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How Employers Poison Their Well:
Candidates you don't hire can hurt you

By Melana V. Doyich 

I was recently with the president of a successful IT organization when he asked a question that’s on the minds of most hiring managers these days.

“Why can’t I find good people? I treat my employees well. I pay them fairly. I try to make this a fun place to work. Why can’t I locate the good people and hire them?”

These words have been repeated so much over the last few years that they have become cliches, but they are also symptomatic of real business obstacles that impact the bottom lines of many successful organizations.

Of course, there are as many answers to “How can we hire good people?” as there are companies out there hiring. In this particular case I knew the root of this company president’s “hiring problem”, and I also knew that it was not unique.

“I know you treat your people well, Tom, and it’s true that you have created great working relationships with your employees, but how well do you treat the job applicants you don’t hire?”

For the first time in the five years I had known this man, I saw him shift nervously in his chair. “What do you mean?” he asked. We both knew exactly what I meant.

Tom opened up a bit. “If I don’t treat the applicants that I don’t hire as well as I’d like, that’s just because I hate to tell someone they didn’t get the job. I really don’t even know how to say the words, so I avoid telling them anything. I hand it off to someone else – HR – if I can. I'm not proud of admitting this kind of behavior, but it’s true. But, what does that have to do with my ability to find people I do want to hire?”

The potential employer has a reputation.
Just as companies have reputations for sales and service, companies also develop reputations as employers and as potential employers.

“Oh, Company ABC! That’s a great place to work! A friend of mine has worked there for 5 years”.

Or, “Uh-oh. Not Company XYZ! They are a burnout factory. I interviewed with them a while back and said no thanks.”

These kinds of casual remarks are the best (or potentially worst) forms of free publicity a company can receive. Interestingly, most people hearing such remarks would find them equally credible, even though the person making the second statement said that he only interviewed with Company XYZ. He never said he actually worked there. We have only his word that he was the one to reject Company XYZ and not the other way around. The only thing we can be sure about is that a person who would make these negative remarks certainly has a terrible impression of Company XYZ. Why?

Lack of courtesy and closure breeds contempt.
In today’s fast paced business environment, many simple courtesies have fallen by the wayside. Many candidates for even senior level positions have told me stories of going on several seemingly positive interviews with a company, only to never hear from the company again. Some were left in limbo for several weeks (or months) until – angry & humiliated – they decided, “I wouldn’t work there even if they wanted to hire me right now at five times my current salary. Not if this is how they treat people!”

When a company never calls a candidate back to say, “Thanks, but no thanks”, the only way a candidate can achieve closure is to decide to “reject” the company – to anyone who will listen. 

Ironically, many of these companies and hiring managers actually do treat their employees well, but they become so focused on their immediate hiring needs that they don’t consider the job candidate’s feelings or even their own future hiring needs. Many HR departments don’t handle the situation any better when a hiring manager asks them to “deliver the bad news”. Waiting months to send out rejection letters isn’t a courtesy – it is more like rubbing salt into an open wound.

Don't poison your well.
If you haven’t examined how your company handles job candidates it doesn’t hire, I suggest you should. Your interview and hiring practices may be poisoning the well from which you will draw candidates for years to come.

Your failure to tell the candidate where he or she stands – in a timely manner – may be affecting your ability to attract top job candidates. If your company treats one candidate poorly and others in the industry hear about it, then they’re not going to want to interview with you. “Good people” don’t want to run the risk of being thrown out like yesterday’s newspaper just because they may not fit your current hiring needs.

Beyond the immediate goal of “hiring the right candidate for this job”, there are some long term goals that should be met by the interview and hire process, and some pitfalls to be avoided at all costs:

Treat candidates as you would like to be treated. No matter how large you think your industry is, it isn’t – especially above a certain position level. If you are around your industry long enough, you will run into many of the same people over and over again. In today’s volatile economy, positions and needs change seemingly overnight, and so do people’s skill sets. The person you reject today might be the person you desperately need next year. With the rapid shifts in the business world, anything can happen to anyone, including you. The person you just interviewed could be sitting on the other side of a desk tomorrow, interviewing you. Maximize your allies in your industry and keep your detractors to a minimum. Even the candidates you don’t hire can be your allies if you treat them right.

Make every candidate (whether you hire him or not) a positive walking advertisement for you and your organization. The math is simple. As your company matures, there will be more people that you didn’t hire floating around in your industry than there are actual employees in your company. In terms of sheer numbers, candidates you didn’t hire can be your best proponents or your most formidable detractors. Candidates will talk about their interviewing experiences whether you like it or not. What they say about your company is largely up to you, and what they say will determine whether your company draws the best and the brightest to its doorstep – or drives them away. Treat all candidates so they'll want to work for your company, even if they don’t get this job right now.

Handle all candidate referrals you receive as though they were made of solid gold, independent of whether you hire them. Where there is one referral, there are potentially many. You may not hire the first candidate recommended by a source, but if you treat the first candidate badly, you will likely never see another referral from this source. Now you're not just poisoning your well; you're poisoning the aquifer that feeds it.

Remember: the person who referred the candidate will feel accountable to the candidate. Treat the candidate badly, and you will make the source feel like an idiot for doing you a favor. Treat these job candidates especially well and you may well discover gold mines of great candidates waiting to be tapped.

How to create great walking advertisements.
The “how to” of treating job candidates well and turning them into positive advertisements is simple, but often overlooked in the chaos of today’s “need-it-yesterday” work environment. 

Conduct interviews responsibly. Chances are, if the candidate is currently employed and successful he (or she) is just as busy as you are. Respect that. For your first interview, meet with the candidate one-on-one. Never use the so-called “stress interview” (multiple interviewers surrounding the candidate all at once) without good reason and without notice to the candidate, or you may lose the candidate’s trust. Conduct interviews responsibly, and word will get around that you are worth meeting and spending time with.

Give the candidate all of your attention. Don’t take phone calls, read e-mails or let anyone interrupt your meeting. If you simply must take a critical phone call during the interview, leave the room. (Don’t toss the candidate out of your office and expect them to wait.) Interrupting an interview for any of these reasons doesn’t make you seem busy or important, it only reveals that you are rude, scattered and unfocused. This is not the kind of impression you want to leave with anyone, whether you hire them or not, because this how they will describe you to their cohorts.

If you don’t intend to hire someone, let them know as soon as possible. If you are the hiring manager (that is, the primary decision-maker), then you should be the one to deliver the news to the candidate. Don’t make HR do it. Be direct, upbeat and warm.

Call the candidate and say, “I want to thank you for taking the time to come interview with us. I (we) liked you very much. You have some excellent knowledge and experience, but I don’t believe that this position is the best possible match for your skills. Regrettably, the match on this specific position would not be a good one for you or for us. However, should I have a position come up in the future that would be a better fit for you, I’d like to be able to give you a call and discuss it with you, Jim. Would that be okay with you?”

If you have left a positive impression, chances are that the candidate will answer “yes”. Now the critical part: Keep your word. Keep of a running file of those you would hire if you had the right position, and call them if the opportunity arises.

Many hiring managers are afraid that the candidate may be so disappointed that he’ll start arguing or ask, “Why?” In my experience, most candidates are just relieved to get a straight answer and they’ll thank you for calling. They’ll sometimes engage in minimal chat and then hang up, hoping that one day you will indeed call back with another opportunity.

In the rare event that a candidate pushes to learn “why” or argues with you, be honest but supportive. “Please don’t misunderstand. We didn’t have a negative reaction to you. We liked you. We’re just looking for a closer skill match”. Then politely but firmly end the conversation: “Thanks again for coming in to talk. I’m late for a meeting.” Just get off the line. You are not obliged to be their career counselor.

Giving a candidate you didn't hire a positive experience will make him feel he'd like to come back some day. If he wants to come back, he's not going to badmouth you to others.

Don’t leave a candidate on “indefinite hold” for any reason. Never leave a candidate hanging while you wait for a better one to come along. Just as important, if you find a candidate you want to hire but can’t get approval to hire him right now (“hiring freeze”, “somebody on vacation”, etc), call the candidate and explain the situation. Never let him dangle, wondering what is happening. Also, never cite milestones like “when so-and-so returns from vacation” that come to pass without producing the offer in short order.

If you want to hire the candidate, stay in almost daily contact with him until the formal offer is extended. You don’t have to call with any specific information. Just call and chat. This tells the candidate that you really are working on it.

This kind of responsible follow-up treatment is so rare that you'll score real points with the candidate. And you will have earned them.

Accentuate the positive. While it’s important to couch a rejection in terms of “incompatible skill sets”, the exact opposite is true when courting a candidate you do want to hire. Personalize the experience. Let the candidate know that it is him and his talents that you want for your organization, not just his skill set. Take the person to lunch or dinner. It may sound old-fashioned, but the social courtesies still mean a lot to people. As I suggested at the beginning of this article, it’s the lack of these courtesies that can cost your company its reputation.

All of us have egos and want to feel important and wanted.  When you extend that offer, you want the candidate to feel like the bride on her wedding day. Candidates are more likely to say “Yes!!!”, if you have taken care to put them into this positive frame of mind first.

Keep your well sweet.
What do you put back into the well of job candidates you draw from? If it's something sweet, the well will always yield good things.

Spend a few extra minutes creating “walking advertisements” for you and your company by offering candidates a positive interviewing experience – independent of whether or not they are hired – and it could be one of the best investments you ever make toward reliably attracting and hiring the top talent in your industry.

Isn’t that worth a few extra minutes of your time?

Please tell us what you think of this article.

For more articles on this topic, please see Respecting The Candidate and Ten Stupid Hiring Mistakes.

Melana Doyich has more than 20 years' experience in recruitment and human resources management for high-tech organizations. She is a Professional Member, Society of Human Resources Management and High-Tech Net. Having been a Silicon Valley headhunter, and later a human resources director and consultant, she now resides in New Jersey and is currently involved in implementing PeopleSoft HRMS for a major health care organization.


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