How to Reject a Candidate Based on a Resume

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Hunting for an employee can get tedious. It’s a challenging task, and it’s rarely easy to work through the process.

If you’re fortunate enough to get a lot of applicants, you’ll have to sort through resumes, arrange interviews, attempt to rank the candidates, and then conduct second interviews. I enjoyed it the first few times I did it. But the novelty wore off pretty quickly.

I enjoyed coming up with new, clever questions, but the interviewees–lawyers mostly–refused to commit to an answer. They waffled.

“Are you a big-picture person or a detail person?” I asked.

“A bit of both,” the squirrelly lawyer would respond, while trying to figure out what I wanted to hear.

I’d have appreciated the slippery responses if they hadn’t been pretty much the only responses I got. They all seemed perfectly prepared to say absolutely nothing, no matter what I asked. I reached a slightly cynical point where I started eliminating the candidates who actually answered my questions. I wondered if they were too stupid to have learned the game of saying nothing. Of course, the interview process then came down mostly to picking the right candidates based on their resumes.

Thankfully, I’ve been fortunate during most of my searches, and some excellent people have applied to work with me. I’ve usually had far more applicants than I could hire. Even picking mostly on paper generated some pretty good employees. Maybe I just got lucky.

Breaking hearts is hard

In the early years of my practice, the employee roster was a revolving door. I’d hire, I’d fire, and the smartest, most agile employees escaped before I could break them.

That meant I spent considerable time going through resumes. Rejecting candidates–quickly–became my mission.

Rejecting candidates, even when they’re unqualified, is hard. It’s tough to send that rejection message or email, because it’s often clear that the candidate put a great deal of effort into the application. I hate being the source of bad news. Most of us don’t want to be the bad guy in this scenario.

Many of us, feeling the heavy weight of sending a rejection, do something terrible. We don’t respond to the candidate. We put them in the reject pile, and we never address their application. We ignore the task because it’s unpleasant. We have such resistance to delivering bad news that we decide to go with no news. The candidate is left in limbo, wondering why they never got a response.

But you must reply, and make it hurt a little less

Ignoring the pile of rejected resumes isn’t an option. You can’t leave those folks hanging. It’s the wrong thing to do, plus it damages your reputation. A little effort applied in this situation not only helps the rejected candidate feel better, but it also generates more referrals for your practice.

Lots of firms, faced with more applications than they can handle, take the path of least resistance, and drop the rejected resumes into the shredder. If you handle it differently, you can generate a big pile of goodwill, as a result of their failure to properly manage a response.

Many firms cull through the resumes, pick the candidates they wish to interview, and toss the rest. That’s a mistake.

You’re on overload, but they are on pins and needles

While you’re receiving boxes full of applications and having trouble distinguishing one from another, the candidates are focusing on their pending application and wondering what’s happening. They’re compulsively checking their phone for an update. They’re hoping that this will be their lucky break.

For you, this process is a great big hassle. For them, it’s their future. It’s their career. It’s how they’re going to pay the rent. It’s their hope for a better tomorrow. Let them down easily, and you’ll make a friend.

Remember, these folks respect you enough to hope to work with you. Reciprocate that respect. Anyone who likes you enough to go to the trouble of offering you their time has earned the right to an appreciative nod.

There’s also something in this for you.

Treating these candidates respectfully will buy you more respect, plus new relationships and referrals.

These rejected candidates don’t exist in a vacuum–they’re part of a community. They’ve told others about their hope for an interview. Their spouse or partner likely knows. So do mom and dad, and possibly a neighbor or two. It’s not unlikely that they spoke with professional colleagues about you before submitting their resume.

Collectively, these people have a powerful voice that affects your reputation. You want them to feel good about you, to say good things about you, and to refer their friends and family when needed. These folks are the same people you’re going to run into at bar association meetings, courthouse waiting areas, and events around town. You want them to have a positive impression of you and your practice, even if you couldn’t interview them for the job.

How do I reject job applicants the right way?

If you aren’t going to offer them an interview, what can you do to treat them well? At a minimum, offer a response. Send a short email. Let them know that you received their resume, carefully considered their qualifications, and won’t be able to provide them with an interview. Some folks go a bit further and send the message as a letter, on law firm stationery, to add a bit of formality to the process.

Acknowledging each applicant sends a message that you care. Sending a letter or email will let them know that you take them seriously and respect them enough to respond to their effort and interest. Shockingly, that small step will make you stand out from the crowd.

This is the letter we’ve used–you can use it too

I’ve provided our letter here. Think of this as a head start–an opportunity to level up and improve your standing in the community. It’s always easier to tweak a message than to start from scratch. Use whatever language you’re comfortable with to let the recipient know you care.

Here is the letter we use:

Dear Mark,

Thank you for submitting your resume for our open position. We are very fortunate to have had the opportunity to consider you as a candidate. We have reviewed your resume and have concluded that our requirements differ from the experience and education detailed in your materials.

We very much appreciate you taking the time to allow us to consider your resume. We have had many excellent submissions for our opening and are very grateful that you were willing to allow us to review your qualifications.

Again, thank you for giving us a chance to review your resume. Your willingness to consider working with us was very gracious. We will retain your resume on file and will contact you if our situation changes. If we can ever be of any assistance, please feel free to call.

Very truly yours,

Drafting this response takes just a fraction of a second using any of the document assembly or abbreviation expander products (like TextExpander). With the press of a key, you can say something important to someone who matters and reduce the anxiety they feel as they wait to hear from you.

It’s a small gesture, but it matters

It’s essential to respond to each resume, and to do it quickly. But don’t do it too quickly.

I’m a fanatic for checking items off my task list.

If left to my own devices I’d send the kind rejection response within a few minutes of receiving the resume, if I was certain I had no interest in the candidate. Don’t move that quickly. Delay the response so that it’s clear you thoughtfully considered the resume–even if you didn’t.

For compulsive people like me, there are email features like ‘send later’ that allow me to go ahead and check the item off the list. I can go ahead and send the email, and it will wait in my outbox for an appropriate amount of time. That’s better for everyone. Nobody likes a rejection that appears to have been sent without careful consideration. ‘Send later’ is your kindness companion: use it.

The message you send is a small gesture from you. But it packs a great deal of meaning for the recipient. Create the form, build a system around the process, automate it, and execute. It’s easy to send these messages out in batches. Adopt this procedure, and you’ll reap the benefits of treating your brethren well. Over time, you’ll see the impact on your bottom line. You’ll also feel better, knowing you avoided the avoidance, delivered the bad news, and treated others the way you’d expect to be treated.

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