Startups: stop using generic form letters when you tell a candidate 'no'

Imagine you apply to a job at a startup you're jazzed about. After two hour-long phone interviews, they invite you onsite, where you pair program for a day, have lunch with the entire team, meet your potential boss, and ask a bunch of carefully-researched questions about the company. After the interview, you wait with bated breath for the response…

…which is a standard form letter: "We have reviewed your background and qualifications and find that we do not have an appropriate position for you at this time. We appreciate your interest…" [1]

That's impersonal, cold, and aloof — and also the standard in startup recruiting.

Give Personalized Feedback

Most startups don't give candidates personal feedback when saying "no." I had some initial hesitation about giving feedback. But having tried it, the results are nothing but good.

Most people are surprised and grateful to receive feedback. In one dramatic case, it actually landed us an amazing hire. We interviewed a strong student who nonetheless wasn't the right fit at the time. We sent a long message explaining our reasoning, and, surprisingly enough, the student said he understood our reasoning, but thought his roommate would be a perfect fit. Turns out he was right: we interviewed his roommate, made an offer, and he became one of the strongest engineers on the team. The world isn't always a fair place, but sometimes doing the right thing is rewarded.

The negatives are minor. Out of 100+ candidates, only one person has tried to argue with the result. The time investment is typically about 15-30 minutes, which is small compared to the time spent on a full-day on-site interview and phone interviews.

Striking the Right Tone

When writing the feedback, you have to strike a delicate tone, and that's best done by having the right attitude. You're not rejecting somebody because they're not "good enough"—even the best-run hiring processes reject lots of great people since a false positive is more costly than a false negative. And many times, especially for early stage startups, you'd say "no" to somebody as employee #3 who you'd gladly hire as employee #20. Fit with the company, and the stage of the company, matter a lot. Try to be gracious. It doesn't mean you can't also be straightforward, but acknowledge that your hiring process has noise and subjectivity.

It helps to be specific and explain why you're looking for whatever skill you're looking for. For example, "We were really impressed by your answers to the algorithms questions, and your Python code was very clean, but when it came to the questions requiring C programming, we were looking for more fluency using pointers in real-life situations, and more knowledge of operating systems implementation like page tables, inodes, and how different layers of the networking stack work. We focus a lot on those skills since we're building a memory-mapped distributed database." The details vary, but you get the impression. After getting that feedback, you can imagine somebody practicing those skills and reading up on those areas so that they do better next time.

How can you tell whether you're hitting the right tone? Look at the response rate. Most people will thank you for a gracious and helpful reply with feedback. If your response rate is below 80%, there's something wrong with the message.

As always, there are legal risks involved with anything related to hiring. This is not legal advice. Check with a lawyer.

Closing Thoughts

If you're a founder, it's easy to blow off giving candidates feedback as a waste of time. Most founders are stressed and overworked, and hiring already consumes heaps of time. But somebody who spent a day interviewing with you deserves more than a form letter. Giving them feedback on how to improve is worth the time, and might just land you your next hire.

[1] These are even more hilarious when the company includes multiple templates to cover scenarios like being rejected after the resume, phone interview, or onsite in the same email.

20 responses
Perhaps one reason this is done is to shield the company from any potential liability. A generic response of "no" makes it much harder to put the company at legal fault, whereas a long, detailed email could expose the company to liability (imagine accidental comments about race, gender, ethnicity, age, etc.)
Thanks for writing this article! Too many firms use generic letters. I can't think of a worse scenario than turning away great talent today that I may need tomorrow. At GetPerka, I strive as much as possible to have collaborative conversations with candidates. It's important that I know they're top notch as my managers hire only the very best. But it's also important that I give the candidate what she is looking for as well - meaningful feedback on her candidacy and an opportunity to engage again in the future. I'm super happy that Alan Chung and his saavy team at GetPerka allow me to recruit the way I do!
I've interviewed with one startup that gave me feedback... and the reasons they cited were getting several questions wrong... questions that I actually got right, but that the person interviewing me was too inexperienced to understand. The biggest error startups make is not the form letter, it's the incompetence of the interviews. ... and the idea that a "false positive is worse than a false negative" rationalizing having incompetent or people with conflicts of interest (e.g.: they want the position) doing the interviews.
It's true that often your first contact with a hiring company is with a recruiter who knows less about the role than her hiring manager would. When she advises you that she will be asking you a series of questions (and hopefully she does), ask her politely if these questions have a clear right or wrong answer or if your answers are left to interpretation. This will at least guide you to draw from either your textbook memory or practical experience. The test and its application is admittedly out of your hands. Best of luck!
Stas Kulesh upvoted this post.
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. 3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. 4 And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. 6 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” 8 Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.”[d] While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
I'm confused, what is your argument that startups should do this? In order to "contribute to the community?" Because you'd like a nicer letter that helps you? Because of one case where you got a good hire, out of luck? I need a bit more justification than that. Very high on my list of priorities is the welfare of those "in the boat": investors, employees, customers, and potential of all three. This just doesn't feel like good spend, and if you'd like to convince me, I'd suggest a better argument about what I'd get out of it. Google doesn't give much in the way of feedback. If you're rejected, you're not a Googler, end of discussion. Same point: entrepreneurs would like better feedback from VCs about pitch and investment weaknesses. But VCs live in a world where they spin off feel good platitudes in order to increase deal flow: and that works.
How about those startups that don't even send a rejection and just keep the candidate hanging? How hard is it really to even send a two sentence form letter? Many startups are just unprofessional and elitist.
Nitpick, but seen it a bit recently: bated breath. You're not trying to trap an animal with your breath - it means that your breath has (a)bated; you're holding your breath in anticipation.
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