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Stop Ghosting! What to Say to Job Candidates Instead

Aug 09, 2022

Hiring is hard! No doubt, it can be incredibly difficult for both employers and employees. For example:

  • Recruiter: “I posted this job and have received 500 submissions. I don’t have a system to respond to everyone personally, I can’t get the hiring manager to respond to me and I don’t want to give candidates an update when nothing has happened… plus I am currently working on 25 open positions and also not even sure about the true status of any of them since we just did a layoff this week.”
  • Candidate: “I applied, interviewed 4 times, told my family and friends about it, was told I would hear back ‘by Friday’ and it’s been 3 weeks with… nothing. Was it something I said? I have no idea… but it feels awful and I’m embarrassed and upset.”

One problem some employers have is knowing what to say to candidates that are declined from a role. If that’s your problem, here are some example communications that can help (and be better than not getting back to candidates at all).

Think before you speak

As a general rule, make sure you don’t promise any candidate 1) the job, 2) a decision, or 3) a response timeline if you aren’t 100% that it will happen. Ensure you have alignment from everyone involved in the recruiting process. I can’t tell you how many messages I receive that say, “the C-Suite/manager/leader told me I was perfect for the job… and then I heard nothing.” “I was shown exactly where I would sit – but got an auto-reject email the next day.” “This is my dream job and I really respected this company… until I had 3 interviews and then never heard from them again.”

Say something

Always say something, even if just in a job posting. Make expectations clear so that candidates feel respected, and also make clear about the candidate volume (some may omit that as it can feel daunting, but it can also set perspective). Also, I fully recognize that not all candidates read job postings, but at least you’ve tried.

Sample Language – Job Posting

As a best practice, everyone who applies to your role should receive a response, from an ATS or other system. If you don’t have one, you could say in your job posting: “We respect every candidate’s time and interest, and know the effort it can take to apply. Given the volume of submissions (which can be in the hundreds for many roles), we may not be able to provide a response to every candidate. Even if you are not contacted for this role, please feel free to submit to additional open roles in the future.

Sample Language – Confirmation Email After Application

If you send confirmation emails to each candidate after their application, it can be helpful to reiterate this message, because candidates want to know “what is next?” This language can be very similar: “Thank you for your submission to this role. We respect every candidate’s time and interest, and know the effort it can take to apply. We aim to review submissions on a rolling basis and reach out within [1 week] to candidates who we decide to invite to interview. Given the volume of submissions (which can be in the hundreds for many roles), we may not be able to provide a response to every candidate. Even if you are not contacted for this role, please feel free to submit to additional open roles in the future.”

Note: make sure your timeline is realistic. Ideally, it should be 1 week or less as “time kills all deals (or interest in jobs),” but provide a timeline that is realistic, so that candidates don’t get frustrated or you don’t lose good candidates by telling them “1 week” and then reaching out 3 weeks later to find out they assumed it was a “no” and lost interest in your organization.

Sample Language – Decline Email After First Interview

I say email, but this can also be a phone call. Either has its benefits (eg, a phone call can give the opportunity for feedback (and shows respect), but email can be more realistic if you have a huge number of candidates and roles), but both are preferable to not responding.

[Name], Thank you for taking the time to apply and interview with us. We respect your interest and time, and know how much effort is involved in a job search. As such, we aim to communicate promptly with all candidates. We wanted to let you know that we will not be advancing you to the next round of the interview process. Specifically, for this role, we are looking for candidates with [more experience around ABC]. We do think that your skills in [XYZ] are strong and will be an asset in another role. That could be another role at our organization, so please keep in touch and re-apply if you see any open roles that are of interest.

This includes a few items:

  • Using their name (please ensure their real name is used and not accidentally just “[Name]” – that happens and can feel cold.
  • Show appreciation for their time – they took their time to spend with you.
  • Be direct that they are not advancing.
  • Give feedback – be specific. While you can omit or edit this information, including it can make a candidate feel more human, which they will remember as they look for more spot-on roles at your organization, or even just from a brand perspective
  • If a particular candidate was great, but just not for this role, a longer phone call is often preferable to make that connection and provide more individualized feedback (“You have account management experience, but we really need experience in cold calling. Our accounts team is fully staffed, but this is what the role looks like – would you be interested in speaking with a leader of the team to be considered if a role does come up?” – this shows you value their experience and sets expectations of “no open role now but maybe later,” and can build a talent pipeline more suited to their skills).

Sample Language – Decline Phone Call* After Two or More Interviews

*Once someone has interviewed at least twice at your organization, I’d argue a phone call is warranted. Some candidates may prefer an email, or be upset on a call, but a call can show respect for the time and effort they have put in.

[Name], Thank you for taking the time to apply and interview with us. We respect your interest and time, and know how much effort is involved in a job search. With that, I wanted to give you a call and speak directly. We will not be advancing you to the next round of the interview process. I know that can be disappointing, but I wanted to explain why if you would like the feedback. (Assuming they say yes): Specifically, for this role, we are looking for candidates with [more experience around ABC – go into more depth]. We do think that your skills in [XYZ] are strong and will be an asset in another role. That could be another role at our organization. Also, it could be worth focusing on projects related to [XYZ] if that is an area you are interested in to build up your candidacy even more, either here or elsewhere. We are happy to keep your resume in case other roles apply. [If applicable: I also know Name at X organization that is hiring. I can’t guarantee anything there, but I would be happy to pass your resume along if you would like me to do that]. Either way, please keep in touch and re-apply if you see any that are of interest.

This message can certainly be tweaked, but is a framework to show candidates thanks and give them specific feedback. It can also connect them to other organizations if you know (and be genuine, don’t offer to do this if you know that person is not a fit or there are not open roles at that org).

Why? Because you have the opportunity to help candidates in their career and life. That is a true privilege, and even giving them 5-10 minutes of your time can not only show that you and your organization live your values, but can make an impact on them for a long time.

Sample Language – Role Put on Hold Due to Market

Oof. This feels too real right now. If your company is doing layoffs, check interally on whether a role is still budgeted. If it is not, or there is a delay in the process, reach out – candidates who have interviewed will be wondering, and leaving them hanging is not the right approach.

[Name], Thank you for taking the time to apply and interview with us. We respect your interest and time, and know how much effort is involved in a job search. With that, I wanted to give you a call and speak directly. While we assess where the market is, we are putting a hold on this job search. I can’t promise a timeline, but I wanted to let you know. Candidly, our team would rather be certain that we are budgeted for a role than move forward with the hiring process, or present an offer that has to be taken back. I know this might mean that you need to move forward with other opportunities. I completely understand and we are happy to provide any feedback that can help you, either in our organization or another. Specifically, our team found your skills around [XYZ] to be very strong, and would encourage you to emphasize those as they are spot-on for many organizations. I will reach out if things change here, and please feel free to reach out to me as well.”

Some organizations do not want to share the fact that they have done layoffs or discuss market conditions. I encourage candor, because being honest can often be more well-received than trying to “hide the bad.” But even if you want to omit references to the market or other language, let a candidate know that a role is on hold and provide them any helpful feedback you can, with an invitation to stay in touch.

But what about…

Some questions employers may have:

  • But I’m a recruiter and I don’t have enough time to send emails… and I often don’t hear from hiring managers to give feedback! So 1) talk with your leadership to reiterate “Living our company values means showing every candidate we appreciate their time. We need to be resourced appropriately and get feedback from hiring managers so that we can be respectful and let people know ‘yay or nay’ quickly. How can we systemize that across our organization so that everyone who submits feels like they were treated like a human?” And 2) If you’re really pressed for time, send an email. Just don’t ghost.
  • But giving feedback is so risky! Well, it is if it’s not genuine – eg, if your job posting says someone needs mastery in XYZ skill, and you decline a candidate with that skill in favor of your Board member’s nephew. But as long as you are fair in the process, giving feedback can make a huge difference to candidates. If you can’t be fair or candid, then don’t give the feedback, but at least send a message letting candidates know where they stand.
  • But what if a candidate loses it with me on the phone and is angry? You could always say “I know it can feel a lot of emotions when you don’t advance in a role search. But I wanted to at least communicate directly. I can tell now is not the right time for you to talk this through – if you would like to speak when you’re ready, I’d be happy to do that. But even if not, please know that we appreciate the effort you put in and wish you good luck on your job search.”
  • But candidates ghost us too! That’s not right, but let’s not make hiring a “race to the bottom.” Manage what you can control – communicate humanely with candidates.

Our mission at Manager Method is to help companies in their people needs – whether it’s reminding them of the impact words (or silence) can have, or helping them craft messages. These are just examples, but certainly reach out if your organization can use some help.

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