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What's a tactful, respectful way to notify job applicants that you won't be hiring them? I see a lot of angry online discussion of this issue. Nobody seems to like the common "if you don't hear back, you're not hired" approach, but it's easy to go wrong in other ways (too short, too long, too condescending, too cheerful, too early in the hiring season so it seems insulting, too late so it's no longer useful, etc.). Of course, part of the problem is that being rejected is intrinsically painful, so nobody's ever going to enjoy a rejection letter. The question is how to provide useful and timely information while avoiding adding unnecessary pain.

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    Honesty is the best policy. Just say we only have one opening and it's filled. – scaaahu Apr 29 '12 at 2:09
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    Honesty is the best policy, but details (such as the number of openings) that are none of the applicants' business are not. Unless you've already interviewed them, just say "We regret that we are unable to offer you a position. Thank you for your interest; we wish you the best of luck." (If you have already interviewed them, it's a different question.) – JeffE Apr 29 '12 at 19:58
  • How about just saying the job opening is filled. If I were an applicant, my feeling would be a little bit hurt when I read "we are unable to offer you a position". – scaaahu Apr 30 '12 at 3:18
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    "The job opening is filled" declares that there is only one job opening (which is probably false) and leaves open the possibility that the applicant may still be considered for another position should one arise (which may not be true). I agree that wording the rejection gently is important—I would never send a rejection letter that contained only those two sentences—but avoiding hurt feelings entirely is simply impossible. – JeffE Apr 30 '12 at 8:53
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Just from a perspective of one who has been rejected a lot of times (although from schools and research programmer, then as an undergraduate), fast and informative feedback is the most important.

For me there is little difference between hearing "the competition was very high" and "get out". Saying that "there was only one place" when if fact you don't want to hire someone is very short sighted. It may make the decision smoother, but in a long run it will create false impressions and hopes; and, in fact, such approach makes it impossible to say that actually you want to hire someone, but you run out of positions (see How to show interest in a candidate when no positions are available?).

Moreover:

  • waiting long is bad both psychologically and for practical reasons (i.e. other plans); I don't see a reason for not rejecting as soon as you are sure,
  • it is important to distinguish if you don't want someone now or at all,
  • any feedback is of great value;
    otherwise one gets no idea what was wrong, if it makes sense to apply again and how to improve; I would love to hear "there were 5 places but only 1 funding for someone with your status; I had expected someone with stronger skills in X and Y (but your Z is more than fine)".
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    Upon looking for a job on the academic market (and to a growing extent, on the private industry market, totaling a few hundred applications over more years that I would want to admit), I have never received a feedback that pointed to the strong and weak sides of my application. In some places that I really cared about, I would follow up with a question of what went wrong, and about 5% of the time I would get a marginally useful response. With several hundreds applications per position (I've heard about 2000:1 ratio in academic economics), the hiring person won't waste their time on this. – StasK Apr 29 '12 at 14:35
  • @StasK I share your experiences. However, the question is not on how it works but how it should work. When there are many applicants, I understand that personalizing rejections may be not an option. By when they are only a few of them, why not provide some feedback? – Piotr Migdal Apr 29 '12 at 15:03
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    I've never seen an academic job search with less than 100 times as many applicants as positions. – JeffE Apr 29 '12 at 20:00
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    It's debatable whether it's useful to get into specifics. This invites the candidate to start a debate, which could get unpleasant. Secondly, I doubt any legal department would allow such a message to go out, because the minute you say, "we didn't hire you because you don't have X,Y", you are vulnerable to a lawsuit trying to establish that the person you hired ALSO did not have X, Y – Suresh Apr 30 '12 at 2:44
  • @Suresh And how about adding explicitly the part "why" is unofficial (and perhaps spoken / in a different e-mail)? Also while "you don't have X" is a risky term (on many grounds) saying that "we wanted someone with a stronger background in X, among other factors". – Piotr Migdal Apr 30 '12 at 9:03
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In addition to Piotr's answer, I would add that it also depends on the profile of the applicant. For instance, if the applicant does not have a CV that matches exactly the ad, then there is nothing wrong to answer with a succinct "Sorry, your profile is not what we are looking for": the applicant took a chance, to see if a different profile could be of interest, sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't, and there is no shame in "failing" in this case.

However, if the profile matches, but is too weak, then it could be helpful to point out if the applicant is good, but there was a better one (in which case it might be worth to keep in touch in case the stronger applicant decline the offer, or leaves for any reason after a few months), or if the applicant is just not good enough (for instance, not enough publications, not enough publication in top conf/journals, not enough external collaborations, not enough teaching experience, not enough grant applications, etc). I guess it's worth doing so at least for short-listed applicants, who took the time to come for an interview, and maybe a public talk, and that can help them understanding what points they need to focus on in the future, especially for the youngest applicants.

That being said, I also know that some recruiter can be reluctant to give detail as to why they didn't recruit an applicant because they are afraid that it could provide means to the applicant to official contest the recruiting process, and maybe sue the university. In this case, I would suggest to say this kind of things by telephone, i.e. without leaving a written trace.

  • Telephone call may not be a good idea. It's tracable. – scaaahu Apr 30 '12 at 3:24
  • @scaaahu Sure, but I can imagine that few people actually record unexpected phone calls. Without a recorded transcript of the call, it might be harder to sue. – user102 Apr 30 '12 at 8:31
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    If you are playing games to avoid lawsuits, you are doing something wrong. – JeffE Apr 30 '12 at 8:56
  • @JeffE I agree with you, and I don't know how realistic is the threat of lawsuit, but I can understand it could be a problem. – user102 Apr 30 '12 at 9:11
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    "If you are playing games to avoid lawsuits, you are doing something wrong": not necessarily, this is not because someone is trying to sue you that you are guilty. Do you close the door when you are with a student in your office? probably no, but are you doing something wrong? No, you just protecting yourself from fallacious accusation. – Sylvain Peyronnet Apr 30 '12 at 11:15

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