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I serve on a faculty search committee at a large university here in the US. The part of the job none of us enjoys is informing a candidate who's visited and given a teaching demonstration that we've decided not to recommend a hire. We do it in three pretty bare sentences thanking them for coming, telling them that unfortunately, we cannot offer a position (without giving any reasons), and wishing them well. This is the best we could come up with.

Is there any better/best way to do this? How do other search committees communicate rejections? How much, if anything, do they tell the applicant about the reasons for the rejection? Do they try to do more to soften the bad news? And would they send the rejection by mail or email (including PDF attachment)?

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    It is my understanding that there are great differences between what is ethical/reasonable/good and what your legal department wants you to do. Which perspective do you wish to know about? – Wrzlprmft Feb 8 '18 at 16:50
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    I once received a rejection in the form of an attached PDF. It went to spam. Don't do that. – Thomas Feb 8 '18 at 18:04
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    This is probably equivalent to trying to say, "I love you too....but as a friend" in a way that won't crush your suitor. I don't think there's a nice way to say this, so it's just best to be quick and surgical. What you have is as good as it gets. – B. Goddard Feb 8 '18 at 18:05
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    @anderstood An email from an unknown address imploring me to open an attachment and giving no further details is classic spam. It's not a question of fault, it's just a fact that we live in a world with spam filters. – Thomas Feb 8 '18 at 21:37
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    Even just for time purposes, important content should be in the email text (not in an attachment or link). – Daniel R. Collins Feb 9 '18 at 4:12
82

Getting a rejection sucks. There is not much you can do about it. My wife and I have talked about this a lot and as candidates the only thing we wanted to know was how close we were and how we stacked up against the people who beat us. When sitting on search committess we have had various levels of success trying to inform candidates in the rejection letter about how many applicants, how many first round interviews, how many campus visits, how many offers, and was the position filled.

The other thing we do is make sure the letter starts off with we cannot offer you a position and then includes all the other information.

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    +1 good answer, having levels of rejection is helpful (of course, no recipient of a rejection knows whether there are truly different levels of rejection) – Captain Emacs Feb 9 '18 at 2:27
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    +1 Delivering the message early on. Nothing worse than if you have to read through the letter twice to make sure if you have been selected or rejected. – magu_ Feb 9 '18 at 17:13
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    @robertbristow-johnson you are correct, it doesn't really benefit the search committee to be nice to the failed applicants. That said, it is not much extra work to draft a slightly more informative rejection letter. While sometimes HR doesn't want to tell people about the status of a search, it is not really confidential. Lots of unsuccessful applicants end up stalking a department web page to figure out who was hired. – StrongBad Feb 10 '18 at 4:35
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    i didn't say it doesn't really benefit the search committee to be nice to failed applicants. i think it does indirectly benefit the search committee. the failed applicant might succeed somewhere else and may, some day, collaborate with some faculty member in the school the applicant was rejected from. – robert bristow-johnson Feb 10 '18 at 8:23
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    what doesn't benefit the search committee is to offer information that may or may not be correct or useful to the applicant except if something leaked that the applicant might use or misuse to litigate with. just say it was a competitive position, we're glad you applied for it, and we thought someone else was better for it. – robert bristow-johnson Feb 10 '18 at 8:25
20

One standard is to sugar-coat the rejection by some formula resembling "Thanks for your interest in our ... but we've had so many highly qualified applicants that we cannot accept/hire them all..."

This is nearly universally true, first. The possible salve-to-ego is that you're telling the person they weren't rejected because of deficiencies (even if that were the case), but that you simply couldn't admit/hire/whatever all the highly qualified people.

It is my impression that this would also satisfy any U.S.-style HR-dept's requirements.

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    What if no applicants were hired? I've seen it happen. – Thomas Feb 9 '18 at 3:33
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    @Thomas, it doesn't matter, the formula still works. If anyone asks for an explanation in this case, the true answer is "We hired every single applicant that our process allowed us to hire." – vadim123 Feb 9 '18 at 4:09
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    @vadim123 re your comment: I like how that sentence still sounds good while telling exactly zero information and being blatantly obivious. – Neinstein Feb 9 '18 at 7:16
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    @Neinstein sentences that sound good but convey zero information are called “BS”. It is my policy never to use such language, and I would advise OP to avoid it as well. Quite simply, no one but the most gullible of people will appreciate being manipulated in such a way. – Dan Romik Feb 9 '18 at 16:30
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    As @DanRomik notes, in effect there is a fine line between b.s. and tact. In my experience, the genuine issue really is that everyone on a short list is well-qualified, but we can only hire 1. Similarly with grad program admissions, and everything else. Thus, the issue is not "how did I fail?", because there usually is no failure at all. That is information, even if the situation is then frustrating. – paul garrett Feb 9 '18 at 22:25
7

I understand the desire to add information and soften the blow. But there's the potential for every word in the letter get pored over and clung to. If the applicant knows they finishes second, do they feel better or worse?

I think you can be polite and complimentary, while at the same time not sugar-coating the message. For instance,

Thank you for visiting our department last week. It was a pleasure to meet you in person, and I very much enjoyed your talk. Unfortunately, we are unable to offer you a position.

You are a very strong candidate, and I am sure you will find a position that fits you. Good luck with your search, and in your career.

You can cut out the parts that aren't honest, like it was a pleasure to meet you if they were a jerk, or I enjoyed your talk if it was terrible, or you are a strong candidate if they really flopped.

I would not offer any constructive feedback, or details on what sealed the decision, unless invited after an initial message such as the above. It might be better to deliver those kinds of remarks over the phone, again, to avoid creating a permanent record of a painful event.

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    No! Start with unfortunately don't get their hopes up to squash them. It is not until the third sentence that they know they did not get the position. – StrongBad Feb 9 '18 at 17:49
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    @StrongBad: I see your point, but my instinct is to start with something nice, just as we do in normal conversation. Unfortunately is in the second line; I think it's not hidden so far down as to be suspenseful. – Matthew Leingang Feb 9 '18 at 17:54
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    +1 for an honest, professional, polite and effective response - the best approach proposed here in my opinion. But @StrongBad does have a point, so +1 to that comment as well. I suggest delivering the news quickly after the minimal amount of relevant context, as in: “I am writing in connection with your visit to our department last week. Unfortunately ...”. The stuff about strong candidate/enjoyed your talk etc will still be helpful but can come later in the email. – Dan Romik Feb 9 '18 at 23:02
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    i wouldn't worry about getting the "Unfortunately" in the first sentence. this candidate is not illiterate and will probably read through the first two sentences in a second. – robert bristow-johnson Feb 10 '18 at 2:47
  • I think it’s really hard to write something that isn’t going to come across as rude or cruel to at least some applicants. In this case I’d be pretty annoyed at “I’m sure you’ll find a position that fits you” which comes off as pretty naive about the current job market and possibly insulting because it suggests that this job didn’t fit you. I’m sure you didn’t intend either, but I just think there’s no winning here. – Noah Snyder Feb 12 '18 at 14:56
3

There is no perfect way to "reject" someone. Regardless of the industry, candidates anticipate a minimum response but rarely will this cordial note contain a reason for the rejection.

Despite this, when a candidate offers their time to do a teaching demonstration, I feel it behooves the interviewers present to provide constructive feedback to the candidate. We should remember that the candidate spent hours on the preparation as well as the execution of this demonstration and would like the committee to acknowledge their effort. I make it a policy to always ask the candidate how they feel they performed and what areas would they seek to improve. Then I will provide some feedback to them about their presentation.

A word of caution

Given that we live in a highly litigious society, everyone must choose their words carefully. I advise not commenting on the person but focusing on what was presented and how it was presented. Furthermore, the old adage holds true here, "less is more." Keep your feedback concise and stay on point. Moreover, this feedback should happen at the end of the presentation so as to avoid legal issues that could ensue if provided in written form. Lastly, use your best judgement and follow your instincts when and when not to provide criticism.

3

One thing that I must add to the other excellent answers.

If the candidate has already had an on-campus interview, deliver the bad news as closely to face-to-face as possible. In particular, if the candidate already attends or works at your university, tell them in person. If they aren't local, tell them over phone or even Skype. Deliver the bad news by email only if a phone call isn't possible (or the candidate has expressed a preference for email). Deliver the news by physical mail only if email is not possible, or if required to do so by lawyers whom you are now working incredibly hard to get fired.

If your previous communication with the candidate was only through email, a simple plain-text email rejection is acceptable. If your previous communication with the candidate was only through postal mail, then your time machine has apparently stranded you at least 25 years in the past; you have more significant problems than delivering a rejection.

  • 2
    Receiving a phone call is frequently annoying, even more so if its purpose is just to tell me that I'm not being hired. A Skype call is even worse because the call would have to be preceded by an email to fix the time of the call and the software employed (not all people can use Skype at work). So, no, just send me an email, thank you. – Massimo Ortolano Feb 11 '18 at 12:46
  • @MassimoOrtolano “or the candidate has expressed a preference for email” – JeffE Feb 11 '18 at 14:38
  • I always appreciated the phone call rejection. I had a few less than professional examples where folks would simply ignore me, so I had to infer the rejection after a month (and this is for on-campus interviews). I understand this is partially due to people not giving the official reject while they still go through the hiring process with other candidates. One place I simply got the HR rejection letter via snail-mail (again for an on-campus interview). – Andy W Feb 11 '18 at 14:50
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    It can be a subtle difference, but I disagree on the default action: that is, deliver the bad news by phone only if the candidate has expressed a preference for that, not the other way round. – Massimo Ortolano Feb 11 '18 at 16:53
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    @JeffE When my wife applied for a job, she once got a voicemail message on a Friday trying to schedule a call for Monday, and she spent the weekend fairly certain that she had the job - after all, who would call to let her down? In the end, it turned out to be an overpolite rejection. I'm not sure you want to risk that sort of thing – sgf Feb 12 '18 at 8:55
2

Just something that I would add to some of the good answer we have already. If the candidate was really good, and would have been hired had there not been a better one, I might include a sentence indicating that we would be happy to see them apply again in the future.

Of course, if you ever write this, it better be true.

0

The following is my personal opinion, I don't claim it's provably objectively best.

And would they send the rejection by mail or email (including PDF attachment)?

Physical mail is too slow; don't prolong the pain. And this is doubly true if they're from abroad.

email is perhaps less dignified, but it's acceptable, especially if the applicant thinks about the above consideration. If you do it that way, make two versions: The body of the mail and an official rejection as a PDF.

But I think what you should do is make a phone call personally to reject. That allows them to do a bit of venting or fishing for information with whoever calls them - and it's up to that person to withstand this or to disclose some information - but emotionally it's less frustrating in my opinion. It also emphasizes how they weren't rejected out-of-hand, automatically, mechanically. Of course - the phone call doesn't come instead of the other options; after making the phone call, send the email or the physical letter (which is perfectly ok in that situation.

Do they tell the applicant about the reasons for the rejection?

This depends on what you mean by "a good way". It's more convenient for you - personally and as a department - not to say anything. The rejectee won't be able to argue, or to appeal, or in extreme cases to sue.

But if you care about the rejectee at all, then definitely be forthcoming with them. If you have a somewhat formalized procedure for evaluating the different candidates, that would be a good crutch for such a description: "While we were impressed by your X, another candidate presented a more impressive Y". If you really want to be candid and help the guy/girl on their next attempt, disclose what you had perceived as flaws - although that's the kind of disclosure likeliest to elicit arguments.

Do they try to do more to soften the bad news?

Generally, no. You very rarely have anything to say that will actually soften the blow. However, the personal communication - such as a phone conversation - does soften the blow IMO.

-1

i've gotten a few of these letters.

best to remind the candidate before they arrive for the interview/lecture, during the time when they are on campus (at least once), and in the rejection letter, is that the position is competitive and there are other candidates and that he/she may very well not be the one that comes out on top.

  1. so you fly the candidate in and lodge them at a nice inn at your expense. perhaps the day before the interview/lecture.

  2. on that night previous to the interview/lecture, you take them out somewhere nice to eat. perhaps include everyone in the Search Committee that can make it. maybe also the dept. head if this person is not already on the Search Committee.

  3. on interview day, take this candidate to the student center (where there is food) along with students (upper class and grad students in your department) that have expressed interest in coming to the candidate lecture. let the candidate interact with these students. pay for the candidate's meal.

  4. make sure the lecture is well advertised with 8.5 x 11" posters (and email sent to everyone in the department and perhaps related departments) announcing the guest lecture and the topic of the presentation. make sure there is no (good) reason for the candidate to think that, if no one shows up, it's because no one knew about it.

  5. do everything you can to relieve the candidate of any burden or cost (other than the candidate's time) of the interview.

anyone other than someone with the ego and sense of entitlement of Donald Trump should understand that getting such a position is an earned accomplishment, not an entitled right.

then when the rejection comes, the candidate may feel that they missed something, but they would have no reason to feel that they were deprived of something as a consequence of the interview.

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    I'm not sure how this answers the question. – Thomas Feb 10 '18 at 1:37
  • well @Thomas, sometimes a patient with symptoms of a malady asks "What pill can I take that will make me feel better?" and sometimes "answer[ing] the question" might be what to do to prevent or mitigate those symptoms. – robert bristow-johnson Feb 10 '18 at 1:48
  • I like the sentiment of this answer, but it doesn't fully answer the question does it? I understand exactly what you are talking about - but I feel the question is more about trying to provide feedback to unsuccessful candidates. – shaunakde Feb 10 '18 at 9:28
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    the idea, @shaunakde, is that you can kindly tell the faculty-position candidate that they are not being offered the position and that it was still a good thing, from the perspective of the department, that he/she applied for it and was on-site to be considered. that's the softest we can make the blow. but that will not be credible unless you actually make the application experience and the on-campus interview and presentation experience a positive experience. that's the central point. (that it appears a bunch of academics here are missing or at least not heeding.) – robert bristow-johnson Feb 11 '18 at 1:29
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    @robertbristow-johnson I do understand that, and I do not think this answer deserves downvotes. But at the same time, I also understand what the downvoters were thinking. For what its worth, let me try upvoting so you don't lose as many reputation points. Hard luck, sorry. SD – shaunakde Feb 11 '18 at 5:20
-22

"We'll call you" - a classic joke I know but still effective. Set up the expectation before hand that there will be no feedback, then you don't have to give it if you don't want to.

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    This just keeps people in limbo. – Pieter B Feb 9 '18 at 7:56
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    Sadly some places do proceed like that. This is maybe even more infuriating for academic positions than for other applications, because of the very tight calendar accompanying the recruitment season. – T. Verron Feb 9 '18 at 10:59
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    I don't think the OP was asking how to be evasive and unpleasant to the candidate. – Sneftel Feb 9 '18 at 11:23

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