How to write a rejection letter


From Flickr user recoverling (Creative Commons)

Over and over, job seekers tell us that it’s frustrating, and unfortunately very common, to submit applications and never receive any indication that a hiring manager has reviewed or even received them. But what about when you do get through the door, have an interview, and don’t get hired? We recently asked our Facebook and LinkedIn communities:

Question: What was the nicest (or worst) rejection letter you ever received after a job interview? No need to name names/organizations. Just wondering what makes for the “best” kind of letter.

Commenters in our LinkedIn discussion and on our Facebook page sounded off with feedback for hiring managers:

Anything is better than nothing.

  • “The main thing is just to get a letter or some information that the position has been filled. That common courtesy is often overlooked, but much appreciated.” – Colleen, Facebook
  • “Any letter is the best letter! Organizations usually don’t bother – which is frustrating when you spend hours researching them, customizing your application packet for the position, etc.” – Rachael, Facebook
  • “Probably over 80% of my applications just disappear into the ether and I never receive any follow-up after the auto-generated notice of receipt.” – Bahman, LinkedIn

Alison Green, who blogs at Ask a Manager, has covered this topic in her posts Should employers spend time rejecting candidates who weren’t even interviewed? and Am I wrong to be insulted by this rejection letter?.

Short, sweet, and personalized when possible.

  • “They all are a bit crushing but whenever I’m provided concrete reasons, that helps considerably.” – Kate, Facebook
  • “The best rejection letter I ever received managed to make me feel better about not getting the job by telling me that they were impressed with my credentials and made clear that they had actually taken the time to look at my application.” – Marianne, LinkedIn
  • “Keep it really positive, tell the interviewee that they are welcome to call or email for additional feedback regarding the choice (if that is feasible), and wish them luck in their search. Short, sweet, to the point. Honestly, any communication at all after an interview is a big step up from my experience in the job hunt!” – Lauren, LinkedIn

To Lauren’s point, for those of you who have submitted apps, gone through interviews, and are left to ask “Why not me?,” here’s another Alison Green column—this one at U.S. News— called How to Get Feedback When You’re Rejected.

People, not robots.

  • “I think the worst one was an email with the subject line ‘Reject after application- External.’ Not only did it deliver bad news but it also did not attempt to hide the fact that it was automated, made me feel that a human being didn’t even bother to glance at my application.” – Marianne, LinkedIn
  • “Those that are clearly form letters add insult to injury in situations where you have invested literally hours in an interview process and were considered one of the top candidates.” – Kate, Facebook

Be mindful of personal relationships.

  • “A couple of rejection letters that I received from [a local chapter of a national organization] did soothe the hurt of rejection a bit. It said that not being selected was ‘in no way a reflection of your considerable abilities and skills’ or something to that effect. They were signed by the Executive Director, whom I have known personally for about 15 years.” – Robert, LinkedIn

File this under “Not OK.”

  • “The worst ever? When i was told by the person in charge of the school that they wanted to schedule an interview with me, on a specific date, I arrived at the place, to find no one to show up. It took me three weeks to finally get an apology and told that position was filled.” – Casey, Facebook

Thanks to all of the job seekers who shared your experiences. I’d love to hear from any hiring managers out there: what are the processes, time constraints, or legal considerations that sometimes prevent you from getting in touch with candidates, or from giving them personalized feedback? Have you found creative ways to manage this less-than-fun part of your job?

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Comments (12)

  1. Liz writes:
    February 9, 2012 at 8:31 am

    I hate the ones that are obviously written with a snotty attitude that assumes you’ll be crushed. I’ve gotten rejection letters saying things like “You will find a position…just not with our company,” and “We hired a candidate with better qualifications.” This is clearly an attempt to puff up the employer’s ego by shooting the candidate down.

    I also once had to deal with totally unprofessional behavior by an employer. I was told I was not qualified for the job. Fine. I could accept that. Then the director contacted me two months later asking if I was still interested. I replied at least four times. No response. Then I found out on Facebook a few weeks later that they’d hired someone. You can’t count on employers always being courteous, but the director’s assumption that she could dangle me on a string was unacceptable. I don’t care what stage you’re in career-wise – a new graduate or a seasoned professional – no one deserves that kind of treatment.

    Employers basically forget job-seekers are sending out resumes “all over the place,” to many different companies – not just theirs. In fact, I’ve gotten rejection letters when I’d completely forgotten about applying in the first place. So I was hardly “crushed” about that, but the company probably assumed I was. My attitude is, “Apply…then move on.” I’ve often been tempted to write back, “You aren’t the only company I’m applying to, so get off your high horse.” I haven’t, because that would be stooping to their level.

    Rejection is a fact of life. So be it. And people won’t always be nice about it. But companies don’t always realize you aren’t “crushed” by that, because they’re not the only company in the universe. However, you can’t change their behavior. Just put that in the “I’ll tell this story at Happy Hour pile.”

  2. DMV RECRUITER writes:
    February 9, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    As the director of talent-acquisition at one of the region’s largest NGO’s one of the first things I did was put in place a mechanism that enables all candidates who apply though our online system to be informed of the final decision. I have been a job seeker several times and know how important closure is.

    I think any organization with candidate tracking software should be able to do this easily, there are no legal constraints, and very little time constraints on letting someone know they were not successful. Personalized feedback is of course time-heavy, I do not do this and respect other organizations that do not either. Our job is to find the best candidate, not improve your chances of success with another organization. Any feedback we could give you can get just as easily from an org specializing in interview training, or see your college career guide.

    I have answered this question anonymously in order to give some candid feedback to candidates. A lot of recruiters I know are interested in one-thing, finding the right candidate. When we receive emails berating us for our wording of rejection letters the names get noted, when we receive emails that thank us for the time and courtesy of getting back to them, the names get noted, can you guess which people we look at again?

    The internet has enabled candidates to apply for hundreds of jobs in a matter of hours, which results in 70 to 80% of resumes being unsuitable for the position, I understand this, and I sympathize (but this is in no-way how I would look for a job).

    I recently carried out an experiment on resumes for a particular position that focused on one area, for the sake of anonymity let’s call this area HIV/AIDS. A simple Ctrl-F scan showed that 15% of candidates actually mentioned HIV/AIDS in the cover letter (not hard as it was in the job title). In total 5% of candidates actually mentioned HIV/AIDS in context, and these were the people we interviewed.

    At the entry level sending out hundreds of resumes will probably work, and as long as the cover letter is geared towards the area I do not mind this. But mid and senior level people looking for jobs should target their cover letters to the specific role, I am not preaching here, I am telling you what works.

    Keep your spirits up and keep going, quality trumps quantity EVERY TIME, if you are angry then take it out by running or your preferred physical activity, never, never, never send nasty emails, post nasty reviews or bad mouth processes. If you think you have a legitimate complaint then do yourself a favor, sleep on it, then get advice the next day. You would be extremely surprised to know how easy it is to get a fix on an anonymous posting on a website.

    Lastly, please know that I am not defending the practices of other recruiters, I have met recruiters that I would fire in 5 minutes if they worked for me, but like any industry there is good and bad. Companies like Randstad, Manpower and the like continue to use out-date, unethical and reputation-destroying tactics and practices that hurt our industry. These people are not recruiters, nor are they salesmen/women. If you want to temp then use a local, American firm, trust me, they have the best relationships with clients.

    To Julia – happy to talk more about this, you have my email. To Liz who commented above – follow my advice, it is blindingly obvious when people like you come in to interview.

  3. Mali writes:
    February 9, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    It’s unfortunate that in these hard economic times some of the hiring/interviewing practices are some what shady. Point in case I applied for a position had 3 interviews and 1 presentation and did not hear a peep about the status of my application. Although I must say I wasn’t surprised because the Medical Director looked at my resume and said to me”Wow you have a lot of experience,” which was surprising because this has never been said to me in a negative way and secondly because the job description included “Masters Degree preferred”.
    What is even worse is when they call to set up an interview, you return the call only to get an email saying “Thank you for applying we have found a better candidate,” Why would you even bother to call to set up an interview then? Or what about going to an interview and you can clearly tell that they are just going through the motions because they already have a candidate lined up but have to follow the HR requirement of interviewing a certain number of people for the position. I must say that things have surely changed from 10 years ago.

  4. YRK writes:
    February 9, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    By the time the employer receives my resume and cover letter, I will have spent many, many hours in preparation. Because of my strong values and passions, and lessons learned from previous positions, I only respond to select advertisements. So if I have applied for a position with an organization, I have done so with great care and intentionality. I have spent hours going through their website, learning as much as I can about who they are and what they do. I have scoured the internet for any related news, and I have gone through LinkedIn to see what insights I can gain about their culture and people. I have pored over the posting itself to get a sense of the tangible and intangible elements of the position, and how it fits into the broader mission of the organization. I have spent hours crafting a cover letter that hopefully shows, clearly and succinctly, why I believe this position, and this organization, was worth the time and effort it took to prepare the application in the first place.

    So yes, a respectful response to my application and/or interview feels as if I’ve gotten at least a small return on my investment, even if I don’t get the job offer. A rejection always stings, no matter how much you think you’re prepared for it. But a nicely written rejection letter adds a level of graciousness to what can be a painful and frustrating process, and can even serve as a boost to keep plugging along.

  5. Michelle writes:
    February 10, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    I once had someone begin the rejection letter calling me by the wrong name. Seriously? You can’t even get the right name after I interview for 30 minutes? So sad…

  6. Michelle writes:
    February 10, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    *interviewed. Maybe that’s why…

  7. AlesiaMichelle writes:
    February 11, 2012 at 9:58 am

    Companies should at least send some sort of email saying that the position has been filled. If job seekers have to go through so many courtesy things and formalities it is time for companies and organizations to do it too.

    I’d like a post on how job seekers should turn down employment offers?

  8. Mary writes:
    February 12, 2012 at 8:51 pm

    One thing which drives me nuts about rejection letters are the ones which take the loving time to specify that I’m a great person with great personality with great skills and that I have a great future…somewhere else.

    I prefer them short, sweet, and to the point: not loving verbiage gushing about how wonderfully qualified I am when the offer’s going to someone else.

  9. Julia Smith writes:
    February 13, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    Thanks, everyone, for sharing your experiences.

    DMV Recruiter, special thanks to you for illuminating some of what happens behind the scenes, at least at your large NGO.

    AlesiaMichelle, we can explore a blog post on that topic. Can you say more about what you find challenging? Are you hoping we would address “knowing yourself well enough to turn down an offer that isn’t the right fit” or “how to politely decline an offer”? Or something in between, perhaps about negotiation?

  10. DMV Recruiter writes:
    February 13, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    Declining offers and negotiating salaries are the most sought after topics by my friends and trusted co-workers.
    “Knowing yourself well enough to turn down an offer that isn’t the right fit” is a great question but a totally separate topic.
    To politely turn down an offer? Don’t worry about it, it happens to us and we bear no ill will, if anything it keeps us on our toes. Just be polite and as quick as possible! It is totally different however if you accept an offer in writing and then turn it down.
    Negotiating salary is another one people hate, and really depends on the internal quality of the organization, a good organization should have this done by HR, not the hiring manager (obviously depends on the HR department) and should also have a predefined range discussed and agreed before an offer is made. Any good HR professional should be completely comfortable with and be expecting to negotiate, and should be treated as a separate issue with little or no inferences being drawn that impact the final candidate assessment. (Who likes discussing money with a stranger?)
    Personally I like the salary negotiations; you can never tell who will come out with an outrageous figure. But seriously, if the final offer is not want you want do not be dismayed, it may be that you have just hit the ceiling for that level / grade / position.
    I could of course give away all the secrets to making a successful salary request, but that would be no fun. Find a person you look up to and trust, and who is stable and successful in their job, and ask them.

  11. Michael writes:
    February 18, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    1. When rejecting applicants, less is always more. (See #4, however.) Keep it simple. Blunt is better than insincere or insulting.

    2. Rejected applicants do not need or want to hear that their qualifications were inferior to those of the candidate the employer selected, especially since this may well be untrue.[1]

    3. Rejected applicants do not need or want to hear how difficult the decision was for the employer. This *could* be reassuring if a relationship of trust and empathy has been established through an interview process; otherwise, it just sounds insincere.

    4. Applicants do appreciate advice and feedback about their strengths and weaknesses, if these are specific and given in a positive and supportive spirit.

    5. It’s fine to wish applicants luck or good fortune, but not mandatory.

    On keeping it simple: For someone who hasn’t been interviewed, little is needed beyond “The position has been filled; thank you for applying.” If the candidate has been interviewed, I think the employer is obligated to make some acknowledgement of the personal contact that occurred, even if it’s only “We enjoyed meeting you.” I was never more upset about a rejection letter than the time when, after long travel and a full day of interviews, the hiring manager rejected me without even acknowledging that we had met.

    [1] Applicants know that objective qualifications are only one of the criteria managers consider in the hiring process. Among candidates who meet the position’s minimum requirements, subjective perceptions of “fit” often take precedence over credentials. Furthermore, when it comes to qualifications, more is often less from a hiring manager’s perspective.

  12. John Lee (@johnleemedia) writes:
    February 29, 2012 at 11:48 am

    When I worked in development, the mantra was that everything the organization does reflects on development. It’s time that organizations see HR in terms of its impact on development.
    Understand the barrage of applications an HR department might receive, but don’t understand that when you invite 12 candidates in for an interview, why the 11 who don’t get the job, don’t at least get a form note saying the position has been filled. Most candidates just want to know if they can close that file and move onto the next thing.
    Have to say I can’t shake the bad vibe I got from a major non-profit I love, a museum that was thankful the materials I arranged for donation to an exhibit, the pro-bono PR help I gave them in promoting that exhibit, but when a couple of years later I applied for a communications position I was qualified for (not saying I was most qualified for), with a letter explaining my past contributions to the organization, all I got was a form note that it had received my application and said I would receive notification when the position was filled. I never heard another word (and the position was filled).
    Got to say that now when its Annual Fund appeals arrive, I can’t work up the interest to support the organization.
    The job seekers of today are the members and donors of tomorrow.

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