Advice When Rejecting Candidates

It surprises most managers when they discover that recruiting isn’t a transactional job. What could be more transactional than finding a person to do a job for you, then offering them compensation in exchange for that job? And if that person doesn’t suit your needs, you simply write them a rejection email and move on. Right?


Recruiting is about relationships. Sure, you’re forming relationships with the people you hire, and with those you hope to hire someday. But what about the people you choose not to hire? Aren’t they just as deserving of your respect and time? They are.

Whether you like it or not, you’re building a relationship with everyone you interact with. It’s your choice whether that relationship is good or bad.

We all know that the recruiting pool is small and intimately networked. People talk to each other. How you treat one person has ripple effects on how you’re perceived throughout the community. So it’s vital that we treat everyone -- those we make an offer to and those we do not -- with dignity and respect.

That's why taking the time to write a respectful and personal rejection email is priceless.

Here’s what I try to do when I’m writing a rejection email.

  • Make it personal. I realize that you might think this doesn't scale, but the truth is that it pays dividends. We do this for anyone who visited our company and spent time with us in interviews. They spent time on us; we need to spend time on them.

  • Consider the phone. The art of communicating is really hard and depending on your personality -- or the personality of the applicant -- a phone call might be a better avenue. Trust your gut. About a third of my rejection conversations happen over the phone.

  • Thank them for their time. Most good engineers already have jobs, and their time is hugely valuable. They took some of that time and gave it to you (for free), so make sure to thank them for that.

  • Acknowledge their strengths. Everybody knows -- and recognizes -- the “shit sandwich” approach, but it still goes a long way when you’re specific about what’s unique and valuable about this applicant.

  • Provide a specific reason for the rejection. I know this is a very delicate subject, but so far it has worked for us. We basically have rejection categories, which include (1) more experience needed, (2) not a cultural fit, (3) not the right remote worker/local worker match, (4) not the right role/title match, (5) didn’t demonstrate enough technical aptitude during the interview, (6) not enough external work (i.e., on github or elsewhere) to demonstrate ability, or (7) unable to find the right work for them given interview feedback. It’s not too much to ask that you tell your candidate which of these categories they fell into, so they know what it wasn’t a fit.

  • Offer suggestions on how to improve. If you have a high-quality process in place and do it respectfully, you should be able to suggest areas of improvement to the candidate. It’s not uncommon for candidates to ask me what they could do to improve their skills in hopes of interviewing again at a later time.

Overall, my goal is for a candidate to have grown from their interview experience with us. That's why it's so important for the rejection email to support all of the effort you have already put into that candidate, so that you can continue to build and enrich the relationship you already have.

I’ve re-interviewed several candidates after a rejection. I’ve received referrals from candidates I rejected. I’ve conducted reference checks with people I have rejected about other candidates I was interviewing. I’ve become friends with people I have rejected. I would be much the poorer without these relationships, and without the potential for strengthening them down the road. Please don't throw away your reputation with a single, cold, canned email. Be wise.