Work

Just Say No

Why can’t the company I’ve interviewed with send me a simple rejection letter?

A man reading his letter at his desk.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Darkcloud/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

You take time off work for a job interview, spend a few hours preparing for it, maybe buy a new suit, maybe even travel from out of state, and then … crickets. You hear nothing. Maybe you contact the hiring manager or the human resources rep who scheduled the interview to inquire about an update on the job, and still … nothing.

If you’ve had this experience, you’re not alone. These days fewer and fewer employers bother to send rejection letters to job candidates, even when candidates have progressed through multiple rounds of interviews, tests, and reference checks. In fact, post-interview silence is one of the most common complaints I receive from disgruntled job seekers. Here’s one letter that’s pretty typical:

I am amazed at the number of times companies have stopped communicating during the interview process without explanation. In this era of email, I don’t understand why a brief note isn’t sent to let a candidate know they are no longer under consideration.

My most recent experience was with a company that flew me, at great expense, out to their HQ on the opposite coast for a round of in-person meetings with company executives after three earlier phone interviews. The hiring manager stated I was “on top of his list” and “I’ll talk to you on Monday”; this was a Friday.

I immediately sent thank you notes to everyone I had met, yet received no responses. After a week I left a voice message requesting an update. After 4 more days I sent an email requesting a status update … to which I received a brief email thank you and a promise of a call within two days. This was more than two weeks ago and I haven’t heard anything. I’ve heard similar stories from friends also in the market. What am I expected to do now?

Here’s another person frustrated with companies’ lack of response:

I know that none of it is personal, but it has me screaming “what is WRONG with people?” Why is it so difficult to hit “reply” when someone has followed up after an interview? (I do not expect a reply to every resume I send out.) Why does no one understand how hard it is to look for a job, especially when you’ve lost one? I can accept hearing no, but the silence is painful. I feel completely invisible. Being unemployed is hard enough, dealing with this insanity makes it unbearable.

If you talk to employers about this, you’ll often hear that it takes too much time to notify rejected candidates (which is nonsense—increasingly ubiquitous electronic applicant tracking systems can take care of this in seconds). Or you’ll hear that employers intend to get back to candidates, but other priorities interfere.

Job rejection may be one of those things, however, where hirers are damned if they don’t, but they’re also sometimes damned if they do. When employers do take the time to send out rejection notices, candidates often pick those notes apart. They may complain they’re too impersonal, or they try to read between the lines for hidden messages about their candidacy. Here’s one person taking umbrage at a pretty typically worded rejection email:

I received the following rejection: “Thank you for applying for our CRM position. We appreciate your interest in our work and enjoyed the chance to review your resume. Our committee has now reviewed all the applicants and you were not selected for the interview process. Their decision in no way reflects upon your excellent skills and abilities. Again, thanks for your interest and we wish you all the best in your career.”

… I know that I should appreciate that they sent anything at all, but I know that they used a software tool to collect applications and generate these letters that made it pretty easy (the job was as a consultant implementing this tool). So knowing that it was easy, I’m left wondering why they couldn’t take a minute to reread it, and perhaps remove an absurdly false statement like, “Their decision in no way reflects upon your excellent skills and abilities.” Unless they literally drew resumes at random to select interviewees, it’s just not possible for that statement to be true, and it’s insultingly patronizing to suggest it.

Candidates also sometimes get annoyed by rejections that aren’t more personalized or don’t contain feedback about why they’re being rejected:

I just had a phone interview and then an in-person half-day interview with three people that I thought went well. When I asked the manager who the position reported to what qualities should the person have, she said “all of your qualities.” I received an email from the HR coordinator a week ago letting me know that my references would be checked, and then today I received this rejection email: “Thank you for taking the time to meet with us about the ___ position. We regret to inform you that we will not be pursuing your candidacy for this position. Though your experience is quite impressive, the selection process was highly competitive, and we have made the difficult decision to pursue another candidate whose qualifications more closely suit our needs at this time. We will keep your resume on file for consideration in similar openings that may come up in future. We thank you for your interest in our organization and wish you all the best in your endeavors.”

If I made it this far in the process, shouldn’t I have received more of an explanation of why I was not chosen? Does this rejection email seem canned to you?

It certainly is canned, but that’s because employers are often juggling an enormous number of candidates and can’t write nuanced, personal rejections to all of them. Form letters convey the important piece of the message, which is that the person is out of the running. Moreover, experienced hiring managers have found that giving candidates a rationale for the rejection often invites argument:

I’ve evaded answering this question from candidates because people so rarely react well to being given the real reason—and it’s not worth my time to get deeper into it with someone I know I don’t want to move on with. I might choose to do it out of the kindness of my heart if there was a quick thing that an applicant could easily fix, but even then, I’ve sometimes regretted it when they are combative or argue with me.

Unfortunately, hirees are at the mercy of the hirers. It’s reasonable for you to expect a response from an employer if you’ve invested time in a hiring process, and employers who don’t bother with this step are being thoughtless and rude. But it’s not reasonable to expect that employers, who may need to communicate with thousands of candidates, will provide tailored feedback or nuanced, personalized letters to the people they’ve decided not to hire. And really, a no is a no—rejections are likely to sting no matter how they’re worded.