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Beyond the Rejection Letter: 7 Tips to Soften Job Rejection Over the Phone

 If you’re a recruiter, rejecting candidates is likely the most agonizing part of your role. After learning what your candidate cares most deeply about, you have to break the news that your team won’t be continuing their process. For candidates, that rejection is equally - arguably more - torturous. Perhaps they imagined sitting at that one desk near the window in your office or squealed to their roommate about finding their dream job; it’s heartbreaking to realize that dream won’t become a reality.

While rejection is an inevitable fixture of your role as a recruiter, you can make it less painful for your candidates. In the past, we shared 4 ways to humanize your rejection letters. But what's best practice when you've gotten to know a candidate better, and you'd rather jump on the phone with them? What do you say in those rejection callsRecently, Lever G&A Recruiter Brynna Locke and Arrow Electronics Recruiter Joshua Chen openly shared 7 examples of how they break the news over the phone - and why their approach creates a better experience for many candidates.

  • Be sensitive and careful about how you begin the call

“ Hi ___, how’s it going? Thank you for jumping on the phone with me - I know you’re probably busy. I wanted to let you know that we won’t be moving forward with your application, but we’ve genuinely enjoyed getting to know you and learning about your passion for fostering customer happiness.”  - Josh

This is no ordinary check-in with your candidate, so you may want to approach the conversation with a slightly different tone than usual. You don’t want to sound overly somber, but too much cheeriness, or distracting questions like “How has your morning been?” may confuse your candidate. Instead, thank them for their time and then begin the hard conversation. Like Josh does, you can communicate how much you’ve enjoyed learning about them. Perhaps they opened up about their deep interest in user research or their personal blog - take a moment to recognize how awesome those passions are.

Remember: it’s much easier to make these conversations human when you actually know your candidates well. But to build those deeper relationships, you have to make your pipeline smaller. In Josh’s experience, it’s best practice to source less candidates and commit to getting to know that select bunch. Not only will you get more responses in your initial messages, but you can sincerely convey why you enjoyed getting to know your candidates in those rejection calls.

  1. Tell them what they did well

“We hope you know how much everyone enjoyed talking to you. We found that you were a great communicator, curious, and a quick learner.” - Brynna

Just because you’re not hiring them now doesn’t mean they’re not a strong candidate. So if possible, list a few of the dynamic qualities you saw in them; that positive reinforcement will give them more confidence in their next interview process. Often, Brynna will gush about her candidates' strengths and briefly explain why she thinks they’re valuable.

Be sure to strike a balance here though! Don’t get so lost in your flurry of compliments that you lose direction in your call.

  1. Give them high-level constructive feedback

“While you were a fantastic candidate in x, y and z ways, we are looking for candidates with more hands-on customer implementation experience.” - Brynna

If you do choose to provide constructive feedback, make it actionable. Suggest they make changes that are actually within their control. If your candidate only has one year of product marketing experience, for example, but you’re looking for the breadth of knowledge that comes with three to five, it could be productive to let them know. What’s an example of unproductive feedback?  “Don’t just tell a nervous candidate that they seemed too nervous and their communication skills weren’t clear, for example,” says Brynna. That feedback could exacerbate the problem and make them even more nervous in their next interview process.

Some teams have a policy that prohibits feedback in order to avoid legal stickiness, as is the case at Joshua’s company Arrow Electronics. This rule doesn't always sit well with candidates, so the key is to first explain that it applies for everyone, and that it’s out of your control. Then, you may want to acknowledge how disappointing that might be for them. Express your empathy around how inconvenient the policy is.

  1. Express your desire to maintain contact

“We’d love to stay in touch, and we’ll definitely reach out to you if there’s a role that opens up that’s a better fit for you here.” - Josh

If you build a strong relationship with your candidate, suggest staying in contact. Perhaps you know of a role on another team they’d be better suited for, or you’d like to keep in touch in case a more fitting role opens up on your team in the future.

Sometimes, the job market may seem enormous, but it’s tinier than you think. “Just remember that every relationship comes back to you in some form,” advises Josh. “That candidate you just let down knows a ton of others.” If you abruptly end their process, they’ll remember that experience and tell their friends and friends’ friends. Think about when you or your roommate have a poor customer experience; don’t you then associate the entire brand with that interaction?

  1. Check in to see if they have any questions to surface

“Does all of that make sense? Do you have any questions for me?” - Josh and Brynna


You treated the rest of the recruiting process like a two-way street - don’t stop now. Before you jump off the phone, give your candidate a chance to ask questions. Naturally, some candidates will want to quickly escape the conversation, but others will want to talk through their thoughts and even learn additional context. Remember that it’s on you to craft a supportive, caring candidate experience from start to finish.

  1.  Don’t go back on your word

“Well, maybe we can move forward with you after all. Let me actually talk to the team again to see if we’d be able to hire you.”

You know what a great fit feels like, so stick to your guns. If you do change your mind in that conversation, you are opening yourself up to a candidate experience debacle should the team not agree to reconsider their application.

A great best practice? Write out what you want to say beforehand. That way, you know you’ll give your candidates a logical explanation. But don’t be afraid to look up from your sheet of paper and converse naturally, of course.  “I like to keep my outline structured but unstructured,” says Josh. “I map out my key points, but I also know to be fluid and adaptable depending on the situation.”

  1. Don’t tell them that their age, race, religion, etc. had anything to do with your decision

“We’re looking for someone a bit younger, less nervous, and more technically savvy.”


If you're giving explanations like this in your phone calls, there’s an even greater problem. Before you even begin hiring, you should know the prohibited forms of discrimination in employment (and know not to practice them). But in case you need a refresher, here you go!

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These tips won't make rejection calls easy. Even saying ‘rejection’ and easy’ in the same sentence sounds strange. Instead, our hope is that the suggestions above help you maintain all the meaningful relationships you build.

To learn how the team at KPMG NZ is enhancing every candidate experience through thoughtful rejection letters, read our customer spotlight here.