In the March 14, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader says rejection isn’t so bad, if you learn something about your career objectives in the process. I think rejection can lead to a whole lot more.

I found work that I love and that I’m good at, at a small, award-winning company. My meetings with the hiring manager and her team were very positive, and we hit it off very nicely. I was called back for a third interview, with the general manager. He yawned a lot and clearly did not want to be interviewing people, but went through the motions. Perhaps he had already decided who would be hired. In any case, I did not get the offer. I don’t have a question. I just wanted to tell you that even rejection can produce a pretty positive attitude, because now I know that such places are still here, and I just have to find them!

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

Most job interviews result in rejection. But smart job hunters learn from every experience.

I think the most common lesson is that the candidate applied for the wrong job to begin with…

Your case is different, and it’s an important lesson of another kind. You actually found a job and a company that seemed to be right for you. You clicked with the manager and her team. And you walked away with renewed confidence that you’re going after the right kinds of companies — and that the jobs you want are in fact available. That’s all good news.

So this really is a win for you, and you should not waste it. I know that you will now go look for other such companies, but I’d like to suggest something even more powerful.

…Forget about the general manager and his poor attitude. Focus on the hiring manager and her team. These are people with whom you clicked. Focus on the good match you found with the company itself.

There are more such managers and companies. And they know one another!

So let’s get to work. Don’t waste your momentum… The hiring manager and her team members are potentially your best references right now.

Go back to your new friends at the company that didn’t make an offer. Thank them again for the stimulating meetings, and let them off the hook for not hiring you. Start with the manager, but then follow up with the other interviewers you clicked with.

How to Say It
“I know you can’t hire everyone, and I’m not troubled that I didn’t get an offer. But I’m glad that I met the kinds of people I’d like to work with. Thanks.”

Then let them talk. They will probably wish you well in your job search. But don’t let it end there.

How to Say It
“I wonder if I could ask you for a professional courtesy. You didn’t make me an offer — but if your appraisal of my abilities was high enough, I’d like to ask if you would be willing to serve as a reference for me. I’m planning to apply for jobs at companies X, Y and Z. Is there any one there to whom you’d be willing to recommend me?”

All you need is one referral and recommendation. If no referral is offered, don’t fret. Just say, “Thanks, anyway. Again, I enjoyed meeting you. I’d be glad to talk with you again if another position opens up.” But, if you get a referral, don’t just say thanks.

How to Say It
“Your faith in me means a lot. If I can ever repay the favor, please don’t hesitate to call me. I’ll let you know how it goes. I want to make sure I…” [The rest of this How to Say It is in the newsletter, which includes lots more suggestions. Want more? Subscribe to the free newsletter, which will tell you more each week.]

Close with a thank you. Then contact the person you’ve been referred to, using the methods we’ve discussed here on Ask The Headhunter. (For a nice, neat package about how to apply the Ask The Headhunter methods when you’re talking to a prospective employer, check How Can I Change Careers? It’s for anyone who wants to stand out, not just career changers.)

…This is a very powerful way to leverage one good contact into another. It’s not such a long shot as it might seem. Since you made it through several rounds of interviews to the final one with the general manager, it seems the hiring manager and her team thought a lot of you. So my guess is, they may be willing to help.

If you get an interview based on this referral, remember that the reputations of the people who recommended you are on the line. Make them look good!

Now I’ll give you one more tip about how to make a rejection pay off, even months, if not years, after your interview. Stay in touch with the nice folks you met, and do them a favor. When you hear about an interesting opportunity — maybe it’s a job they’d be interested in, or a professional event, or even a sales opportunity for their company — , drop them a note (or call) and tell them about it. “You made an impression on me when you interviewed me a few months ago… and I thought I might return the favor by telling you about this…”

This is what makes the professional world go around.

The rare job interview turns into an offer. And few interviews yield friendships, or even mutual respect, between the employer and candidate. But even when two people click, they usually lose the momentum they’ve just found, and they both miss an opportunity. A rejection based on a strong interview can be turned into a powerful referral, if you know how. What do you take away from a great job interview, even if you are rejected?


  1. There are actually THREE messages in here.
    1) The jobseeker choosing to be positive, rather than negative.
    2) Nick’s solid advice about leveraging positive relationships.
    3) And…the underlying question…what was wrong with the general manager? Was there a disconnect between him and the hiring manager? Had something changed in the organization? Does it suggest the general manager is less trusting of his people than he should be? Did economic conditions change, such that he wanted to delay hiring, but couldn’t talk about it?
    All questions to which you don’t know the answers. Staying close to those folks with whom you resonated…getting referrals…and staying in touch is important in another way. If they haven’t filled the position, you may get another day at bat.

  2. How to Say It
    “I wonder if I could ask you for a professional courtesy. You didn’t make me an offer—but if your appraisal of my abilities was high enough, I’d like to ask if you would be willing to serve as a reference for me. I’m planning to apply for jobs at companies X, Y and Z. Is there any one there to whom you’d be willing to recommend me?”

    Interesting advice Nick. Could you elaborate on the potency of such a reference? It’s certainly another arrow for a candidate’s quiver however a typical follow-up question to the individual giving the reference would be, “How long do you know this individual?” I’ll never forget a reference check that I did for a candidate that I was thinking of representing and his last direct supervisor said “I only managed him for a few months. I don’t think that I can give a substantial reference for someone that I worked with for such a short period of time.”

    Since headhunters read this forum do you recommend that we ask our clients that don’t hire the candidates that we submit if they’ll serve as references with other clients if their appraisal of our candidates’ abilities are high? Why or why not?

    Something else to consider is that another logical reference question to the manager that did not hire the candidate is “Why didn’t you hire that person?” Unless you know for sure that the manager is going to say that the candidate is a Rock Star and that not pulling the trigger was a huge mistake due to the manager’s inability to hire as opposed to anything negative about the candidate, you could be opening up a can of worms in which some sort of negative is emphasized.

    For example, here’s a possible response to the Why didn’t you hire him question:

    “Very good candidate. Great personality. The team’s consensus was that he’s a triple, but not a home run in terms of our needs. If he had additional exposure or experience with “Y” we would have made him an offer. If you’re just looking for someone with “X” he’d be great, but we’re finding that our people also need to have “Y.”

    This sort of reference could possibly raise a valid point in terms of the weakness emphasized and actually influence the manager at the firm that the candidate is currently meeting with to rethink their requirement to reflect the other manager’s needs. An all too-often complaint is that many companies are unrealistic about their hiring requirements and a reference like the one above could contribute to the problem.

    How would you suggest that this could be preempted?

  3. @Allan: I don’t waste interviews. I always gather interviewers’ comments to further assess a candidate. Sure, an interview is a short interaction with a candidate, but it’s also intense and focused. And some managers are very, very good at doing assessments, and their comments can be more useful than those of a former boss.

    I have used interviewer’s references before, and I’ve shared them with clients who were considering the candidate. I don’t worry so much about one interviewer talking another out of a hire. You have to view the information that’s shared as pieces, not the whole puzzle or even a big part of it.

    When you stop and think about it, if my client B interviews the candidate, then talks with another client A, who also interviewed the candidate but did not hire her… what’s the difference between that and when B talks with someone else at B’s company who interviewed the candidate? It’s savvy people sharing impressions of a candidate. You run the risk of someone talking a manager out of a hire when the someone is another employee who participated in the interview process.

    The big difference is, you get to choose who A is. Maybe between A and B, you as the headhunter realize something about the candidate that you hadn’t picked up on. Positive or negative.

    When a job hunter uses this kind of reference, it has to be considered carefully. Keep in mind, it might not be a reference at all; just a recommendation. “She’s worth meeting – I suggest you interview her and decide for yourself.”

  4. Job hunters are doing 2 things simultaneously, trying to land a job, and networking. They mostly forget the 2nd part, this candidate didn’t. If you get interviewed, and particularly if you are shortlisted you’ve got a win on the networking side. This candidate picked up on that, she clicked & it fueled her confidence and her networking juice
    Nick’s advise is to leverage the networking side and leverage an obvious networking win. We have to assume the GM isn’t delegating the final hiring decision. And likely awards him/herself 51% of the vote. I’ve been in similar situations and been outvoted by my boss on my choice. That didn’t change my view, and to Nick’s point would have no problem serving as a reference and further, plugging the person into my network. Both cases affords me networking opportunities as well, if I meet someone new in the process. So what if I only know the person the extent of an interview. It’s a professional assessment and if I was willing to hire the person, you can be sure I can confidently share the opinion, and mgr to mgr explain why I couldn’t close on the deal. Once you decide you want someone on your team, you become that person’s advocate. At least that’s the way I’m wired. To Jim’s point, the 1st thing I’m likely to do is “walk her resume” to a colleague somewhere else in my company, even if they also work for the same GM. and again no problem with people I know, or people the candidate comes up with outside. If they’re a good candidate/professional they’re a good professional.
    Further I’d tell the person to keep in touch. It isn’t over until it’s over. things change. If she liked the company, she should work her network in the company (those she clicked with)in the event something springs loose. A likely event.
    Here’s an example. (I’m a corporate recruiter). I interviewed a guy yesterday who honestly told me he was expecting a 3rd interview with a company near where he lived & he liked. He’d been through a couple of rounds before, clicked with the hiring manager, but didn’t get the job (sound familiar?). There was an acquisition afterwards, generating a reorg, resulting in a new VP of Engineering. His contact, the potential boss from the 1st two rounds, talked him up to the new VP, who asked to have him come back. Stuff happens.
    If you truely like a company, preferably after some real research, and you don’t get the job, don’t take it personally. Keep coming back. Use the networking hook you established from being shortlisted and interviewed. Short lists mean what they say. A short list of qualified candidates. If there is a list of 3 and we can only hire 1, that doesn’t mean the other 2 are no longer qualified. Ideally we’d like to hire all of you. We don’t cast you off into darkness.
    Network. As a corporate recruiter, the vast majority of candidates who don’t get the job, are never heard of again…unless I reach out, and that’s not the right approach. The few who do stay in touch/network, are sending a strong message…”I really do like your company, it’s not all about a job”. Those that don’t network seem to be saying, “no matter what I said about your company, it really was just about a job”.
    When another opportunity opens up, who do you think has the best shot?

  5. “When you stop and think about it, if my client B interviews the candidate, then talks with another client A, who also interviewed the candidate but did not hire her… what’s the difference between that and when B talks with someone else at B’s company who interviewed the candidate?” I


    The difference is that manager B talking to someone at B’s company is doing so within company B’s paradigm. When manager B speaks with someone at company A he is
    is now receiving feedback based on company A’s paradigm. The particular purpose and values which drive a hiring decision can vary wildly between company A and B.

    When I ask my candidates for references, I take into account where they want to go and make sure that the references will carry weight in the eyes of the firm that I’m referring them to. If we’re dealing with the CEO of Marriott Hotels, what real value is going to come from a reference from a high level career executive at Motel 6 on the candidate’s behalf? Same industry – very different paradigms.

    I assert that there’s more value to be had in aligning a reference from Company A with the source of the “decision to hire” at Company B as the basis for the recommendation rather than saying: “She’s a quality candidate. I’d suggest that you meet her.”

  6. Many years ago I wanted to move from low mid-level to higher mid-level. I applied for jobs a level up the rung, associate directorships. I made it to second interviews, but didn’t get any offers. Then I had a great interview for a job I thought was the best of all with the person who would be my direct supervisor. He indicated he wanted to hire me, and scheduled an interview for me with his supervisor. Again, I didn’t get the offer. A friend ran into the person who wanted to hire me at a social event and asked him how the interview went with me. He replied that it was a great interview; he wanted to hire me on the spot. But his supervisor didn’t think I would last on the job because I would easily become bored. That was huge news to me. The next job I applied for was a department directorship, and I got the offer.

  7. @Don: You reminded me of this oldie-but-goodie:

  8. @Alan: No argument with your logic. But sometimes it’s also valuable to get some input from a disinterested party who can bring a different perspective on a candidate. The guy from Motel 6 could have some very useful insights that are relevant not just in the hospitality industry, but almost anywhere.

  9. Nick that oldie is a goodie. So few people do that, that they stand right out, and I’ll give them time.
    As you know, all job hunters move into sales while hunting (and networking for that matter) and Shuster was selling. Follow up is next to Godliness in my book.

  10. I always say – Every no leads to a yes!

  11. As I read this week’s article, all I could think of was several people at a previous job. All of them served on the hiring committees. The way the hiring process was set up was that you needed an “in” to get a job. In other words, they already knew who was getting the job before they posted it, before they received résumés from interested candidates, before they interviewed anyone. But because they didn’t want “trouble” from higher-ups in the administration, they had to go through the “process” of running the ad for the job, choosing which candidates to interview, interviewing a few people (including the one they planned to hire), etc. Several of the staff who would be working with the new employee were part of the hiring committee and only part of the first round of interviews. The faculty member who ultimately made the final decision interviewed the ones who made it to round 2. One of faculty members was a drunk; sometimes he failed to show up for interviews, or was so out of it that he merely signed whatever paperwork the dept. sec’y put in front of him re the hire. One of the other faculty members used to yawn and take phone calls, text, scratch his balls, etc. during the interview. He did that to show the person he was interviewing that he didn’t care about her or him–and he didn’t. The decision had already been made, and to him, it was a waste of time to have to interview people when he had already decided who he was going to hire before he had the job posted. It was unfair of him to take it out on the candidates who didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of being hired–it wasn’t their fault, and you’d think that rather than taking out his boredom and frustration on job candidates, he would have had a chat with the dean (his boss) re the process. Perhaps he did, and was told that the process had to be observed lest anyone should complain about done deals and politics.

    Perhaps the hiring manager in this week’s case was in the same situation–he already knew who he wanted to hire, but had to go through these hoops for formality’s sake. Yes, it is unfair to the job-seeker, and it is unprofessional behavior on the part of the hiring manager (if you’ve got to play games, then at least make an effort to play them instead of yawning, texting, scratching his balls, etc.).

    I do like Nick’s idea of turning this negative (no job offer) into a networking opportunity, although I too had my reservations re how well this could work for the same reasons Allan mentioned. But you never know–staying in touch might lead to tips about other job opportunities either at the same company or maybe even at a different company. The members of that team might not be at this company forever, and who knows, they might be in a better position later or somewhere else to actual hire the person who the hiring manager rejected.

  12. ‘…you never know–staying in touch might lead to tips about other job opportunities either at the same company or maybe even at a different company.’ It might also lead to the job you were not offered. I have had 2 clients in the past year who were hired after being rejected because the new hire didn’t work out, one just 2 weeks after her rejection letter. That’s why candidates should always send a thank you in response to a rejection. They should also do a 90 day (think probationary period)follow up with the hiring manager.

  13. @Chris: That’s a great story. I once had that happen the other way around. My candidate turned down my client’s offer, took another job. But I was patient, stayed in touch with the candidate, no recriminations. Two weeks later, he decided he was unhappy at his new job. I had “kept my client warm” about the guy – and he was able to join up after all. This time, patience on the part of the employer paid off. Things are not always so cut and dry, are they?

  14. Hi there, I found your blog via Google at the same time as looking for a related topic, your web site came up, it seems to be good. I have bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.

  15. Hi Nick, I’d love to see the original column for this to get the extra tips inside. I have been a newsletter subscriber for quite some time, just not at the time this article went out. How can I track down the full article?