What to tell that IT job applicant, kindly, when the answer is no

How to give compassionate feedback to applicants who didn't get the job

It's bad enough when you don't get the job you wanted. But the aftereffects are worse. You wonder, "What did I do wrong?" and "What should I have done differently?" and "Was it because I gave the wrong answer on the manhole cover question?" Good luck finding out. You're lucky to receive a form letter that says, "We chose to move ahead with another candidate."

It's almost as frustrating when you're on the hiring side of the process. When you invest real time and energy trying to learn whether an individual has the right skills, experience, and attitude, it's depressing when the answer turns out to be no. Worse, even when you like the applicant, it isn't clear how—or if—to give specific feedback. "By providing feedback, you only provide leverage for a future lawsuit," one startup leader told me. Lawyers and HR departments are trained to think worst-case, after all.

Every so often, fate is kind, and you get useful feedback. If you are lucky, someone is direct enough to say, "We picked someone who had more manufacturing experience," or "When push came to shove, we concluded that the telecommuting was a deal breaker," or "The new CMO decided to bring in the team from her old company."

Still, sometimes it's possible for hiring managers to offer genuine advice. Here's a few ways you can do so—directly or indirectly. And if you're a job seeker, here's how to learn from those well-meant suggestions when you are fortunate enough to receive them.

Provide mentoring about the job application process

Sometimes it's possible to help the unsuccessful job applicant improve their ability to manage the process, including conveying their experience or skills.

A case in point: Thirty years ago, I moved cross-country for a can't-refuse opportunity, leaving behind a job I loved working for a boss I admired. I suggested to my boss, Jim, that he talk to my friend John. He had just graduated from programming school and was desperate for his first job.

But after the interview, Jim told me, "I don't think John is interested. He didn't say or ask anything."

I asked John what happened. "I was so nervous that I froze up!" he confessed. His fear had come off as a lack of engagement.

"Next time, force yourself to show interest," I told him. "At least blurt out, 'This is the job I always wanted.'"

John was fortunate: He learned what he did wrong. Most of us get an email message that says, "While your background is impressive, it is not the best fit for this position."

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When you give advice, make it specific and actionable. Sometimes your suggestion can be a simple fix, such as telling a techie to leave their graduation date off their résumé to make it harder for employers to estimate their age. Or you can encourage people to keep trying, such as Gil, an experienced game developer who was told that if he improved and expanded his portfolio, he would easily get hired. (He did. He was.) Or even, as one of my high school classmates was told, "Listen more than you talk."

If you see promise in an applicant, you can be more pointed. That made a difference for Russ, then a business development applicant, straight out of school, who made it to the final round for a job selling IT services at a big-name tech firm. "The hiring manager told me that I did not 'ask for the job,'" Russ says. "I presented myself well and was very qualified, and they were confident I would be successful. But in the end, I simply did not say, 'I want this job.'"

Unlike John's nervousness, which could be excused as interview jitters, Russ' weaknesses made him less suitable for the role of selling tech services. "If I was afraid to ask for the business, we might never get a company to commit to such a large purchase," he recalls. Russ—now a top-flight PR professional—took the suggestion to heart.

"Two different headhunters told me I was rejected for positions for which they had presented me because the potential employer didn't think I was a team player," says Mike. "That prompted me to take a hard look at how I was presenting myself and to work with a coach."

Sometimes the advice isn't immediate. Elizabeth didn't get feedback until the end of her internship. Her boss confided that in her original interview, Elizabeth didn't sound like she knew her topic; she got the internship primarily because the team lead lobbied for her.

"It was really hard because I felt very confident in that interview," Elizabeth says. "The boss then went on to imply that the 'interview me' and the 'work me' seemed to be two different people." His advice: In job interviews, Elizabeth should work to actively show the confidence and talent that she displayed on the first day of work. "Since then, I think about that conversation every time I go into an interview," she says.

Explain which skill or attribute is lacking

In technology jobs, the tools and languages change so fast that it's hard for anyone to keep pace. And sometimes the job requires industry knowledge, management experience, or specific job skills. If that's the reason an individual lost a gig, do your best to tell them. That kind of feedback can spur a job applicant to learn the new, in-demand technology, teach them to stress their existing knowledge during the interview process ("But I do have JQuery experience! You didn't ask!"), or at least reassure them that they didn't lose the job because of a character flaw.

"The boss thought I was perfect on the technical end and that I'd be fine with ongoing management," David recalls. "But I wasn't offered the job because I lacked experience with that specific problem of retooling the staff." It was an honest and fair assessment, says David. It wasn't a problem that he could fix with an online workshop—but it removed the mystery.

The job seeker might not like the feedback, but transparency helps. "Career switchers, people with additional education beyond bachelor's, people with degrees outside of that area of focus, or people with higher titles were not wanted," says Kip. "I wish I knew earlier, but better late than never."

On the other hand, by sharing the missing attribute, you might help the applicant understand and respond to their challenges. Mark knows he doesn't have a college degree, after all. But when he heard from a would-be employer that he didn't get the job because of it, it made him realize his interview failure. "I interpreted that feedback as a sign that I failed to communicate my value to overcome these perceived weaknesses," he says.

"Just today I was rejected for a consulting gig," Bill tells me. His contact explained that competing firms had more relevant experience. For example, one of them had previously worked with the firm's competitor. "He made me realize that I could have highlighted some additional relevant experience better than I did," says Bill, "The contact mentioned that as being in my competition's favor, even though my experience in that area is quite strong. I just neglected to call it out."

If it's your business process, say so

A friend once recommended me for a job I really wanted. He'd started working at the company six months earlier. I went through eight (count 'em, eight) interviews, felt great about the experience, and waited for the offer letter. Then it all went dark.

Two months later, my friend called me to tell me what happened. The company had brought in a new CMO. And rather than accept the candidate everyone else approved of, the CMO hired someone she had worked with at her previous employer.

It wasn't my fault. I hadn't screwed up in any of those job interviews. I'd just lost to someone else's office politics, or a dispute over which criteria should guide the hiring decision. That happens, and most professionals know it generally. But they don't know it specifically.

Be as transparent as you can with the applicant, and try to be clear about what part of the situation, if any, is the applicant's fault.

"They told me I was the top external candidate but went for the internal candidate who got promoted," says Harry. "It was good to know that."

"I heard [through a side channel] that the team was in a deadlock between me and another candidate," explains another techie. "It came down to a coin toss, and I lost. I felt reassured, because at least the ordeal was over."

Use the feedback—in both directions

It may seem as though telling someone why they didn't make the cut is simply a kindness. But it can benefit the company, too.

For example, Vera received a sincere email message from the director of engineering, explaining that he had to pick a more experienced engineer even though the group liked her and appreciated her passion. The team's budget had been slashed, the engineer explained, permitting just one new hire instead of three. "It struck me that I didn't have to be a part of the team to contribute to their mission," says Vera. "I replied to the email that I understood their decision; then I listed a few points of how I could help them without being a part of their team." The director was impressed, asked her to become a contractor—and made her a mentee.

Send the information indirectly

If you're uncomfortable speaking to the job applicant, find a way to share the feedback in a roundabout way.

There are plenty of good reasons to avoid direct confrontations, starting with legal issues. Social awkwardness is another common deterrent. How honest can you be when the applicant did, in fact, screw up? Who has the nerve to say, "The CTO felt that you came across as a know-it-all who wouldn't listen to direction," even if it would be useful feedback to an applicant with the right attitude. That's when you deploy those handy euphemisms.

"As a hiring manager, I've only been asked for feedback once. I didn't really feel comfortable giving it," says Jeff. The applicant had seemed distracted and poorly prepared. "So I just said, 'We went with someone who was a better fit.'"

One option is to use alternate means of communication. Notice how many of my anecdotes are feedback from someone other than the hiring manager—and none through the HR department. All the more reason to work with a good recruiter—who can find out the real reason you didn't get the gig and share it with you—or to rely on personal networking for introductions and follow-up. 

That's likely the best option when you want to give feedback without encouraging the listener to believe that you're encouraging a conversation that might lead to a job offer. (Particularly when the other applicant already accepted the job.)

And as a job applicant, ask for feedback. It never hurts.