• What are you telling unsuccessful candidates?

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  • 27 Jun 2017
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Most employers have given up on offering interview feedback – but if you handle it carefully, there’s no reason to stay silent

Anna Jacobs’s excitement at being invited for a job interview at Tecomak Environmental Services earlier this year quickly turned to dismay when she discovered, in comments attached to the email, that staff at the firm had branded her a “home-educated odd ball”, who “might be very good but equally could be a biscuit short of a packet or a left-wing loon tree hugger”.

But at least Jacobs got some sense of what the company thought about her. According to recent research from Debut, a student and graduate careers app, 83 per cent of candidates do not receive any feedback beyond a rejection after attending a job interview, despite 77 per cent of young people believing it should be a legal requirement to provide it. A survey by Business in the Community (BITC) backs up the findings, revealing that 40 per cent of young people not in employment, education or training did not receive any form of feedback after an interview.

Is it cautionary tales such as Tecomak’s (with the implied threat of reputational damage or even litigation in some cases) that are discouraging recruiters from providing feedback, or are the causes more systemic?

Helen Goss, employment law partner at Boyes Turner, says past growth in tribunal numbers, expansion of equal opportunities legislation and freedom of information requests, and the development of a “generally litigious culture” in the UK have made employers more “risk averse” and unlikely to offer feedback.

“It’s become a kind of myth-based paralysis,” she says. “When we stop behaving like humans because we’re afraid of the legal consequences, the culture and employer brand of organisations suffer.”

Melanie Morton of Nelsons Solicitors adds: “Employers won’t risk providing in-depth feedback and they will say very little or nothing at all because they don’t want to get into a dispute with candidates who may be feeling upset that they were unsuccessful.”

And then there’s the issue of time and resources. Morton suggests that employers may feel HR resources are better spent giving a thorough induction to new starters, rather than “keeping lines of communication open” with unsuccessful candidates.

It’s certainly an issue for graduate recruiters who have to sift through hundreds of applicants; Goldman Sachs received more than 250,000 students and graduates for its summer positions last year. This huge rise in applications is a product of the fact that many graduates are having to take non-graduate level jobs, says Dr Jo Cartwright, senior lecturer in HRM at London Metropolitan University. “All this undoubtedly places a substantial burden on HR and its resources – making them less likely to respond to every application and offer post-interview feedback,” says Cartwright.

But this is a poor excuse, suggests Rhiannon Cambrook-Woods, managing director at Zest Recruitment & Consultancy, who says that failing to provide feedback is “poor practice… There may well have been several people shortlisted for the position, but how long does it really take to call or email an unsuccessful candidate?”

For Karen Dykes, partner at Anne Corder Recruitment, recruiters’ reluctance to offer feedback to applicants boils
down to a more human attribute than simply a lack of time. “Ultimately, it comes down to not wanting to give bad news,” she says. “Telling a candidate they haven’t got the job is never as rewarding as making a job offer.”                                     

While organisations such as Network Rail, O2, BITC and Fujitsu rally behind Debut’s  #FightForFeedback campaign – which calls for interview feedback to be made compulsory – John Lees, careers expert and former chief executive of the Institute of Recruitment Professionals, insists that applicants do not have an “automatic” right to it at all. But, he adds, valid feedback can help a candidate appraise their interview performance in the same way a driving examiner provides “hard facts” to someone who has failed their driving test.  

The solution for HR, it appears, is to provide useful feedback where possible, but not to an extent that it leaves the organisation open to legal action. “Keep it short and simple,” says Morton. “Do not express personal feelings or comment on personal aspects of the candidate.”

Lees, meanwhile, warns against providing a “bland response” to feedback requests that might
refer to ‘a high calibre of interviewees’ and the successful applicant being ‘a better fit’.

“What do candidates learn from that? Nothing,” says Lees. “Valid feedback tells candidates how their practised performance actually works. Yet, most frequently, they are just told something bland but vaguely troubling.”

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Comments (3)
  • HR departments never add up the human time and cost which the unsuccessful candidates have spent in applying for the post,preparing for the interview etc etc. and just take it for granted that all those people are happy to help their company fill the position - for nothing.

  • After reading on the article I wonder why the employers are afraid of a litigation? Maybe their recruitment practices are unethical? Or maybe their HR staff are unprofessional and not caring? Giving no useful feedback to a rejected applicant cannot be excused by "we have a better use of our staff time" statement in my opinion. The applicants are human beings and have feelings. Receiving bland feedback hurts as much as receiving no response at all. It also can destroy someone's confidence in themselves which may result in a ruined life. Is it not obvious to those "we do not provide feedback" employers? It seems to me the people's ethics needs to be repaired if we want to build a better world.

  • I was catching up on my reading and this article made me want to rant. Have things changed so little over the years? When I was in my last permanent job and responsible for talent attraction, graduate and people development I was warned we couldn't possibly give feedback to the grads that applied to us. We'll be inundated with requests. It will take too much time. What if people sue? Those were some of the reasons given. In fact, we weren't the biggest or most well known firm. Our brand was we were a nice place to work. We weren't a sweat shop. We valued our people. Not giving feedback didn't seem to reflect that brand. In fact, by offering we marked ourselves as different from the others. It helped add to our brand and in the six years I was there I only had one threat of litigation and that was a group action which was quickly dismissed before it progressed very far at all. Yes, it took some time. Not a heap. It made me feel good and I think it made the firm look good. Hopefully, there are lots of hidden gems of businesses and professionals out there bucking the survey results quoted in this article and helping to develop the talent of the present and future at any stage of their career by giving feedback.