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 had a great phone interview for a position I was very excited about. Because the hiring manager was going to be out of the office for a while, he was planning to interview some candidates that week and other candidates when he got back.

But I received an email this morning explaining that in the course of conducting in-person interviews, he had identified a candidate whose professional experience and technical skills were an exceptional match, and whose academic background in international studies and languages was very well suited for the position. The email went on to say that they had decided to offer the candidate the position and she accepted.

I am of course disappointed, but of all the interviews I've had over the past few years, this is the only non-canned rejection I've gotten. I guess I wonder why hiring managers don't tend to write more thoughtful rejections to candidates who have put in the time and energy interviewing. Does it really add that much extra time to the process, since the pool has already been whittled down to the top few candidates anyway?

Green responds:

There are a few reasons employers usually rely on form rejection notes rather than writing personalized letters to each candidate, giving detailed feedback about why they were rejected.

First, employers are generally sending out a lot of rejection letters. They might have hundreds of applicants for a single role. That's a lot of personalized rejections to write! And even if you're only suggesting personalizing these notes for finalists, that could be five or six people--multiplied by potentially dozens of roles in a month. When you need to communicate the same information over and over to a lot of people, it just makes sense to use form letters. Those form letters can still be warm and personable, but they're probably going to say the same thing.

Second, lawyers often advise employers not to be specific about their reasons for rejecting someone, because it can open the door to legal issues. For instance, if I tell you that we're looking for a candidate with more management experience, but later on I hire a candidate without that experience (because she wowed me in some other legitimate way), you might conclude that the real reason I didn't hire you was because you're pregnant or a woman or some other legal issue that my company will now have to spend time and money defending itself against. So lawyers often prefer the "say nothing" policy.

Third, the reason for the rejection may be difficult or awkward to articulate. Sometimes the reason is something like this:

  • you were OK but not great
  • you had bad social skills
  • you didn't communicate clearly
  • you didn't seem as smart as what we need in this role
  • you had really lukewarm references
  • you were long-winded in an environment where you'd need to be more concise
  • you came across as really cold
  • all manner of other awkward reasons

You might be thinking that you'd love to hear that kind of feedback so you know if something like this is causing you a problem! But interviewers aren't job coaches, and most don't have the time to invest in providing this sort of nuanced coaching to people they're not hiring. Plus, a lot of rejected job candidates argue when they get feedback--and once an interviewer has experienced that a time or two, they may be reluctant to open the door to that again.

All this said, if you're ever rejected from a job where you had strong rapport with your interviewer, you can try contacting them and asking for feedback. You won't always get it, but some interviewers are willing to respond to direct requests for feedback, especially if the answer is something relatively easy to convey.

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