If You Can't Take the Heat: Be Cautious About Giving Candidates Interview Feedback

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The majority of interviews I’ve conducted fall between five and seven on a ten scale, ten being “hired on the spot, five as “mediocre”, and one for candidates that completely bomb the interview.  There are those interviewees that do well out of the gate and a flub, whether oblivious or unintentional in nature, lands them on the fast track to No Thank You Town.  Whether the interview is a 2 or a 7, if the candidate doesn’t make it to the next stage in the hiring process, there is a reason.  These are the moments where I would like nothing more than to walk the candidate out and say, “You didn’t make the cut for this position, but can I give you a piece of advice?”

Whether it’s bashing a former employer, inappropriate interview attire, failing to research the company they are interviewing with, or forgetting to read the advertised position carefully, some people just need to get a clue and I wish I could be the one to give it to them.

I’ve had this idea for a while now where career fair venues (colleges, universities, or other forums) would set up a booth during the fair, à la Lucy from the Peanuts cartoons.  For a monetary fee, a job applicant could step inside, hand over their curriculum vitae, and succumb to constructive criticism and brutally honest advice or observations regarding everything from overall appearance to their resume.  If only I could find a taker for this idea – I don’t know why I haven’t yet.  Who doesn’t respond well to straightforward disparagement?  Apparently everyone.

Every recruiter has sent a declination letter or given the verbal bad news that someone was not selected.  Of those applicants, there are the few that ask the next loaded question, “Thank you for the opportunity, but can I ask why I wasn’t selected to help better prepare me for future interviews?  I think I am an excellent candidate so…”  What do you say?  Can you be completely honest?  Should you say, “To be honest, your experience looks great, but the fact that you slurped on a Big Gulp pop throughout the interview and incessantly scratched a mysterious itch on your hands, encouraged our decision to keep looking.”  Or, “You seemed like the perfect candidate until you casually mentioned a prior supervisor’s conspiracy to fire you and then ‘joked’ about running him over some day.  We opted to err on the side of ‘better safe than sorry’”.  Both of these situations actually occurred during interviews I conducted.

Much of the time I know within the first 5 minutes if the interview will result in a “no”.  The number of times my mind has been changed throughout the rest of the interview, from my initial inclination, are too few to count.  There needs to be an “easy” button, as in the Staples commercials.  Instead of “easy”, it would instead say “reject” and would be well known interview protocol that once the interviewer presses the button, the candidate must immediately vacate the premises.  Or possibly, in a group interview scenario, there would be America’s Got Talent buzzing “X” signs.  “Howie has declined to move you on in the process, but please continue for Sharon and Piers”.

I digress.  The question is, do you give feedback or not?  I would personally suggest not.  Any harmless constructive criticism can be misconstrued by a candidate.  You don’t want to sully the company’s reputation in an effort to be “helpful”.  There are other, more obvious, HR-related reasons for not giving feedback.  Alison Green’s USNews.com post sheds some light on a few:

They’re afraid of being sued. Many companies are under orders from their lawyers not to get into the reasons for job rejections, in case a candidate doesn’t like the explanation and decides the “real” reason must be discriminatory.

They don’t want to deal with candidates who get angry and try to debate the decision. Everyone who does hiring has stories about rejected candidates who wouldn’t stop arguing the decision, and some who got so angry that they were scary.

The reason you were rejected is an awkward one. It’s one thing to explain that you needed stronger writing skills or more bookkeeping experience. But most people don’t want to have to explain that you seemed like a jerk, or crazy, or not very bright.

They don’t have time. Offering up thoughtful feedback to every rejected candidate could be a job unto itself, and ultimately that’s not what hiring staffers are there for.

They did tell you the reason and you don’t believe them. A lot of times “you were really great, but someone else was a better fit,” is just the truth.

I had an interview with a candidate, “Steve”, for an IT Help Desk position.  Steve was in his mid to late 20’s and had been laid off from a large local employer.  It was over a year since he’d had work.  Steve seemed very knowledgeable, though without a degree.  During our interview he told us about recent purchases, an iPad and two iPhones, and the other member of HR in the interview took note, as did I.  Steve went on and on about a trip to Vegas he was taking in the weeks following the interview.  I passed him on for a second interview with hiring managers in IT, as they could’ve had a different impression of him.  They didn’t.  One manager made the same comments, stating that Steve gave the impression he didn’t really need the job.  Another candidate having a degree, was offered the position instead.  Steve was extremely upset, sending an e-mail about how he has been failing at interviews and pleaded for constructive feedback.  I sent a message with good points from his interview, details on the other candidate, and then gave him some advice about the personal information he brought forth and how he should probably be conscious of that in the future.  He responded with a very snarky, mean-spirited message about my character, my company, and how, obviously, it was my loss.  Steve did accomplish convincing me of one thing: that not hiring him was the right decision.

In a perfect world we could tell candidates exactly why they didn’t make the cut.  Actually, in a perfect world there would be no need. All candidates would be diligent employees who never got sick, had profound ideas, came to work bearing coffee and donuts, and did things before you even thought to ask for them.  Until we find ourselves in that perfect world, I suggest proceeding with caution.  Giving interview feedback may do more harm than good.

Traci K. is an HR Professional and freelance writer based in the Midwest, specializing in recruitment and immigration.  When she’s not improving unemployment, she keeps busy with her husband and four children.


  1. Wendi on September 27, 2010 at 9:23 am

    I love this article. I was caught in a situation last week where I had to let people know they were not selected for a role. I was honest with feedback and most took it well but two people did not take it so well. Lesson learned.

  2. Zed on September 30, 2010 at 9:37 pm

    as somebody who went through the interview process not that long ago, I much prefer feedback, even if it is negative.

    A skilled HR person should be able to convey negative feedback in a non offensive way.

  3. David on July 21, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    Although I agree with many of the points, the examples related to illness (scratching itchy skin, employees who never get sick) concern me. There a million legitimate reasons not to hire someone, but that they may have a health problem is not one of them.

  4. Shannon on September 4, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    I didn’t like to article, or what it implied. The example of the IT candidate; to suggest that simply because he had financial means and “didn’t need the job” was odd. You don’t have to be financially distraught to be good at a job and I don’t believe that you need a degree for every role either. I have hired numerous talented and intelligent employees over the past 15 years, that didn’t have a degree. It would be great if some of the HR directors out there would start opening their minds and read some of the new research on college degrees, and if they’re even worth having. And, Yes…I have a degree.

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