Candidates Need to Hear From You…Even if It’s Painful…



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You got me runnin’, goin’ out of my mind
You got me thinkin’ that I’m wastin’ my time
Don’t bring me down, no no no no no, ooh-ee-hoo
I’ll tell you once more before I get off the floor – don’t bring me down…



I was thinking about this topic the other day when I heard those vintage lyrics from the Electric Light Orchestra. It hit me. I had to make a call the next morning to let a candidate know he was out of the running. I hate making those calls. OK – I really hate making the letdown call. It’s painful (I digress).. Now that we have that out of the way, calling candidates to “let them down” is always tough. In these challenging economic times, it is super tough. Great people trying to land a new gig with more competition from (lots of) others all trying to land the same job. Smart people with families mostly hit hard by bad decisions other people made. It’s starting to really hit me in ways that give me perspective. Picking up the phone is gut wrenching, knowing the news you are about to deliver will be bad. Once the candidate answers the phone, I can feel it. I hear the (strong) emotions in their voice over the phone, as they wait for me to tell them where they are in the search. OUCH! While I think I can feel their pain – I know that I really have have NO idea what they are going through.

This news has to be delivered and by telephone. No exceptions. If your process in letting candidates down is using e-mail as your primary communication tool – you are doing them a disservice, taking the easy way out – and I think it’s wrong. I hate making the call too! OK – let me clarify —I really hate it!   BUT…now more than ever, having an excellent communication plan and process is essential, so candidates know exactly where they are in the search process. We all need to make sure we have “checked the box” and checked it twice when it comes to letting candidates down. To do a marginal job in this part of the search process is just wrong. OK, I have made my point:-

I had a candidate a couple of years ago who became quite upset with me on where he was in the process. We were nearing the offer stage with another candidate and while I knew he was not in the final slate – I also knew we were not at the finish line and I wanted to have back up candidates in case something happened (and we all know ANYTHING can happen). Candidate fallout is always a real possibility. So I waited to call him until the very end. This guy was ticked. He let me know exactly what he thought I should have done and when I should have let him know. He was emotional. While I wanted to defend my position of having a back-up plan until the offer was made and accepted – he was right. I felt horrible. As search professionals, we have an obligation to do the right thing, and that day I learned a very valuable lesson and hope I never have another conversation like the one I had with this guy.

Remember, candidates are truly ‘runnin’ goin’ out of their mind – waiting on your call. So – make the call…

FOT Background Check

Tim Tolan is a partner at Sanford Rose Associates and specializes in Executive Search in Healthcare IT. He's a closer, and you really don't want to call him unless you're ready to bring out the bazooka to bag some big game. When I started Fistful, I checked four references on Tim - his wife, his kids, his pastor and a client. The references were great, even if it sounded like they were reading from a sheet of paper. I just chalked that up to them being "detail oriented" in their feedback....


  1. Here here! If you think through what a candidate goes through, you know they have told family and friends they are in the running for the job, they think about it all the time and are excited. Every time they run into someone that person asks “what do you hear about the job?” and saying Nothing is worse than having to tell it went to someone else. I know many recruiters who’s best clients today are people they handled right when they had to tell them they didn’t get a job. Their professionalism led to future searches!

  2. Tim, are you saying you think you should have called the guy with a rejection earlier on, before another candidate gave a firm acceptance?

  3. Tim Tolan says:

    Kathy – so true. Saying nothing is never a good answer and handling this in the right way can (and will)pay huge dividends downstream.
    Ask a Manager – I would never call and let someone down without a firm deal and that was not the case here. When I say I waited until the very end – I literally let this play out a few days longer. The finish line on that particular search took longer to cross before I could contact #2 with the final verdict. Thanks for your post.

  4. Without knowing all the details, it sounds like this guy may have been a little out of line in berating you for not calling him earlier. You called him once it was the right time to call him!

  5. Wally Greene says:

    Great post Tim. Having lived on both ends of this scenario, live communication despite the news, is never a wrong decision. Also, if there is any way to provide constructive feedback as to why they came in second, its very helpful to a candidate!

  6. Tim Tolan says:

    Wally – a sensitive and very tough question. If the feedback is based on lack of functional expertise – that’s good feedback. If they missed the oppty answer a direct question or did not interview well – that is also solid constructive feedback. However, if the reasons are around (bad) chemistry or cultural fit, I let them know my clients feedback was to consider other candidates or that they are going in a different direction on the search.
    No feedback is of course, no good! It’s hard to go too much further into the details. Thanks Wally.

  7. Interesting post…I had something similar on my blog about the way job candidates are being treated these days. Perhaps your readers might find it helpful to read more comments that add to this discussion:

  8. Tim Tolan says:

    Anita thanks for your comment and to providing the re-direct of your content for the FOT readers to follow.

  9. Brad Attig says:

    If you consider that an average recruiter has a send out to placement ratio of 7 to 1, this is a call most recruiters make quite frequently. Doesn’t make it any easier but I found that setting expectations with the candidate early made it better for both myself and the candidate.
    I was always honest(?) and told everyone I sent out to interview that only 1 in 10 got a job offer. I set the candidates expectation low which usually helped. Even though when I stopped recruiting my send out to placement ratio was 2.1 to 1, I still used the #10.
    I agree with you about doing the right thing but there are ways to keep a candidate on the back burner while an offer is being made to the front runner. It’s not your fault the #2 was #2…
    Remember, and I might sound insensitive, but when candidates start paying your fees, they have a right to tell you how to do your job. Your job is to find the most qualified individual for your client. I always told candidates that up-front. If they didn’t like it, I didn’t present them.
    I used to hear from the really beligerent candidates, “Well, you’re going to make a lot of money off of me.” I’d reply, “No, I’m going to make a lot of money by doing my job well and satisfying my clients.”
    Brad Attig

  10. C3 says:

    Kudos on a great post. During these trying times both recruiters and candidates need to be professional in communicating with each other. The candidate who berated you was out of line. I highly doubt you might consider this person for a future suitable opening.
    Speaking for myself and I am sure there are others out there, I prefer hearing the news even with some feedback from the recruiter as to what may have excluded me from the final round. I know this is a delicate area and some companies have strict rules on what can and cannot be said.
    Thank you again for your thoughts.

  11. Tim,

    Excellent post, I couldn’t agree with you more. Candidates are dying to hear back from recruiters and recruiters are avoiding making the decline calls. I agree, making these calls is one of the things that I dislike most about recruiting but it’s part of the job and there is no excuse for not calling your candidates and delivering the news.

    However, I would be cautious of the content of the message you deliver. Coming a corporate staffing perspective, I expect candidates to be contacted but discourage my recruiters from giving specific feedback to them. A recruiter might have good intentions but one wrong comment could put your company at risk for a potential employment discrimination lawsuit. Since recruiters aren’t career counselors and interview processes, at most companies, are unstructured and interview feedback is very subjective; corporate recruiters must deliver the news but keep it simple.

    Recruiting firms might be able to provide more detailed feedback, assuming your client is providing you with comprehensive feedback, but bottom line is that candidates are waiting for the call; bad or good, it has to be done. 

    Thanks for addressing this topic.


  12. Tim Tolan says:

    Brad and C3: Thanks for your feedback. And yes, I work for my clients (who pay my fees) and try to deliver meaningful value in the work we do. In most cases the letdown is short and sweet.
    Kirk: That is the reason I stated that in most cases I simply state that the client is considering other candidates OR simply – they are going in a “different direction” on the search. Too Much Information (TMI) is a bit risky – but no information is just not good. Thanks for your post.

  13. Great post. the true difference between a successful recruiter and a worldclass recruiter is not the billings or seats filled but the difference you make by being compelled to respond honestly to every candidate- most of whom will get only bad news.
    Every position you fill potentially satisfies one client and one candidate and puts food on today’s table. How you treat the rest of those (some of whom never got beyond the interest stage) defines your legacy. Recruiters are legion. Successful recruiters are uncommon. World class recruiters are national treasures.

  14. RecruiterGuy says:

    Great post, Tim. I’ve had similar discussions with many a recruiter over the years that hated picking up and making the exact same call.
    When placing the call was difficult because of empathy as opposed to confrontation I knew the recruiter I was speaking with was passionate about their craft – and the people that drive it.
    It’s good to hate that call – corporate or not it shows that we’ve not forgotten that there are people on the other end of those resumes.
    Kirk also makes an excellent point in the feedback that we provide to job seekers. More than once I’ve worked with good recruiters that were tied up with their legal department or stuck in an endless barrage of emails or phone calls because they were just trying to coach a job seeker or “help them out.”
    A clear and succinct message with a confident delivery is best. And it should hurt a little.
    Thanks for the article and reminders.
    Chris Hoyt
    aka: RecruiterGuy

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