How to say ‘No’ effectively

It is that time of year when many graduate recruiters will be screening applications and making selection decisions, an appropriate time to think about how you are saying “no” to applicants who are unsuccessful.  We know, based on our 2022 Employer Benchmark, that the median number of applications received by employers is 3 850, with a median of 82 applications per graduate vacancy.  Although the number of applicants will vary significantly across sectors, what this does mean is that all employers will have a high rejection rate. 

How rejections are handled is significant, not only as part of the candidate experience, but also for your employer branding and reputation as an employer of choice.  Best practice in rejection sounds like an oxymoron – but it isn’t one!  We touched base with the Auditor General, PwC and Standard Bank to find out how they handle this part of their selection process. 

All three employers are dealing with large volumes of applicants, two are using ATS systems to manage their process and one is making effective use of excel.  The common threads when it comes to rejecting applicants were as follows:

  • Ensuring that all applicants receive a response, irrespective of what stage they reach, or the outcome of their application was regarded as a non-negotiable.  Applicants have taken the time to complete an application and it is reasonable for them to expect a response.  Hearing nothing back from an employer is disheartening and leaves applicants with a poor impression of the organisation.  And whilst an applicant may be unsuccessful now, they could be a future customer, client, or employee.
  • All three employers screen their applications manually, with an automatic reject if an applicant does not meet certain minimum criteria, one has a specific requirement in place that applicants receive feedback within 48 hours of applying.  Auto reject communications are sensitively worded and give specific feedback on the reasons why an applicant is rejected.  For example, they are not South African citizens, are studying the incorrect qualification or have repeated the same year of study more than three times.
  • If applicants are successful in reaching a second or subsequent stage of the selection process, constant communication is critical so that they know exactly where they stand and what to expect. 
  • Turnaround times for feedback following the interview stage varied from three to five days to a maximum of two weeks. If candidates have been unsuccessful following an interview, the communication they receive is generally more personalised and where possible, reasons for rejection are highlighted – though often the reason is simply that there are stronger applicants.
  • Those who make use of an ATS system to generate correspondence to unsuccessful candidates have ensured that their system provides recruiters with a drop-down menu of options and/or templates to choose from, which cater to the most common reasons for turning candidates down at this stage in the process, whilst still allowing for some personalisation of the correspondence the applicant receives.
  • To soften the blow of saying “No,” one of our employers provides encouragement for applicants to reapply in the future, if they stand a chance of meeting the criteria later in their studies, for example. 
  • Applicants who reach final stages of a recruitment process, such as completing an assessment centre or online assessment have invested even more time and effort in engaging with a potential employer.  They are therefore likely to be very interested in why they have not been selected and to want to learn from the experience.  It is important to mirror the candidate’s investment in you with the type or amount of feedback you give them.  If a candidate is not progressing from this stage, give them some pointers on what they can do differently next time.
  • An effective ATS system will usually allow for applicants to track the success of their application or review their own progress, thus easing the burden on recruiters.
  • Providing recruiters with the correct tools and ensuring that they are effectively trained in selection processes and clearly able to articulate the company values and employer value proposition was common to the employers we chatted to.  One company provides specific workshops for their recruiters, whilst another gets all interviewers to complete a 3-hour e-learning module, followed by an assessment and the completion of a mock interview which is observed and rated by more experienced interviewers.  These measures ensure that interviewers/recruiters are professional and know how to handle negative feedback.
  • These companies are all surveying their applicants to measure the candidate experience – either through a formal feedback questionnaire, or informally at the on-boarding phase.

There is no question that being rejected is tough, they have so much riding on securing an opportunity – be it a bursary, an internship or an entry-level position.  The rule of thumb for employers, is to put themselves in an applicant’s shoes and think about how they might feel if their application went unacknowledged or if they received the rejection correspondence you use.  Investing the time and effort in all aspects of your candidate experience will pay dividends in the long run.