One of the hardest parts of my job as a corporate recruiter is rejecting candidates. Frankly, it sucks. It doesn't matter if they've been through one interview or 10; telling them that they're not moving forward in the process is hard. 

Because the conversation is awkward and uncomfortable, many recruiters either procrastinate or abandon it altogether. Sending an email is much easier. If you've ever been on the receiving end, you know these emails are typically impersonal, vague, and general. They leave much to be desired--the answers to questions like "What happened?" and "What could I have done better?" It doesn't make a good impression. 

A few years back, Brendan Browne, LinkedIn's VP of global talent acquisition, had a very different experience that's forever changed how he and his team deliver bad news. 

In a post on LinkedIn's Talent Blog, Browne shared his personal testimony after being rejected by an organization that he was really excited about. Here's a snippet: 

Many moons ago, I was interviewing with a really cool company in San Francisco. In total, I had spent about 10-12 hours with this organization, and was expecting a call at Friday around 4:00 PM from their CEO to let me know what the next steps were. I consider myself fairly confident, so I thought I had a good chance of getting some pretty good news on this phone call. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. It was only about a three-minute conversation, but the CEO proceeded to let me know that they were not going to be moving forward with my candidacy. It stung a bit, but I had nothing but respect for the fact that it was delivered clearly. He then proceeded to give me some great, salient feedback. In three minutes, I went from being rejected to being a net promoter of that company based on how that conversation was handled. 

To ensure that every candidate who interviews at LinkedIn has a similar experience, Browne coaches his recruiting team to do the following.

1. Schedule time to have a short conversation with the candidate you're rejecting. 

It never feels good to be rejected, but in my experience, most candidates appreciate the courtesy of a call and want to know where they stand regardless of the news. And who knows--that candidate could resurface years later as either a prospective employee or a client. 

For example, I had a candidate who went through two rounds of onsite interviews but whom we eventually rejected because of a lack of experience. We called the candidate with the news and feedback and parted ways as friends. Over time, they stayed in touch and acquired additional skills, and we ended up hiring this person two years later. 

If we had avoided the conversation and opted for a brash email, that wouldn't have happened.  

2. Have specific feedback to share with your candidate. 

I know what you're thinking: Why would you take the time to give feedback to candidates you're rejecting?

Giving feedback complements your candidate experience and strengthens your employer brand. In Browne's case, it impacted him enough to create a brand advocate for life. 

So, how do you do it? Here are a couple of simple rules I follow: 

  • Be honest; be tactful. Lying to candidates and telling them they did a great job when they know that they didn't won't win you any brownie points. However, don't be brutal either. Rather than saying, "You have poor communication skills," you could say, "Practice communicating your thoughts in a way that's clear and concise, and engages your listener." 
  • Aim to help. Be thoughtful about your feedback and make sure it provides actionable insights. It's easy to regurgitate a list of everything that went wrong in the interview, but that does very little to help anyone improve in the future. Instead of saying, "I was disappointed that you didn't know more about our organization," you might say, "The candidates who come well prepared to our interviews read our most current earnings report, research the industry, and study our website." 

3. At the end of the hiring process, survey candidates you've rejected. 

If you think about it, every candidate who walks through your door has spent hours researching and learning everything they can about your organization. Even though this person might not have gotten the job, he or she has thoughts, perceptions, and insights that can help you improve your recruiting process and candidate experience. A rejection is still an interaction with your brand.

In line with Browne's story, the goal should be to create net promoters and brand advocates regardless of the outcome.

Rejecting candidates, as uncomfortable as it may be, is a critical component to every organization's recruiting process that deserves just as much time and attention as hiring does. These tips from Browne are a great start.  

Published on: Jun 28, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.