HR Mavericks

Eddy’s HR Mavericks Encyclopedia

Applicant Rejection

We all know how hard it can be to reject a hopeful job applicant. However, it can be an opportunity to stretch your empathy and leave the applicant feeling less dejected. Read on to learn best practices.

What Is an Applicant Rejection?

Applicant rejection is informing an interested party that they will not be invited to move forward in the hiring process, signaling the end of the consideration process for an employment opportunity. The word “rejection” carries a weighty connotation and can evoke the feeling of not being a “fit” or “worthy.” As you manage the applicant's dismissal, it is critical to ensure your reasoning is clear and concise, as honest as possible, speaks only to the related information provided by the applicant and is not based on bias or their person. When managed carefully, a dismissal can embolden the applicant to seek appropriate opportunities or a similar opportunity they’re better suited for.

What Are Some Reasons Applicants Are Rejected?

There are many reasons applicants are not ideal for the opportunity being sought. Here, we will focus on three core reasons that pertain to the applicant in the first phases of hiring.
  • Lacks required experience. Applicants’ resumes may not show any connected experience to a role where critical and relevant experience is required. (Be aware that there is legislation governing the way employers manage hiring processes. For example, see this article on federal laws and job ads).
  • Application is incomplete. Some applications require elements like cover letters, reference letters, writing samples, or photos. Candidates may bank on simply leveraging their skills through their resume and find the remaining requests tedious to complete or unnecessary.
  • The candidate is simply not the best suited amongst others. Your A+ candidate and A- the candidate may check all of the boxes as required experience for the opportunity, but it will be up to you to determine what other variables you’ll consider in defining which of the greats is the greatest.
  • Little work experience, not having the requisite certifications, responding late to the application process, and many other factors can also result in an applicant’s dismissal, but irrespective of the reason or the manner of dismissal, it is in your best service to the candidate to be honest and clear about the end of the road.

How to Reject an Applicant

How you deliver applicant rejection can have legal as well as emotional consequences. If the applicant feels that your rejection is unfair or based on illegal bias, they may choose to contest it with a discrimination claim through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That is one reason for keeping your rejection clear but concise: the less you say, the less you can be misunderstood. Your company policies must balance compassion and quality candidate experience with adhering to the law and lessening the risk of legal action. The first thing to note is that in most cases, there is no legal requirement for an organization to give a reason for an applicant rejection.

Align With Company Values

Next, consider how your rejection can align with company values. For example, if your company prides itself on personal relations as one of its advertised core values, sending an automated message may come across as disingenuous, and you may prefer a more personal approach.

Mode of Communication

Decide whether you will use video, phone, personal letter, or email to deliver your decision. In all of them, there are inherent risks to the company if you fail to adhere to a vetted standard.
  • Automated emails. Automated messaging is often used to dismiss many candidates in one fell swoop early in the hiring process. The significant “pro” about this approach is the reach: you can dismiss many candidates quickly in this way. However, a significant and important cultural con to consider is that this approach is impersonal and can be vague. You leave the applicant nothing to go on—no feedback or suggestions—so this rejection can feel quite cold and may speak poorly of your organization.
  • Personal letter. The risk in a personal letter is that anything you write can be discoverable and deemed evidence of something negative, even if that was not the intent. A plus to this, though, is that it restores the faith lost in automated messaging. You took the time to let the applicant know directly and invested your energy in them even though the news isn’t ideal. That speaks volumes to a candidate.
  • Phone or video. A phone call is the best way to signal care for a candidate. A phone call is genuine and highlights the importance you place on your vacancy and all those who apply. The worst bit of a personal call is the discomfort saying, “You’re not a fit.” It's also difficult to prepare for the applicant's questions. Tough conversations can build your skills as a practitioner, but dampen the spirit of the person on the receiving end.


Regardless of the policies you set, it’s essential to do your best to apply the same standard to all applicants when possible. However the rejection occurs, remembering that all rejections require empathy, and sensitivity helps you build your skillset as you deal with troublesome employee matters in other HR spaces.

When to Reject an Applicant

Managing the timing of an applicant's dismissal isn’t something that is often considered impactful, but if thought through thoroughly, it can end the candidate's experience with a good (or at least not negative) feeling regarding your organization.

As Soon as Possible

A general rule of thumb is to “let ‘em go when you know.” It does neither you nor the applicant any benefit to keep a candidate in a placeholder capacity. The moment you have given their credentials your consideration and determine they are not the best fit to go forward is the time to remove the applicant gracefully so they may also continue their search.

When the Pre-Screening Goes Wrong

Some positions require pre-screening as a part of the applicant process. Pre-screening could be something as standard as a background or credit check. If creditworthiness or a clean criminal history are a prerequisite for employment, it is fair and advisable to dismiss the applicant as soon as unacceptable results come in. Per the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), candidates do have the right to contest anything adverse in their record, and the prospective employer should present the rejected candidate with a copy of the notice and details surrounding the dismissal.

When the Next Up Is the Best Up

Some candidates' applications may be just a hair less than perfectly suited for the role. You may want to consider retaining that candidate until the ideal applicant presents themselves. Once an application comes across that meets your organization's mandatory requirements and represents a majority of the “nice to haves” of an incumbent, this serves as a good time to part ways with other candidates who are missing part of the most desired requisites for the role.

What to Do When Rejecting an Applicant

Dismissals of candidates is an unavoidable circumstance of the HR profession, but can serve as a great opportunity to stretch your empathy as a practitioner and to leave a positive impression of your organization.

Be Fair

To avoid discriminatory concerns or worries of inequitable hiring practices, it’s imperative that your reason is fair and related to their fit for the role from the perspective of resume or work history. It is unfair, inappropriate, and illegal to dismiss an applicant based on irrelevant things like their name or discriminatory values like their age.

Be Kind

No one applies for an opportunity hoping to fail. The golden rule of treating others the way you want to be treated applies here. Kindness can be manifested in being open to giving the candidate feedback and being willing to receive feedback. For example, a thoughtful recruiter will mention things they would have liked to have seen in your resume. Advice could be as simple as, “Don’t just articulate the extras when asked; give a hint of the extras in your resume.” What the applicant may consider as “too much,” a recruiter may have loved to have seen. In other instances, you can open yourself to the candidate by soliciting the applicant’s thoughts. You can learn a lot about your own processes by creating a safe space for feedback.

Be Timely

Timeliness in your response, whether positive or negative, means a lot to a candidate seeking a new opportunity. Seldom are people in the market just because;” job seekers are either looking for something new or better than where they are for a number of reasons, and some of those reasons may be desperate. Leaving someone hanging when you know you’re moving on pays no respect to the personal difficulty of awaiting the realization of a dream opportunity, especially in competitive markets where an individual may already be struggling with how to differentiate themselves from the rest. Being timely shows you understand that this is difficult and that the applicant is valuable.

What Not to Do When Rejecting an Applicant

If there are good practices for applicant rejections, inevitably there are bound to be bad or poor examples of the dismissal process. Below are a few things to avoid when you have to move on from a candidate.

Don’t Lie

A well-written requisition features mandatory and desirable attributes for a candidate. If the applicant does not have them, don’t lie to them about their application. Avoid saying things like “Your skillset was impressive” if it wasn’t. It’s a blanket phrase and offers the candidate zero context. They learn nothing from this and it is disingenuous.

Avoid Being Long-Winded and Situational

If you can quickly move the candidate along while maintaining a positive dialogue, do so. Don’t belabor the point of their fit for the role. Be clear and direct and provide details only when and if appropriate to the situation. If your company manages candidate dismissal via automated messaging, ensure that the messaging is generic enough that it applies to all users/applicants. If you have decided on an impersonal approach to candidate rejection, don’t switch your behaviors from one candidate to another of similar circumstance.

Do Not Be “Nean”

Being nice-mean, or “nean,” isn’t a horrible trait, but when discussing employment and someone's livelihood, this behavior can cause a lot to be lost in delivery. Empathy doesn’t always mean overt kindness; empathy is the ability to understand what someone might be feeling. You can empathize with a circumstance (rejection stinks for everyone) without making the applicant feel bad or confusing them by being too kind. Find a balance that is healthy and appropriate.

Be Compassionate

Consider that every candidate has a different reason for seeking new employment. Consider that the application or resume you’re reviewing is tied to a person, not just words on paper. Behave in a manner that not only speaks well of who you are but displays the values you would want to see if you were in their shoes and the values your company espouses.

How to Write an Applicant Rejection Letter

How you reject a candidate can leave a strong impression. If you are going to take the time to write a personalized notice of rejection, there are things to be mindful of.

Step 1: Thank the Candidate for Applying

A thank you at the beginning of a rejection letter shows that you appreciate that the applicant took time to consider your opportunity. They could have applied to any position, but the candidate applied to yours.

Step 2: Recognize Their Value

After thanking the candidate, acknowledge what you liked; maybe their resume was impressive or their skills worthwhile. Whatever it is, it’s an opportunity to recognize their competency.

Step 3: Close It Quickly

It’s okay to be specific, if that's your company’s process or culture, but in doing so, get to the point. Once you’ve thanked them for their time and acknowledged their skillset, let the applicant know that they won’t go forward in the hiring process. In this space you can give specific reasons—better or more suitable candidates, skills not aligning, needing additional credentials—but this is an opportunity to help the applicant reflect and learn. If done decently, the candidate may re-envision their resume and improve future applications.
Amelia Minto

Amelia Minto

Known as “Miss Sunshine,” Amelia is an enthusiastic HR practitioner who believes in leading with love, building relationships, and being a forever learner. Amelia began her HR career as a “Jane of all Trades,” taking on multiple functional spaces for small businesses with government contracts. In constant exposure to human resources functions, she honed her interest in pursuing the field as a career goal. Her career history demonstrates a professional who’s climbed the ranks…starting from the earliest HR spaces and growing with every new opportunity. If you ask Amelia what her strengths are, she’ll tell you “my approach is not traditional, it’s loud, it’s bright…sometimes too relaxed, but what a lack in strategic movement I make up for in interpersonal approaches.” Amelia built her career from Coordinating to Directing maintaining a bubbly spirit with a concentration on ethical principles and leading people-focused management. Amelia began her working career doing freelance art gig work. Her long-term goals include becoming a C Suite leader in an organization where she can help develop and create healthy work cultures, with an emphasis on mental and emotional wellbeing.
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Declined Offer
Employment Contract
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Offer Letter
Rejection Letter
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