How to Reject People and Hire Them Later: A Handbook

How to Reject People and Hire Them Later: A Handbook

Anyone involved in hiring knows that at its heart there is a painful process, repeated over and over.

Rejection hurts on the receiving end, and it’s not all that fun to dish out every day, believe me. To reject someone is to disappoint them, which is not something we’re brought up to enjoy.

But as a hiring manager, you disappoint 90 percent of the people you’re in contact with. Your company needs a team that moves the product forward. Now. Your team members want better applicants and more of them — a broad selection.

Your applicants want jobs, as well as a transparent hiring process with punctual communication, clear expectations and a professional reception at every stage. It turns out that good process is the only thing you can give an applicant with any reliability. And in the end, it’s almost as important as the job itself.

About two months ago, I was inspired by an essay by Brooke Allen that asks a crucial question: What do we owe the people we do not hire? Since every hiring manager by definition rejects most applicants, the answer will impact how they relate to many, many people every day; it’s second only to the question of how we find the right team members in the first place.


The first thing hiring managers should do for applicants is spare their time and emotional energy. Early rejections are worth more than late rejections. Everyone has limited minutes to burn each day, and employer indecision and poor filters have a huge, invisible cost.

I used to live at a Zen Monastery in Marin County. The wooden sign near the door of the zendo said: “I humbly say to those who study the mystery, Don’t waste time.” The Internet tells me that’s from Shitou, an eighth-century Chinese Zen master — a 21st-century recruiter can’t really top it.

I don’t mean to, but I waste people’s time. One of the biggest factors delaying my responses is confusion.

Sometimes I don’t know how to categorize an application, sometimes my teams’ requirements are in flux, sometimes other moving parts will determine my response. What I owe to applicants is a quick note saying we can’t give them a firm response right away.

Applicants can help by being painfully, suffocatingly clear about themselves, their skills and what kind of role they’re seeking.

As a side note, be aware that there are perverse incentives for recruiters to widen the applicant funnel more than they should. Hiring, like dating, is a numbers game. You want to walk down the street and have everyone look at you. Pizazz!

Appearing as a false positive to others increases your chances of attracting the true positives whom you want to hire. This dynamic applies as much to applicants’ resumes as it does to employers’ job descriptions. This is at the heart of the noise and unreliability of information in the hiring market.


Time isn’t the only thing wasted in the hiring process. It’s also a huge sink for emotion, namely hope. Why do you think people call April “the cruellest month”? It’s a T.S. Eliot line:

April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain.

Those lilacs come around once a year, and they do a lot of work. That effort shouldn’t be for nothing. We want people to spend their lilacs where it will get them the highest returns.

We can probably say that discouragement happens when you put a great deal of effort into a process without reward, without response, and/or without predictable feedback. Which brings me to the next thing employers owe candidates.


Everyone who puts any effort into their application to FutureAdvisor deserves honest feedback on why we can’t consider them. The more time and effort they put into the process, the more specific that feedback should be. (This point was inspired, again, by Brooke.)

I owe feedback even more because I, as a recruiter, often encourage people to apply to us based on the skills listed on their resume. When they are rejected later, as often happens, I need to explain, gently, what my team perceived to be lacking.

Hi [NAME],

After discussions with the team, it seems we’re not quite the right fit for your skills.

I believe we owe every candidate honest feedback at the end of the process, and I hope I can give it to you without offense.

You’ve obviously got some skills we’re looking for. That said, the [X] team feels we need someone with slightly more experience in [COOKING RISOTTO] and [ROPING STEERS].

Applying for jobs can be thankless. We appreciate the time and effort you put into the application process, and we wish you the best in your search.


Your Friendly Rejection Guy

There are a couple elements here that I’d like to point out.

First: there’s no blame. Hiring, like dating, is not about one person being “good enough” for another. We are complex beings with idiosyncratic requirements that change over time. Employers and applicants are no less complex. So “rejection” is not an objective measure by which applicants should judge themselves.

Second, there’s no ranking. Some HR departments spit out rejection letters that automatically claim the employer has found someone more qualified. That’s both informationally poor and emotionally thoughtless feedback that implies a false inferiority.

Most rejections I make are not because I found someone more qualified, but because I know or have been told by my colleagues that the candidate and the role we offer are simply not the right fit.


The unspoken mindset in much of the job market is: “How can I get mine?” As in, how can I optimize this process to benefit me or my company? Sure, that’s a recruiter’s job and it’s perfectly rational, but it’s also insufficient.

This process works much better if we all ask ourselves: What does the other party need, and am I in a position to give it to them? If both sides demonstrate a minimum of care for the other party, the process as a whole can be improved.

When I know that an applicant’s talents would be right for another employer, I try to point them in the right direction. This may sound trivial, but it is an enormous time saver for both applicant and other employers.

The main task we’re all engaged in during hiring and applying is information gathering, but most of the information gathered in the hiring process is promptly thrown out the window with each rejection.

Rather than letting an interminable hiring process devolve into a wasteful and sadistic mechanism of exclusion, we’d like to make it valuable even when the process ends without a handshake and a job. Recycling information = paying it forward.

What we need are networks that recycle talent, be they the cohorts coming out of YC, or the portfolio companies of major venture capital firms.


A strange thing happened this week.

I found out we’re making an offer to someone I rejected two months ago. Back then, we were looking for someone more senior. I told the applicant that, and made a suggestion on how their resume could be improved.

Then the requirements changed, and I forgot about the applicant, but one of my colleagues reached out. Now we’re in talks again.

That’s one payoff of running a tight hiring process that treats people well. They’re not gun-shy when you call them back.

The flip-side would be a hiring process that lasts six months, where HR communicates rarely and poorly, doesn’t share information from one interview to the next, and welcomes women candidates with a roomful of men (who show up late to their own interviews).

There are multibillion dollar companies in Silicon Valley with recruiting processes at least that bad, and they’ve alienated a lot of talent they honestly can’t afford to lose. That’s not just unfortunate for them: it’s bad for everyone on the job market. Ultimately, it’s probably bad for America.

FutureAdvisor is planning to do its small part in reforming the hiring process. If you’re an applicant, employer, recruiter or simply curious, sign up here and we’ll tell you more later. Otherwise, watch this space!

Back to Blogs