Why we should start talking to the applicants we reject

Here is what I learned when I started giving feedback to internship applicants I rejected:

Whenever we set out to recruit interns for the Graduateland marketing department, the applications roll into my email account. We usually get between 60 and 120 applications, and so far we’ve always managed to find great candidates to work with us. But this is not their story.

This is the story of the vast majority of the internship applicants we do not hire – and the experiences I have made so far when getting to know them at least a little bit. All of that started when I began hiring interns at Graduateland in 2015. Sending out emails with rejections to applicants, I started to include the following sentence:

“I want to offer you to give feedback on your application if you drop me an e-mail.”

At the time, that seemed like a hiring manager’s professional equivalent of touching a hot stove to see if it is really hot. After all, there are a number of sensible arguments for NOT offering feedback to rejected applicants, such as…

  • It takes you forever to do it.
  • You’re subjecting yourself to the risk of lengthy discussions and legal arguments.
  • You are wasting precious resources on people you don’t even want to hire.

One of the luxuries of working in a startup is that you can list all these very valid points and then choose to ignore them for the sake of moving fast and breaking things. After all, if people like Richards Branson write blog posts advocating to “treat people who don’t get jobs as well the ones who do“, it seemed worth a try. About 2 years and 350 applications into the experiment, here are some of my preliminary conclusions:

1. Yes, it does take some extra time – but less than feared

I once read somewhere that “the truth is a rare good, but the supply still exceeds the demand for it”. When it comes to offering feedback to student applicants that seems definitely true. I find that for the rejection emails that I send out offering feedback, the average response rate is around 10%.

Learning so far: This is a bit of a blow to a hiring manager’s ego, but applicants do not hold their breath waiting for my decision – they move on, they apply elsewhere (or they don’t even read my emails to the very end). To most of them, a simple “no” suffices and the offer of feedback remains a nice gesture.

2. The 10% who do want feedback seem almost heartbreakingly grateful for it

I keep noticing that those people who actually respond to my feedback offer are the ones who were sort of on the right track with their application but just took a wrong turn somewhere along they way. In that sense, I always try to be constructive in terms of what they can improve, but also tell them what they did right in my eyes. As to the fear of narky remarks, passive-aggressive comebacks or snide comments, here is a sample of the answers I have gotten so far:

“This was the best and most appropriate feedback I ever received. There is nothing I don’t agree with, and I will definitely use it in the future.”

“Thanks a lot for your feedback I appreciate that 🙂 Have a great day and good luck with Graduateland.”

“Thank you very much for your feedback, it has been very useful.”

Learning so far: The above quotes are not to toot my own horn, but to illustrate the point that – when it comes to applicant feedback – our sense of risk versus reward may be skewed. We allow the fear of an occasional troll (whom I for one have yet to encounter) to control the way we interact with dozens of decent applicants who are genuinely interested in improving. Which brings me to my 3rd point…

3. Offering applicants feedback may be the most undervalued employer branding tool out there

No matter, if applicants actually appreciate it or not, here are some other responses to my offering feedback:

“I’m very surprised that you offered a feedback on my application, never seen that before”

“It’s good to know that recruiters are reading it [the application]”

“It is great to experience that Graduateland really cares about the problems that graduates usually have to face – such as not getting relevant feedback.”

There are more like that, the common denominator being:

Why are you doing that? NOBODY does that.

Learning so far: So, yes, giving rejected applicants feedback costs time and thought, time is money, and by that logic, it means the higher cost will eventually be attributed to those you do end up hiring. Great, come and watch your recruitment KPIs take a dive! Okay, so maybe don’t carve feedback time for rejectees out of your precious junior recruitment budget. But what about your employer branding?

First of all, it turns out you don’t always have to strain any muscles coming up with a witty tag line or getting your social media campaign to go viral. Offering feedback to younger applicants is a unique campaign hidden in plain sight – it’s so obvious that we tend to forget it’s actually an option. Plus, it gives you the chance to interact directly with people who are already engaged with your company and giving them a positive experience, despite not having a job for them.

Secondly, just because an applicant may not be perfect and relevant now, doesn’t mean they won’t become relevant in the future. Students and graduates at the beginning of their careers are still evolving – and, for that matter, so are companies. Even if we never end up hiring them, they might know and influence people we want to hire at some point.

Lastly, and more personally, it’s very tempting to just take that big accusing “No” pile of applications that accumulates on your desk and shove it into the bin. We all have that pile. But more importantly, we have all been in that “No” pile at some point.

Most students and graduates we talk to have no image of a recruiter or hiring manager in their head, that’s why they find it so difficult to compose meaningful and relevant applications – they have no idea who reads them (and evidently sometimes wonder if anybody bothers reading them at all). Giving feedback seems like a decent way of filling that blank space with an image. Even if it’s just the image of someone who remembers what it’s like to look for a job straight out of university.

I haven’t invented the practice of giving feedback to rejected applicants nor am I claiming to be the only one who does it. I do it because I have, in the past, encountered recruiters and hiring managers who did the same for me. For all I know, the only difference between them and me is that they are not writing blog posts about it (probably because they are too busy writing applicant feedbacks).

So this is a shoutout to all of those who regularly give feedback to applicants and to those grateful for hearing it: What are your experiences with giving or receiving feedback on applications? Feel free to share in the comments below or by dropping me an email at gh@graduateland.com

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