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Six tips for telling interviewees they didn't get the job

Telling applicants they haven't been successful at interview is a difficult phone call to make.

The hope and energy that has been invested into an interview process is considerable, and candidates deserve respect and gratitude for taking the chance on your company and putting themselves in the frame.

We've all been there and know how agonising it can be to wait to hear either way.

Constructive feedback and kindness is the best way to break the news and help people in their on-going search for work.

After all, you never know if you'll have another vacancy that they're perfect for, or their family member or friend. Good relationships are important even with candidates who didn't succeed on this occasion.

Plus, do you really want to be the person that ruined someone's day? Or the person that spoke to a fellow human with empathy and care? In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

Here are my top tips for letting interviewees down gently.

1. Get straight to the point

They've most likely been checking their phone all day, wondering when you're going to get in touch. They're most likely experiencing a heady mix of nervousness, hope and fear.

So don't waste time on chit-chat. Don't chat about their weekend, don't ask how they thought the interview went.

Be pleasant but to the point. After a polite preliminary, let them know the decision of the interview panel.

2. But check they're ok to talk first

You know this isn't going to be the news they're hoping for, and they may be at work, so give them the chance to step outside, go somewhere quiet and find a little privacy.

Best case scenario: they can listen to your feedback and talk through any questions they have.

Worst case scenario: if they cry, they haven't got an audience

You could start the conversation like this:

'Hello, is that [name]? This is [name] from [company name]. We met yesterday at interview. Is now a good time to talk?'

3. Let them know the news and provide constructive feedback

Once they've confirmed they can listen and speak freely, politely let them know that they have been unsuccessful.

A simple 'It was lovely to meet you at interview but I'm afraid we have decided to offer the job to another candidate' should suffice.

If there is anything they could improve that will help them at future interviews, let them know in a positive and constructive way.

For example, do feedback if they need to:

  • demonstrate more knowledge of the company or passion for the sector

  • continue to develop their portfolio

  • be more confident when presenting

But don't provide feedback on anything they can't improve as that is just depressing, for example, if you found them dull or unlikable.

If they came a close second, let them know. A small consolation is better than none, and it may give them the confidence to succeed at the next interview they attend.

4. Thank them for interviewing

Interviews aren't just about the time the candidate spends talking to you.

They will have spent time researching questions and thinking about answers. If you've asked for a presentation, they could have spent days on prep.

They may have travelled to get to you. Or invested in a haircut and new clothes.

Acknowledging the time and energy - perhaps even money - that they've invested in the interview is only polite.

'We really appreciate the time and energy you put into the interview process. Thank you for making the effort to come and meet us, and for the interest you've shown in the company.'

5. Keep the door open

Unless there is no way you would ever want this person on your team, leave the door open for them to apply again.

They might not be right on this occasion but could be perfect for a future role.

What if your appointed candidate changes their mind and doesn't actually join the team? Maintaining a positive relationship with the other candidates might save you the cost of re-advertising if your second choice is still interested in the role.

'I'm sorry this wasn't the news you were hoping for. Please don't be put off applying for future roles here as we were very impressed by [something they did well, eg your enthusiasm for our organisation].

6. Don't get drawn into an argument

We're all human and some candidates may react with frustration, disappointment or anger. If this happens, try not to get drawn into an argument. Acknowledge their feelings but disengage. For example:

'I'm sorry you feel that way. I understand this is disappointing news. I wish you well in your continued job search. Thank you again for your application. Goodbye.'

Follow the tips above and you should have a constructive conversation that leaves you on good terms with the unsuccessful candidates and protects your company's reputation for recruitment.

That's good personal karma, excellent professional etiquette, and makes good business sense too.


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