How do I turn down a job candidate after an extended interview process?
March 4, 2014 6:36 PM   Subscribe

I run a small organization, just a few employees, and I am close to filling one of our open positions. What is the etiquette for breaking the bad news to an unsuccessful job candidate who has patiently participated in a drawn-out interview process?

One of the top candidates for the opening has been through three interviews with us over the last 6 weeks. She unsuccessfully applied to a position that was filled last month (Interview #1), but the interviewers were impressed and recommended her for this other opening. We thought we may not need to do another open hiring process, and could just directly hire her, so at their suggestion I met with her one-on-one, since I hadn't been at her first interview. (Interview #2) I felt positively about her - we had good rapport - and I would have happily hired her. (I kept that to myself, since we didn't yet have the OK to make a hire, but I would be shocked if she didn't assume what was going on, or at least pick up on part of what we were all thinking.) But then we learned that we did, in fact, have to go through a full hiring process to fill the position. So we advertised the position and a different set of interviewers just finished conducting in-person interviews with the top few candidates, including her. (Interview #3)

After all that - we are going to offer the position to another candidate, who is even better suited to the role than she is. Ugh. I had been fearing all along that this could be the outcome, just because I was afraid of how to handle it. I don't know what the business etiquette is here!

What is appropriate to say to her, and how do I keep some heart in it, too? I want to keep a good relationship with her because our field is small and we will see each other and work together in some other capacity, soon. I find myself wanting to acknowledge the time and emotional energy she must have put into this process that we asked her to participate in -- and even compensate her for it, somehow, rather than leave her empty handed, with nothing to show for all that work she put in. I wish I could recommend her for another position with us, but we don't have one opening up anytime soon. Is there anything I can do to soften the blow or recognize / compensate her for the effort that she put in? What am I able to say to be nice and understanding - and maybe even apologetic - without compromising my organization or overstepping my boundaries as a professional?

Thanks in advance.
posted by inatizzy to Work & Money (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Honestly - six weeks is nowhere near a drawn-out interview process. I work for the government and it is extremely common for our hiring to take more than a year. It is astounding, but true. Don't apologize. You have nothing to apologize for. You're great, she was great, the job was great, the applicant pool was great - someone just beat her out. Emphasize the position - she was a strong second and you liked her enough that you are still thinking of her.

With this in mind, surely this candidate sees that you really liked and appreciated her. It will still sting that she was a close second for not one but two positions - but the fact that you invited her back to apply for another position is a real accolade. I would approach it from this vantage point, and emphasize what you really appreciated about her and think are particularly strong qualities.

I'd encourage you to consider saying frankly that you really liked her and felt that she would be a great addition to COMPANY INATIZZY, and ask her if she'd like you to pass on her resume to other companies. This could potentially be the best professional accolade you can offer her, and a concrete realization that she is someone you are impressed by.
posted by arnicae at 6:42 PM on March 4, 2014 [7 favorites]

I would tell her a few specific things that particularly impressed you about her, to let her know that you are sincere and that this isn't just a form rejection letter that you are sending.

Beyond that, if it's appropriate, you could tell her also that you were personally impressed with her qualifications and interview, and that you would have liked to bring her on board, but that in the end the organization as a whole decided to go with another impressive candidate.

Then you could thank her for the time she put into the process.

Above all, don't worry too much about this.Most job-seekers understand that the market is tight and that an interview doesn't guarantee a job. You don't need to feel too badly that you were unable to hire a good candidate.
posted by bearette at 6:43 PM on March 4, 2014 [9 favorites]

Good advice so far, one thing to add--consider whether you would be willing to be a reference for her, and, if you are, tell her so.
posted by box at 6:55 PM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just want to say, the fact that you even care at all will probably show through, and matters. Extreme discourtesy on the part of hiring organizations is so common these days that simply telling the candidate that they didn't get the job once you've decided makes you look like a class act, comparatively.
posted by threeants at 6:56 PM on March 4, 2014 [31 favorites]

Extreme discourtesy on the part of hiring organizations is so common these days that simply telling the candidate that they didn't get the job once you've decided makes you look like a class act, comparatively.

Sad but true.

I'd say something like this: "Unfortunately, the job is going to another candidate. Everyone was very impressed by you, but this is simply a situation where the other candidate came in with a background that was slightly stronger than yours and better suited to this position. While this didn't work out, we'd still love to find other ways to work with you down the line, and hope we can stay in touch and keep looking for the right opportunity."
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 7:14 PM on March 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

I applied for a job and was told by people close to the hirers that I had it in the bag, went through the long process, and was ultimately passed over for another candidate. I got a phone call from one of the hiring committee, who said that she couldn't bear to just send me a form letter. It was a lovely phone call where she restated how impressed they were with me, told me how much support I had in the department, and shared - honestly - that it came down to years of experience. She also shared that she wanted to make sure we stayed in touch and that she looks forward to working with me in the future and would love to keep be posted on other developments and possibilities. It sucks to be invested and passed over, but I found the conversation heartening and it really reinforced my opinion and relationship with the organization.
posted by lilnublet at 7:16 PM on March 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Amazon turned me down after 10 interviews, some of which were on site in Seattle, and I live on the opposite coast. As long as you are polite and professional you don't owe the candidate anything because they interviewed three times.
posted by COD at 7:17 PM on March 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Besides telling her sincerely what you've said here (you think she's great, you'd love to work with her in some capacity in the future, etc.), offering to keep your ear to the ground and send her any openings in your field that look suited to her would be a really kind thing to do. Even if you never come across an opportunity to follow through with the offer, the feeling of having someone out there on your side is a nice thing to have when you're looking for a job (especially if she isn't currently employed).
posted by MadamM at 7:35 PM on March 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

As a job-seeker that has pretty much given up due to the absolute lack of respect shown to interviewees, merely saying Thanks But No Thanks is far more than is common these days. Offering to critique any soft spots in her resume/interviewing skills would be a boon far beyond expectations.
posted by notsnot at 7:39 PM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Great advice above, I'd only add that it's always good to stay in contact with a strong candidate. Sometimes even the best candidates end up being a bad match and keeping a polite relationship with the runner-up can sometimes save your skin.
posted by quince at 7:51 PM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I got turned down after an almost two month process of emails, phone calls and on-site interviews and they just called me and said thanked me for my time and effort and said that they were going with another candidate. I was disappointed but I wasn't really looking for anything more than a polite answer either way. Ironically, the other candidate was a good friend who I'd encouraged to apply for a different job at the same company and they gave him the job that I was up for.
posted by octothorpe at 7:57 PM on March 4, 2014

I don't think this sounds too unusual or too horrible for her. I have been in similar situations as the interviewee. Of course she will be terribly disappointed, and nothing you can say will fix that, but one thing that will make a practical difference for her is if you can help her with her networking/job search at all. Even just saying you will pass her details on to anyone in the field that you hear will be hiring soon (if true), is great. Better is if you have useful contacts that you can offer to put her in touch with NOW, just to expand her networks.
posted by lollusc at 8:18 PM on March 4, 2014

Do you owe the candidate anything? No.

Is more than two interviews unnecessary? Absolutely. It's an abuse of the job seekers time and will only brew disdain for your company.

Absolutely, being upfront about them not receiving the position is the honorable thing to do. But, this practice of extended interviews is horrible.
posted by Unsomnambulist at 8:23 PM on March 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

Maybe don't break the bad news until/unless the other candidate accepts?
posted by Jacen at 9:03 PM on March 4, 2014 [7 favorites]

Yeah, I'm going through job hunting right now, and if someone called me to tell me I had just missed out on the position, but they really really liked me, I would probably fall weeping at their feet in gratitude or something. Total dickishness seems to be the norm these days.

incidentally, I work in a very small, close-knit sector, which has taught me to never carry a grudge or take things personally; I'm going to be seeing these people regularly for the rest of my life, so we'd better get along. So don't worry too much about creating bad blood?
posted by kalimac at 3:50 AM on March 5, 2014

I would, just to protect your small organization, not say anything specific about the person hired.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 4:25 AM on March 5, 2014

I would make sure that when you call her up or email her, make sure that you tell her that she didn't get the position first.

I went through a lengthy interview process last summer, and when they called me afterwards, they gushed about how much everyone liked me, only to say, "but we offered the position to someone else." It was a little upsetting because everything in his opening language for the first two minutes implied that they were calling to tell me I was getting an offer letter, and then BAM sucker punch! I'm fairly sure they were trying to soften the blow, but...

I still appreciated the call and could tell that it wasn't just empty platitudes, though. So good on you for caring about her feelings in the process!
posted by firei at 4:47 AM on March 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

I went through a series of interviews with Silverpop and never even got a 'thanks but no thanks' email.

So if you feel comfortable, call her directly. Start out with the bad news, "I wanted to let you know that we've hired another candidate for the position. We were very impressed with you and with your experience and in the end, we went with someone who had more experience with blah and foo. We'd love to keep you in mind if we have any further openings and if I hear of anything elsewhere, I'll let you know."

That's all you need to say. No matter what, she'll be disappointed, but that's okay, we all get over it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:20 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

A phone call saying "You didn't get the job. This might be bittersweet news to hear, but you did almost get the job and we really liked you and we will keep you in mind and contact you first if something like this pops open," would go over very well. You don't need to do more than this.

However, if you have any connections where you can help her get some other job--that would be the next best thing to actually offering her the job she didn't get. Don't promise her you will do this for her, just do it if you are able.
posted by mattu at 10:20 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

2nding firei's suggestion to call but let her know at the beginning of the phone call and with the right tone of voice that she didn't get the job. I had a similar thing happen during my interview process with one organization. I had a phone interview, an in-person interview with the hiring manager, an in-person interview with the hiring manager and a panel of senior management, followed by submitting a substantial assignment that included 2 pieces of writing and creating a critical path for a project, followed by the request to create a 20 minute presentation based on that assignment that I presented to the hiring manager and a panel of team members and that 20 minute presentation turned into another one hour interview.

I think the hiring manager felt similarly to your situation but handled it badly when she phoned me to tell me I didn't get the job. First she was so cheerful and upbeat when she identified herself and said she was "GREAT!" when I asked "how are you today?" that I could feel my heart skip a beat and had time to think she was about to offer me the position. Then when she heard the excitement in my voice she abruptly changed her tone to a much more serious one and I don't even remember exactly what she said but obviously it became a rejection phone call. I was extra disappointed by that little heart flutter she gave me, and I wasn't even listening anymore by that point and just really wanted that phone call to end so I could go have some ice cream and a little sob on my sofa. Upon reflection, maybe she did want to connect with me verbally to make it more personal but good lord it was awkward and I think she was embarrassed too so we mutually ended the call rather quickly.

All this to say - there are lots of good, short and sweet phone script suggestions above, and I would have appreciated any of them in my scenario. Of course I still would have been disappointed, but better able to absorb the good feedback and hear nice things about myself. I think it's awesome that you want to acknowledge her time and emotional energy.
posted by champagneminimalist at 5:59 PM on March 5, 2014

Thanks, everyone. Your advice helped me get my head around a complicated, emotion-ridden situation. I made the calls, and although they were hard to make, they went fine and I'm glad that I did it. I almost went the email route - but didn't want to run away; if they interviewed with me, I owed them a call.

Extra thank-you to those of you who gave me some suggestions for exact wording. That helped a TON. I'm terrible at finding the right words to express what I really want to say, so having some examples to build on made a big difference.
posted by inatizzy at 1:43 PM on March 11, 2014

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