‘Sorry’ seems to be the hardest word in recruitment – so why bother?

If you’ve ever seriously looked for any kind of work, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced the sound of silence.

I mean that particular kind of void you sometimes enter when you’ve submitted your highly polished CV, smashed the job interview, or yielded to that seductive ‘Your profile looks great, let’s talk’ connection request.  

They don’t call, they don’t write, until eventually you conclude they’ve had a better offer, changed their mind, or maybe been abducted by the giant beaver people of the Planet Zorg. Not so much as a ‘Dear <insert name>’ rejection email for your troubles. And I know it happens the other way too – it’s a lucky recruiter who’s never been ghosted.

Having served my time on both sides of the recruitment fence, I’ve been thinking about why this happens and, more importantly, why it bothers us so much. I’ve tried to look objectively at the reasons it’s a problem and I’ve concluded that it should perhaps bother us a lot less than it does.

I understand that this conclusion may go down like a lead balloon if you’ve just had the crushing disappointment of facing the fact that dream job isn’t going to happen, after months of jumping like an excited wombat every time your inbox pings (I appreciate this simile only really works if you’ve seen a wombat jump; if you haven’t, trust me, those critters can really take off).

If you have, I’m sorry, I empathise, I’ve been there myself. On the other hand, I hope that by stepping back and analysing why we get so disappointed by the silence, we can whizz through the anger and denial stages of that pesky Kubler-Ross cycle and get to the acceptance stage sooner.

In that spirit, let’s break down some of the reasons why we feel so hacked off when no-one gets back to us, and hopefully get a better understanding of why we do. 

  • It’s a bit rude

Undeniably, but is it rude enough to let it spoil our day? On the industry standard Furklemann Rudeness Scale, which I just made up, it ranks no ruder than 90% of the behaviours which we used to experience on an average journey to work. (Now that the average journey to work goes from bedroom to kitchen table, this percentage may vary slightly, depending on who you share your home with).

Yet small acts of rudeness can bother us disproportionately, otherwise we wouldn’t have road rage.

I’ve come across techniques for managing road rage which can also be applied to dealing with the long, dark silence of the recruiter. They’re mostly about cutting the perpetrator some slack, or putting yourself in their shoes  – reminding yourself they’re probably incredibly busy, it’s slipped their mind and it’s nothing personal, or asking yourself honestly if you’re ever done something similarly a bit rude without meaning it to be.  

I find it helps take the edge off. If it doesn’t for you, you can always try the old Saturday night ‘leave it, they’re not worth it’ coping strategy instead.

  • I need feedback so I can learn and develop  

The recruitment process, or any discussion about a potential work opportunity, is generally a pretty poor source of personal development feedback. There, I’ve said it.

With all the collateral available to aid professional development, from CV evaluations to mock interviews to performance reviews, why should the recruitment process, which is explicitly not about aiding your professional development, still be regarded as a potential source of feedback?

I’ve done thirty-odd years in management, so you can argue I’m looking at it from the wrong end of the telescope. After all those years of management training, profiling and performance appraisals, it’s not surprising that I’d fall off my perch if a recruiter came up with some undiscovered insight about my strengths and weaknesses.  

Clearly it was different years ago when I packed up my student’s quill and scrolls and dived headlong into the jobs market, with everything to learn about myself. Yet that very moistness behind the lugholes meant I wasn’t going to glean much useful feedback from applying to the same management trainee schemes as thousands of my co-graduates. So much to learn, so little recruiter bandwidth.    

I accept there’s a sweet spot somewhere in the middle where you might gain an invaluable development nugget from the recruitment process, but I can’t believe it happens often enough for us to rue every failure to get feedback as a missed golden opportunity.   

  • I need feedback so I can mock your pathetic excuses for not hiring me   

Of course, it’s not really the silence which bothers us, it’s not getting the gig.

Our disappointment can manifest itself in a childish yet understandable response; the recruiter doesn’t dare get in touch because they are too embarrassed to expose their lame excuses for failing to hire us.

A bit of mature consideration is generally enough to get us past this knee-jerk response, yet it’s symptomatic of the more serious impact rejection has on our self-esteem.

I don’t believe that hearing nothing is significantly worse for our self-esteem than the ‘Dear <insert name>’ communication, and I think you could even argue it’s kinder to bypass that wrench in the gut as you read the e-mail. Nevertheless, it’s still a tough one to get over.

Again, I think that breaking down the possible reasons for not getting the gig can help us see that none of them should make us feel bad about ourselves.

If I didn’t get the gig , it means either I missed something important, the recruiter missed something important, or there was just someone out there who was a better fit.

If I missed something important, we’ve all done it and it hurts, and we learn from it and move on.

If the recruiter missed something important, you can either remind yourself that they’re human too or, if you’re still in the anger phase of the cycle, reassure yourself that you wouldn’t want to work for a dweeb who made that kind of mistake.     

In most cases, though, I suggest it’s about fit.

Fit isn’t about how great your technical capabilities and interpersonal skills are. It’s about how they mesh with the complex dynamics of the role; not just the job spec, but culture, empathy and a whole bunch of other stuff. We tend to think of the recruitment process as being mainly about the candidate’s skills, but I think a lot of it is actually about this fit. In that way it’s a bit like a play audition.  

Beyond the level of village hall amdram, auditions aren’t generally about the actor’s ability to act – that’s a given – but the fit with the role and the rest of the characters. If you don’t get the part, it’s generally because the fit isn’t there, and that’s not down to any failing on your part, so why should it affect your self-esteem?

Of course, it still does, whether it’s an audition or a job interview, but I’ve found that reminding yourself it’s all about fit can take off enough edge to get you past the angry ‘so you don’t think I’m good enough, huh, punk?’ stage quicker.

  • I need to know because not knowing gives me a specific problem    

Lack of response can create a direct practical problem for the recipient (if you can be the recipient of a lack of something).     

For a recruiter, getting ghosted clearly involves actual cost. As an applicant, waiting for a response which never comes can stop you accepting an offer which is almost as good.

A bit of extra communication should overcome this – letting the recruiter know up front that you need positive confirmation, or calling the candidate who skips the second-round interview or first day in the office to find out why. It’s only when it doesn’t that silence stops being just a bit rude and becomes completely unacceptable.

So why bother?     

I had intended this blog to give an unanswerable argument for getting rid of rejection emails completely and saving ourselves a load of time and effort and for marginal benefit.

When it comes down to it, though, I can’t quite convince myself that we should do away with them. Yes, it’s only a bit rude, there are much better sources of developmental feedback available, and there’s no reason why not fitting a particular job dynamic should damage our self-esteem.

Yet in a small way they make the world a more civil, human place, and right now I reckon we need all the civility and humanity going.

So let’s keep them going. When they don’t happen, at least I hope this blog has given some pointers to help us not be too bothered.

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