Companies & Industries

When the Candidate Says No


How quickly a rejected job offer prompts us to say "Good riddance!" Instead, we should figure out why the recruitment process has failed

Three managers are sitting around a conference table, congratulating one another. "That Joe Adams—great hire!" says one. "Yeah, he'll be a great addition to the team," comments another. "He drove a hard bargain, but he'll get our next product launch on track," adds the third. There's a knock at the door and a young human resources person pokes her head in.

"Bad news," she reports. "Joe Adams has declined our offer. There were a few reasons, but essentially he said he had too many concerns about the position."

"What!" thunders the most senior exec at the table. "That's outrageous. That was a great offer. He's got too high an opinion of himself."

"High maintenance," agrees his colleague.

"We're better off without him," remarks the third.

Sour Grapes

As an HR leader for Big Business, I was witness to this scene about eight zillion times. The leadership team first agrees that a candidate is great—he's outstanding, or she's brilliant. He's going to revolutionize our product marketing, our cost accounting, our international licensing. She's going to whip our sales force into shape. Then, disaster strikes. The candidate says no. In the blink of an eye, the story is rewritten. He's self-important; she doesn't know what she's passing up. We didn't land the candidate, so the candidate is flawed. Ever heard this story before? Of course—it's one of Aesop's most famous fables, The Fox and the Grapes. Once the fox realized the grapes were out of reach, he decided they were sour grapes, anyway. Who needs 'em?

It's laughable to see this story played out over and over, but it has a sobering side. When we invest time and energy in selling a candidate on our organization and the deal doesn't happen, there is a strong urge to make the candidate the bad guy. But that's ridiculous—we were excited about having this person on our team, right up until the moment we got the brush-off. After the fact, we can't rewrite history just because we lost the deal.

Why not just accept that not all candidates accept the job offers we extend? Companies will always have to contend with a certain rate of rejection. But if we blame the candidate for failing to be enchanted with our generosity, we lose the opportunity to spot flaws in our hiring processes. We won't get better at reeling in talent until we face up to what's not working.

Reconsider Your Process

Here's another story: Your favorite third-party recruiter calls to say she's got a great candidate in mind for your hard-to-fill opening. "Send over the résumé!" you say. It arrives; you take a look, and you're delighted. Sure enough, all the skills you're looking for are there. "Nice job!" you tell the search person. "Have the candidate fill out our mandatory questionnaire, and let's take a look at it tomorrow." The next morning, you're dismayed by the headhunter's e-mail message. "He wouldn't fill out the questionnaire," she reports. You're astounded. He's unemployed, for Pete's sake! He can't find twenty minutes to play along? It's mandatory—everybody has to it. But this one won't.

We can analyze the story in one of two ways. In Version One, the candidate is inexplicably fussy and hard to deal with. You're better off without him. He would have been trouble. Version Two says that the candidate was understandably put off by the demand that he complete a multipage questionnaire so early, before you'd even met. If you cared about closing him, someone might have let him know that the company thought his résumé was terrific. Someone could have called him up to chat before commanding him to invest time in your process. Someone might have dropped the "we're the employer, and we make the rules" attitude to engage with this fellow and sell him on the benefits of filling out that form. Someone who was paying attention might have noticed that the form itself was driving talent away.

HR Sticks with the Sheep

Some candidates we lose may certainly be well lost. But it's far more likely that the ones who balk at our regulations and delays, the ones who expect timely updates on the hiring process and ask pointed questions, are the ones we most need to rev up our businesses.

Everyone loves to say "we hire the best talent in the industry" but that's largely not true. We all tend to hire compliant, docile people who will wait weeks for their calls to be returned. We hire those who won't fuss when they're promised an interview in two weeks and there's a delay of four weeks coordinating schedules, or those who will wait by the phone for us to call. The most marketable candidates get away, but we have a remedy for that: We call them prima donnas. Then we hire the last guy standing, the one who's charmed by our offer and wouldn't dream of negotiating for more vacation time. Once he's on board, of course, we congratulate ourselves for having landed the best and the brightest. Who cares if it's nonsense?

If we evaluated our salespeople by the standards we apply to hiring managers, we'd be replacing our sales teams every quarter. A desirable client lost is a black mark on a salesperson's record. "We're better off without that customer," doesn't excuse lost sales. But as hiring managers, we give ourselves a pass when a sharp candidate walks away. There is always a slightly-less-sharp, more-sheeplike character to fill in the gap. HR folks love to argue for the status quo. "We just can't move on a dime!" they'll say. But let's ask the CEO: If we needed to close a critical new customer, could we do it?

Of course he'd expect us to. Yet somehow, when talent acquisition is involved, the customer who didn't buy is in the wrong, and "we're better off without him" is the mantra that keeps us from examining ourselves. Maybe the CEO would care if this livewire ended up running the sales division for our competition. If too many of the best fish get away, it won't matter what the CEO thinks. The marketplace will speak, and our self-congratulation won't help us then.

Liz Ryan writes her "Career Insight" column and answers readers' questions every week at www.businessweek.com/managing/. She is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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