columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I recently called an applicant to offer her a customer service position. She responded flatly as soon as I introduced myself. ("Oh. Hi.") I was a little taken aback, but proceded with the job offer anyway.

Her terse reply immediately signaled a complete lack of interest. She said little other than, "Huh. I'll get back to you later." I asked if she had any questions or concerns about the job, but she said in an almost annoyed tone, "No. Nothing."

I've had the same experience a handful of times with other applicants. So I wasn't surprised when she didn't bother to respond by the agreed time frame. She also didn't reply to a politely worded email saying I would be moving on with other applications.

Friendly telephone communication is an essential requirement of the job. Whether they accept or decline, it's a red flag when applicants reply with indifference bordering rudeness. My question is, would it be inappropriate to rescind the job offer on the spot in this scenario if something similar happens again? Should I wait and email them to cancel our offer of employment later, out of politeness?

Green responds:

When you've had this experience with other candidates, do any of them ever end up accepting the offer? And if so, what kind of employees do they make? Based on this one experience, I wonder if it's just happening with people who have already decided not to accept the job, and who just aren't professional enough to explain that (or are hesitant to do it on the spot).

But I wouldn't just rescind the offer on the spot if you encounter this again. It's possible that there's an understandable reason for the tone -- for example, if the person just heard about a death in the family, I could imagine the conversation going this way, and in that case you wouldn't want to say, essentially, "You don't sound enthusiastic, so never mind."

I understand your worry, though, if they need to have a particularly friendly phone manner for the position (which isn't true for every position, but is for this one).

Why not just name what you're sensing and ask about it? For example: "You sound a little hesitant about your interest level -- can I ask where you're leaning?" Or, "I'm getting the sense I may have caught you at a bad time -- would you rather I call you back about this?" Or even, "I don't want to misinterpret, and I'm having trouble reading your tone here."

A good candidate will respond to this by giving you more insight on what's going on (which could be anything from "Oh, I'm sorry -- I'm in a room full of people" to "I have the stomach flu and am trying not to vomit before we hang up").

But if the person stays terse -- and if it's rude terseness, not just reserved terseness -- there's no reason you can't say, "I'll be honest with you -- we're really looking for someone who's excited about the job. If that's not you, that's OK. But I'd want to move forward and offer it to another candidate if you don't think it's for you."

Also, though, I wonder what's going on if people are sounding warm and friendly earlier in the process (I'm assuming they do, if you've decided to offer them the job) and then checking out by the offer stage. Are you attracting a lot of candidates who aren't experienced or professionally polished enough to know that tone matters outside the interview? Are they learning something about the job or the company during the interview process that's draining all interest out of them? Are you not asking the right questions of references to find out about things like professional demeanor before you decide who to hire?

It's unusual enough that because you've seen it with more than one person, I'd take a look at where it might be coming from.

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