lost in hyper-space, or on someone’s desk.  Should you contact them to show your interest?  Should you give up all hope and move on?

The plea to administrators and human resource personnel is – put us out of our misery!  Let us know that you received the application, and make the tone of the generic message at least minimally friendly.  (It’s very easy to type “thank you” even if you don’t mean it.)  Let us know the timeline, no matter how vague.  And tell us when you have made a decision, not two months later.  If you truly cannot handle the volume of applications, tell us at the beginning of the application process that there will be no communication.  This is basic courtesy, it’s common sense, and it’s how you would want to be treated yourselves.

Perhaps there is some karma in all of this.  Last spring, in a search I was running, a finalist who didn’t get the job was so impressed by our interactions throughout the hiring process that he mentioned my strong leadership skills with enthusiasm to friends. This led to an important professional connection for me which, whether or not it eventually leads to a job, was very enriching.   We treat people with respect because it is the right thing to do, not because of anticipated rewards.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” does not expect or require acknowledgement.  However, it does seem that what we do eventually comes back around to us.  That leads me to imagine the enormous impact on society if more people “did unto others…”.

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