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It’s you, not me, and 8 other ways to deal with candidate rejection

By Greg Barnett, PhD

Often when a candidate is seeking a new job, they are already in a state of disarray. They are likely disengaged in their current role, and are looking for hope somewhere else. Candidates seek out new jobs for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they are stuck with toxic managers, working in a bad cultural fit, or just need more money.

Candidate rejection can take place at different phases in the hiring process. When rejected early in the process (e.g., before meaningful interviews take place) the reaction tends to be less woeful and more frustrated or angry – “Why didn’t they give me a chance to prove who I am?” Rejection like this tends to go away relatively quickly. The more serious kind of rejection is for candidates who have made it deeper in the selection process. These are candidates who based on their multiple interviews and discussions believe they have a real chance at the job, and perhaps a life changing move ahead. This type of rejection can be traumatic and very difficult to get over. A candidate will often feel that they weren’t “liked” even when they put their very best foot forward. In some ways, it can be devastating to self-confidence and self-esteem.

To get over traumatic rejection it’s important to allow yourself the time to go through the stages of grief.  At first, there will be denial where you think there might have been a mistake. Anger comes next because of the time that was spent and the personal rejection. Next up is bargaining, where a candidate will often question what they did right or wrong or even reach out to the recruiter/hiring manager to try and negotiate a second attempt. This usually doesn’t go well and results in a person feeling empty and suffering from a low sense of self-wroth. And finally, after a period of time and reflection, there will be acceptance where a person realizes the job wasn’t meant to be and comes to peace with that outcome. 

Here’s some advice to help you deal with all these emotions:

  1. Depersonalize the rejection – Companies make decisions on the basis of many factors. They may have really liked you, but you may not have had the experience, a certain technical skill, or the right style to fill a role. It’s quite possible it really is them and not you. Hiring employees is very much a business and there are winners and losers. You may have been a loser this time, but you will win in the future.   
  2. Do a reality check – As candidates sell themselves to a company, sometimes they start to over sell their own selves on how great a role is. Identify factors that were likely not to be a good fit including parts of the job you wouldn’t have enjoyed or elements of the culture that would have been annoying. Also, ask yourself if you were really a good fit for the roles and responsibilities of the position. Often when people are looking at new roles that have bigger responsibilities and more compensation associated with them, they start to convince themselves that they have what it takes – when in fact, they would be in way over their head.
  3. Their loss – As with anyone who misses out on your talents and abilities in any part of life, it’s best to realize that they are the ones who lose out. Nobody likes this excuse, but companies make bad hiring decisions all the time. It’s quite possible they made a mistake, and maybe that says something about the company in the first place (e.g., they don’t hire good talent).
  4. Follow-up – While not all companies will respond to candidates they reject, they are often willing to share a little feedback with candidates who came close to getting the job. Follow-up with your key contacts, thank them, and let them know how much a role like this is something that you would like in the future. Then ask “What feedback could you give me, and how could I improve my skills or experiences to get a job like this in the future?”
  5. Stay on their radar – Just because you were rejected from a specific role, doesn’t mean they didn’t think you were impressive. After all, only one person can be hired for one role. Stay in touch with the recruiter or hiring manager. Don’t do so in a needy way, but rather touch base from time to time just to stay connected. If something else comes up, this will help you stay top of mind.
  6. Be graceful – As with staying on their radar, nobody likes a poor loser. So in defeat, stay positive and friendly. Thank everyone for their time, and offer to help in the future if there is ever an opportunity. Some of the best jobs come from referrals so even if they didn’t hire you, they may know someone who is looking for someone similar to you.
  7. Keep on truckin’ – Use the negative energy of rejection to renew your job search. Retake a look at your resume, start networking aggressively, and work on scheduling more interviews. You may not find that next job quickly, but you may find that you are energized by others showing interest in you again.
  8. Find the positives in your current world – So you have been rejected and may have to return back to an unfavorable work scenario. It’s wise to accept that another “close call” may take some time, and it is best to come in and do your best in your current role. While you may feel unmotivated and disengaged, fight these feeling by noticing how many coworkers truly appreciate you and recognize you for your value. Something great will come along, just stay positive and patient.

Greg is the SVP of science at PI.

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