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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

What to Say to the Candidates You Don't Hire

So you’ve just wrapped up a week of interviewing candidates for an opening in your department, and on Friday afternoon you reconvene with the rest of the interview committee to swap notes. The good news is, there’s a clear front-runner, and you’re all excited to make this person an offer.

The bad? There were a couple of other candidates you liked, but who just weren’t quite the right fit. And next week, you’ll have to both let them down gently and field their “Can you give me any feedback on why I didn’t get the job?” requests.

If you’re dreading this step in the process, you’re not alone. Many interviewers don’t like or simply don’t know how to deliver the news, so they use a generic form letter and go radio silent after that.

But a better move is to approach this process with tact, grace, and professionalism. Beyond it simply being the nice thing to do, you never know if these candidates (or their contacts) might be a good fit for your team in the future.

It may take a little preparation and practice, but by incorporating the following adjustments into your interview process, you’ll be better prepared to handle these conversations.

Be Prompt

Think back to your own job-searching days: You’ve probably had at least one very positive interview that ended in a devastating rejection. The number one question running through your brain was probably “Why?” And then when you asked for feedback, you had to wait weeks until you got a very standard and rehearsed response.

What interviewers don’t realize is that, by doing this, they may be losing out on a potential future candidate. If you really thought the candidate was great, then speak up! (And fast.) Remember that the interview was also a chance for people to get to know your company, and if your runner-up is not treated with the courtesy of a prompt and straightforward response, then he or she won’t even bother to apply again once another opportunity arises.

Point to Your Selection Criteria

Although the job description may have a long list of desired experiences and skills, you probably believe that only five or so of those things are critical (including those things that are important but may not be a “skill,” such as cultural fit). See if you can put these things on paper and rank them from most important to least important. (In future interviews, it’s really helpful to write these criteria down ahead of time and keep track of how each candidate stacks up as you go.)

Then, as you’re planning your feedback to candidates, use these as your guide. For example, if your top criterion for the job was direct experience creating social media plans, and a candidate had experience with the four other criteria but not the most important one, that’s an understandable explanation. You can then tell this candidate that while his or her experiences in the other areas were great, he or she should try to work on some social media management projects to be a better fit for similar positions. Now, isn’t that better than “Another candidate’s skill set matched our needs more closely?”

Not quite sure how a candidate stacks up to the criteria? This may mean that the interviewer didn’t give you enough information. It’s fair to tell the candidate this; you really enjoyed the interview, and his or her resume looked great, but you simply didn’t get enough detail to assure you he or she could do the job.

Stay in Touch—and Mean It

If you really did like the candidate—maybe he was great, but didn’t quite fit the criteria for the job, or she would be the perfect fit for another role that isn’t quite available at this time—then tell the candidate exactly that. Then, show you mean it by staying in touch. Send that person a LinkedIn request, invite him or her to a networking event, and promise to let him or her know if there’s another opening that would be a better fit. You never know when the timing will be right, and at that point you’ll already have an established relationship.

Photo of man at computer courtesy of Shutterstock.