How to tell an engineering candidate that they didn’t get the job

One of the tougher parts of any manager’s job is rejecting candidates who have been interviewing with them. While it’s not a pleasant task for the interviewer, it’s far worse for the candidate. They might be in dire need of a steady income, they might have high hopes for getting the job, and it’s also just emotionally rough to be rejected.

Feedback is (Sadly) Rare

Candidates want feedback on why they didn’t get the job, but it’s not common for them to get much, if any. Many employers worry that a misstep in that feedback process could make the candidate thinking that there was bias present, and that could lead to claims of unfairness, or worse.

Unfortunately, that fear can lead to the candidate receiving no valuable feedback from the interviewers. Empty statements like, “I’m sorry, you’re just not a good fit for this position” are sometimes all they get. Some employers don’t even follow up with candidates, and end up “ghosting” them. This is after the candidate investing hours or even days of their time meeting with them, doing take-home programming assignments, or solving multiple coding puzzles on whiteboards. The situation can be very unfair.

The Hidden Question

There is a simple way to address this fear of delivering feedback, and it just requires a slightly different perspective on the part of the hiring manager. Candidates are not looking for reasons why they didn’t get the job on your team. What they really want is help getting employed.

Even if the candidate asks the question as “Why didn’t I get the job?”, they already know they aren’t getting hired, and they can’t change that outcome. The candidate’s hidden question is:

“Can you help me just a little so that I have a better chance with my future interviews and get hired somewhere else?”

Once a hiring manager approaches a rejection with that perspective, a much more helpful conversation can result. For example, a hiring manager could give feedback like this:

  • “I think you could build a stronger online portfolio of your web design skills. You will likely get more phone screens with that.”
  • “Have you considered applying to OtherTechCompany? I think they are hiring for people with your skill set, and I happen to know a manager over there. If you want I can make a quick referral over email…”
  • “Your writing skills are excellent, have you considered starting your own blog? Some recruiters love to see those before making their minds up on who to phone screen.”

Rejecting with Respect

Doing the following things are both the right thing to do for the candidate, and they will create a more positive impression of you and your company:

  • Talk to the candidate if you can, especially if they came in for an in-person interview. Written rejections should be a last resort.
  • Give as much feedback (as you can reasonably give) on what the candidate did well during the interview, and what their strengths are.
  • Offer to refer them to other opportunities for which you think they’d be better suited.
  • Point out areas of potential that they might not yet realize they have. (Back in my early career I was rejected for an engineering job, but the hiring manager suggested I had potential for going into management. That stuck with me. A few years later, I got that opportunity and took it, and I’ve been in management roles ever since.)
  • Thank them for interviewing with you, and acknowledge the investment of time and effort on the candidate’s part. Make sure they know that all of the interview stages were necessary for you to make your decision, and that their time and efforts are appreciated.

The Coaching Offer

There’s one more thing I do with candidates who I’ve rejected but who are less experienced, or who are from less privileged backgrounds: I offer to coach them.

Some candidates just want to get off the phone after rejection, and others will politely agree to coaching but never contact you again. But some candidates will take you up on the offer of mentorship. For some, it will be the first time in their career that they’ve been offered anything of the sort.

In my experience, this kind of coaching does not become a significant time burden. Only a couple of candidates take me up on the offer, and so it consumes only a couple of hours per quarter of my time on my calendar. Most candidates don’t want to “bother me”, but I make sure they have my cell phone and email, and I offer them my time for very specific things, like:

  • Reviewing improvements to their resumé
  • Offering my perspective on other companies they are considering applying to
  • Discussing career path options
  • Running small “mock” interviews
  • Giving feedback on their choice of tool or tech stack in which to build expertise

It’s important to be as specific as possible with what you’re offering to coach them with. If your offer is too generic (for example, “Let me know if I can ever be of help”), then the chances of them ever contacting you again will be very small.

To reiterate, I offer this kind of coaching very frequently and have done so for years, but it has never become an overwhelming burden to fulfill. I would encourage any hiring manager to make a similar gesture to some of the engineers whom they choose not to hire.

Communicating rejections is never an easy task, but doing so the right way can make it less difficult. More importantly, the rejection conversation is a worthwhile opportunity to help move candidates closer to a new opportunity, even though it won’t be with your team.

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