Rejecting unsuccessful candidates

At various stages throughout the recruitment process you will need to write to unsuccessful candidates to reject them. You should reject all but your interview shortlist as soon as you can, but you could defer rejecting your final shortlist until your preferred candidate has accepted your offer of employment. So how should you reject a candidate? What reasons should you give? What should you never say?

Rejecting candidates as you go

It’s a very sad fact that many organisations just don’t bother to let candidates know if their application has been unsuccessful. This is unprofessional, and displays extremely bad manners. Remember that candidates may have put a great deal of time and effort into their application and it is only proper that you should go to the trouble to both acknowledge and, if necessary, reject unsuitable applications.

If you receive hundreds of applications, your acknowledgement letter could include a sentence such as: ‘Shortlisted candidates will be invited to interview on or before 14th March. Applicants who have not been invited to interview may assume that their application was unsuccessful on this occasion’. This inclusion in the original acknowledgement letter means that you do not have to send rejection letters to every single applicant, only those who you have shortlisted. You could even include a phrase in the recruitment advertisement such as ‘Shortlisted candidates will be notified in writing on or before 14th March’. This then gives candidates a realistic idea about how their application is progressing. If the 14th March passes, then they can turn their attention to another application.

Rejecting unsuitable candidates can be a time-consuming and costly process. Despite the cost, it is always worth the effort. Applicants who have not heard from you might contact you direct, to establish the status of their application. This only adds to the administrative burden of the recruitment process. If you send out rejection letters promptly, you would not have to handle these calls. Candidates who have not heard from you are also likely to take offence. After all, they have gone to the trouble of completing your application form, and you have not even bothered to tell them how their application is progressing. Not only are these applicants likely to be offended, they are also likely to tell others about their bad experience with your organisation. So it is just not worth failing to take this simple step.

Once you shortlist a candidate, you must treat them differently. You have raised their expectation, and you must treat them courteously if you decide not to offer them employment with you. Although it is never pleasant to receive a rejection letter, it is always better than to hear nothing at all.

Rejection rules

There are several rules to follow when rejecting candidates:

1 Be prompt

Once you have received your applications for the vacancy, the first step is to filter out the unsuitable candidates. You should reject these straight away. If they are not right for the position, there is no point in delaying writing a polite letter of rejection. This will help the candidate, as well as you. It will then leave you to concentrate on the applications that are most suitable for the position on offer.

Of course, there will be some applications that you will want to hang on to in case your preferred candidate turns down your offer of employment. It is perfectly legitimate to choose not to reject these candidates until your preferred candidate has accepted the position in writing. Nevertheless, as soon as your preferred candidate has accepted your offer of employment, you must send a polite rejection letter to all other candidates as soon as possible. In fact, if you retain an application in case your preferred candidate declines your offer, you should let the reserve candidate know the position he or she is in. Tell it to them straight. They will be grateful that they are being kept informed of their progress. Whilst you might want them to think that they were always your number one choice, it is perfectly acceptable to keep a reserve candidate in the wings. Any reserve candidates should be kept regularly informed about any progress that has been made. If your preferred candidate accepts, you should inform your reserve candidates immediately. You might also wish to advise any reserve candidates that they should accept alternative employment if they are offered it.

2 Be brief

It is tempting when rejecting candidates to offer a number of reasons why you have declined to offer them employment. After all, you might feel you are helping them to find a job in the future. Be careful. You are much more likely to get comeback if you offer reasons why you have declined to take an application further. Even though you are acting in good faith, candidates can challenge the reasons that you give, and take you to an industrial tribunal on discrimination grounds. Indeed, some rejected candidates may contact you to disagree with your reasons for rejection and to try to convince you to change your mind. So these days it is much more common for rejection letters to be quite short, with little or no reason given for the rejection.

As well as being prompt and brief, a good rejection will always be in writing. It might be tempting to reject candidates by telephone. However, this is rarely the right procedure. A rejected candidate might well ask questions about precisely why they were rejected, and what they might do in the future to increase their likelihood of being offered an interview. If they are not happy with your answer, they may well try to engage you in debate about their suitability for the role. By contrast, if you reject unsuitable candidates in writing, there is far less likelihood that they will contact you to argue about the decision you have made.

To avoid accusations of discrimination, you must keep the details of rejected applicants on file for at least three months. This is the period in which a rejected applicant could complain of unlawful discrimination at an industrial tribunal. If the applications that you are keeping on file include notes about the reasons why you rejected them, then so much the better.

Dealing with challenges

How would you react if one of the candidates that you had rejected made contact with you to challenge your decision? It is highly unlikely to happen, but you should know what to do if the situation arises.

Rejected candidates often want to know why they were unsuccessful. Just as with your rejection letter, you should be careful about precisely what you say to an unsuccessful candidate. You should use an unambiguous statement like: we appointed someone who matched our requirements more closely. Sometimes an applicant may ask how this person was more closely matched? In this instance, you do not have to go into any further detail. You should use a sentence like: I am afraid that I am unable to discuss another candidate’s application. All applications are treated in confidence.

Whatever you say, there are certain phrases that you should not use under any circumstances. For example, never tell an unsuccessful candidate that he or she is overqualified. This phrase is too often used to indicate that you have appointed someone younger. Even if this is not true, the rejected candidate may assume as much. Never tell a candidate that he or she would not fit in. This may be true, but could be construed as racial, religious, age or gender discrimination. And never lie to a candidate and tell them that you have decided not to appoint any of the applicants to the position, or that you have decided to recruit someone at a different level. This is unprofessional, and extremely rude.

Rejecting candidates: Checklist

  • When should you reject unsuccessful candidates?
  • What should you write in a rejection letter?
  • How would you handle a candidate challenging your decision ?
  • How would you protect yourself against a charge of discrimination?