The Art of Turning Rejected Candidates into Allies

Extending an offer to a candidate is an important part of hiring - you get to help your company expand. But what about the process of rejection?

As recruiters, we have another opportunity to influence company growth when we tell candidates “no.”

If your rejection process makes a good impression, it's more likely that candidates and their network will stay connected with your brand—both as future job applicants and, depending on your business, even customers.

How a Rejected Candidate Can Be an Ally

Even after being rejected for a role, a candidate can still impact your company.

  • A candidate could reapply for a future opening. The person that you rejected today might become your greatest hire after a few months or years of building their skills. Through the course of my career, I've hired a couple dozen people who I previously rejected for a role. They all applied again for another opening and proved to be a great fit for that position...no magic here, just good common sense recruiting!

  • A candidate will talk about your brand with their network. The candidate is going to tell their friends and family about their candidate experience - word of mouth matters! It's also likely they'll visit an employer review site, such as Glassdoor, or a social media platform—Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn—to share their thoughts about their experience.

  • A candidate can be a customer. Virgin Media found that 18% of their rejected job candidates were also customers—and that poor candidate experiences caused 7,416 of these candidates to churn, costing the company approximately $6 million in lost revenue. Think about that...millions of dollars of lost revenue because of candidate experience!!

Great recruiters understand the long-term impact candidates have on their company, and they handle rejections thoughtfully.

They deliver the bad news politely and with respect. They offer feedback and resources to help the rejected candidate improve their skill set and job search. They put themselves in the candidate’s shoes to help turn the rejection into an opportunity for learning and growth.

If you treat rejection with this level of consideration and humanity, you'll turn candidates into brand allies. Candidates will reach out if they see another job opening, refer their friends to your company, and feel good about engaging with your brand as a consumer.

I've hired a couple dozen people who I previously rejected for a role. They all applied again for another opening and proved to be a great fit for that position.

6 Ways to Turn Rejected Candidates Into Allies

After working as a recruiter for 20 years, I've learned a few key ways to create a positive candidate experience for rejected candidates. Below, I've outlined six of these tactics for turning rejected candidates into brand allies.

1. Communicate rejection quickly, yet thoughtfully

It's important to reject a candidate promptly after their last interview. A quick response shows the candidate that you respect their time.

With that said, you need enough time to form a considerate rejection that seems reasonable to the candidate. Say, for example, you interview a candidate, and as you're walking them out the door you say, "Yeah, you're not a fit. Thanks." That's a prompt response, but an abrupt, embarrassing experience for the candidate.

You also need enough time to make sure you're confident with your rejection. You don't want to make a hasty decision, realize you've made a mistake, and then tell the candidate you've changed your mind—trust me, no one wants to make that call to a candidate you really want to hire.

My recommendation is to notify the candidate 24 to 48 hours after their last interview that they weren’t a fit. That gives you and your team enough time to share and process feedback without letting the candidate twiddle their thumbs for too long.

Sometimes, of course, you can't make a final decision within a one to two-day time frame - maybe you’re unsure about rejecting a candidate because you're waiting to meet another candidate the following week.

In this situation, it's still important to be transparent with the candidate within 24 to 48 hours. For the last example, you could call the candidate to say, "There's someone else coming in next week, and it's between you and that person. Once we've had a chance to talk to them, we'll give you more feedback." The candidate knows where they stand in the hiring process, and you have enough time to make a thoughtful decision.

2. Directly contact your candidates

I'm a big believer in rejecting over the phone—I call every candidate who made it to the phone interview stage and beyond. It makes the rejection crystal clear, gives candidates a chance to ask any questions, and makes the rejection feel more human and personal. In a world that’s becoming less and less personal, taking the time to call your candidates is the difference between good and great recruiters.

If the candidate doesn't pick up, it's best to leave a quick voicemail that includes the rejection. You might say, "Hey, just wanted to let you know we're not moving forward, but wanted to call and talk you through it." If you just say, “Hey, call me back!” you risk creating false hope in the candidate.

Right after your call, email a rejection letter to the candidate. This message is another way to make the rejection crystal clear to the candidate. It also provides an opportunity for the candidate to follow up if they have any questions.

Be sure to personalize your email rejection. Emailing a nameless stock letter with your rejected candidates in the BCC line saves time, but it leaves the candidates feeling like a number. Directly emailing a rejection letter that greets the candidate by name shows that you respect them.

3. Give honest, non-negotiable feedback

A rejection is valuable to the candidate if it offers clear feedback on their skills.

Your feedback should be honest and non-negotiable - don't give input that you're not qualified to give as a recruiter. For example, say you tell a software developer that they aren't moving forward because their coding isn't strong enough. The candidate might be confused since they most likely have more coding experience than you as a recruiter.

It's better to keep your feedback less personal and more about the broader experience. Instead of giving detailed input on their skill sets, you might just say, “We found other candidates that have a bit more experience that we think are a better fit for our role."

At the same time, you might consider leaving slightly specific feedback for strong candidates who made it far in the hiring process. These candidates are the most likely to successfully re-apply, so it's worth giving actionable feedback to help them improve quickly. For example, you might specify the skill set that other candidates had more experience in so they know to build their experience in that area.

Of course, be careful to avoid discriminatory language in your feedback. This input is not only hurtful and unhelpful for the candidate—it can also lead to legal consequences for your company.

4. Help candidates with their job search

Along with experience-driven feedback, you can also give candidates input about their job search in your rejection. If you help a candidate with their job search now, they will be happy to connect with you about future openings and refer their friends to your company.

I’ll encourage especially great candidates to poke around my LinkedIn connections, and if they see I’m connected with people at companies of interest, I’ll connect them.

Here are a few ways you can help candidates with their job search:

  • Recommend any helpful resources on job searching in your industry. You might tell the candidate in your phone call or your rejection email, "I read this amazing blog post about networking for [job role]. Let me send it to you!"

  • Offer to connect on LinkedIn. I'll encourage especially great candidates to poke around my LinkedIn connections, and if they see I'm connected with people at companies of interest, I'll connect them.

  • Invite them to join a job platform. Some companies welcome rejected candidates to join a job portal as a resource to find other opportunities and build their job searching skills. Ericsson, for example, invited their rejected candidates to join their company-branded job portal Candidate Care and saw a 98% sign-up rate.

Helping candidates with their job search turns their rejection into a positive moment. The candidates are wowed by the fact that you're providing valuable resources, so they're more willing to reconnect and reapply in the future.

As recruiters, helping people find jobs is our job….doing a little extra for your candidates will make them have a great experience and remember you in the future.

5. Ask candidates about their experience

Asking candidates for feedback on the hiring process is one of the most important things you can do as a recruiter. It gives you insights on how you can improve your recruitment (including rejection), and it shows candidates you value their opinion.

There are two main ways to ask rejected candidates for feedback:

  • Send candidates a survey about the hiring process. A survey lets you ask candidates specific questions about topics that they probably wouldn't include in a Glassdoor review, such as “Was the interview room you were in comfortable?” As a trade-off, you lose the transparency of a review site with the 1:1 survey method.

  • Ask the candidate to leave feedback on a job site, such as Glassdoor. This input is open-ended, so you get the benefit of hearing the candidates' strongest feelings about the hiring process. At the same time, not being able to choose what you want the feedback to be about means you might not get input on every area of hiring.

It's best to request job site reviews and survey responses on a monthly or quarterly basis. This frequency gives the candidate time to process the experience and provide meaningful feedback. Plus, it's easier to manage than sending individual feedback requests on a rolling bases.

Both types of feedback - reviews and surveys - are helpful for making the candidate experience as comfortable, smooth, and helpful as possible. You're set to attract top talent after learning how you can improve your hiring, and you leave rejected candidates feeling appreciated.

6. Create opportunities to reconnect

Staying connected with rejected candidates is a great way to proactively prepare for your future pipeline. The candidate you reject today could be the ideal candidate for a future opening in a few years.

Plus, staying connected allows you to leverage networking for hiring. Say you need to hire someone in an unfamiliar city, and the one contact you have there is a candidate you rejected. You can rekindle that connection with the candidate to see if anyone in their network would be interested in the role.

Here are a few key ways to open up lines of communication:

  • Connect through LinkedIn. You can welcome candidates to connect with you in your rejection letter, and check your profile regularly to accept requests from candidates.

  • Connect at company events. Encourage candidates to reach out if they see a company event that they're interested in. Let them know that it would be great to see them and encourage them to attend, and try to secure an invite for them if the event is exclusive.

Make it especially clear to exceptional candidates that you want to stay in touch. You might include in your rejection email, "You probably hear this a lot from recruiters, but I'm not just saying it. Please feel free to reach out or connect at any time.” It's likely that strong candidates would be hired if they reapplied, so you want to keep your connection with them intact.

Rejection is an Opportunity for Growth

A great recruiter won't just tell a candidate “no”—they deliver rejection in a thoughtful way that closes the candidate experience on a positive note.

This considerate treatment is an investment in future talent pools. When each candidate has a valuable hiring experience—even if they're rejected—they're more likely to become an ally for your company and encourage their friends and family to do the same.

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