Tension Levels Rise as Recruiters Deliver the Bad News

By Fay Hansen

Nov. 12, 2008

Bill Ritchie’s office in Indianapolis sits across the street from a company where 600 mortgage officers once worked.

    “Now they are all gone,” he says. As a senior practice manager and top recruiter for MRINetwork, a large executive search and recruiting firm, Ritchie sees the tension rising as the unemployment rate soars and recruiting firms are forced to deliver bad news to the growing number of unsuccessful job candidates. Like the laid-off mortgage officers, many of the rejected candidates are out of work and are having difficulty finding a job.

    “A lot of rejected candidates are calling the employer directly and threatening litigation,” Ritchie says. “For many candidates, it might be their fourth or fifth rejection. Particularly if they are members of a protected class, their suspicions rise about whether they were simply not the right fit. Candidates have their radar up. If people have been out of work for a while, they are pretty sensitive.”

    With layoffs and high levels of unemployment forecast to continue well into 2009 and the average duration of unemployment steadily increasing, many recruiters are now entering a prolonged period of dealing with increasingly aggressive candidates. The conventional wisdom is to protect the company from exposure to discrimination charges by telling unsuccessful candidates only that another candidate more closely matched the company’s needs.

    The adequacy of this response, however, may come under question as the number of rejected candidates swells.

    “We have to give them some answers,” says Jeff Wittenberg, chief leadership officer for Kaye/Bassman International Corp. in Plano, Texas. “There is a place between saying nothing and saying everything.”

    Finding that place requires striking a balance between the company’s risk threshold and the need for effective candidate management.

Say nothing, say anything
   Michael Elkins, shareholder in the labor and employment law practice at Fowler White Burnett P.A. in Miami, is fielding a growing number of questions from clients about the best policies for responding to unsuccessful job candidates.

    “Litigation is rising because of rising unemployment,” he notes.

    Elkins represents large retailers who may receive hundreds or even thousands of résumés.

    “For a large retailer, you’re not going to call the 350 unsuccessful candidates for lower-level store positions,” he says. “At a higher level, you are going to call unsuccessful candidates, and the best thing you can tell them is that another candidate more closely fit the position. Leave it at that.”

    If a candidate presses for more information, stay on a generic level by simply reiterating that another candidate was a better fit and make sure the documentation is clear, Elkins advises.

    “You can’t stop discrimination charges and lawsuits. You are going to get candidates who will sue,” he says. “The best an employer can do is to handle the situation pre-suit. Documentation and effective communication with candidates is the key.”

    Wittenberg recognizes the legal concerns but believes that stonewalling simply fuels the frustration and anger that creates excessively persistent candidates.

    “When a candidate has been interviewed and rejected, it doesn’t serve them to tell them that another candidate more closely fit the position,” he says. “Candidates are very frustrated. They just want to know the truth instead of hearing some scripted statement.”

    Recruiters and HR staff have to walk the fine line between creating exposure for the organization and communicating effectively with candidates.

    “The market is flooded with talented, capable people,” Wittenberg notes. “No one wants to feel like they’ve been blown off. When they are given a bogus response, they are not just going to accept it. Some candidates will stay on it until they feel like they have gotten a real answer.”

    Wittenberg believes some measure of honesty can reduce the aggressiveness that unsuccessful candidates demonstrate when their questions about the rejection go completely unanswered.

    “We need to reduce the gap between total honesty, which may create exposure, and no honesty, which escalates frustration,” he explains. “The point is to avoid operating at either extreme. To reduce the gap, HR professionals may have to spend a little more time with unsuccessful candidates initially, but they may save time down the road as fewer candidates harass them.”

    When rejections occur on a large scale because the company is receiving hundreds of applications for only a few openings, recruiters may need to simply inform unsuccessful candidates about the extreme mismatch in supply and demand.

    “Let them know the reality of these uncertain times,” Wittenberg says. “Help them understand and empathize with the employer’s situation just as they want you to empathize with them.”

    When the rejections occur on a smaller scale, company policy and the specific situation set the parameters for conversations with unsuccessful candidates.

    “It can be a bit of a coaching moment,” Wittenberg says. “You can tell a candidate you are offering some feedback with the hope that the candidate might find some helpful information in it. If it is at all possible, you can extend a helping hand, for example, by referring them to another company with openings.”

Reducing risk
   In all cases, employers should minimize the potential for discrimination charges by creating clear criteria and solid documentation for every hiring decision.

    “Make sure these criteria are met by successful candidates and make sure that the successful candidates are clearly more qualified than the unsuccessful candidates,” Elkins says.

    The most common mistake companies make in managing the risk of discrimination charges is that the documentation does not provide a reason for the rejection.

    “You have to have something to back up the decision,” Elkins notes. “Be able to point to specific criteria, and be absolutely certain to maintain documentation on successful as well as unsuccessful candidates. The documentation should provide simple reasons. You don’t have to write War and Peace.”

    Elkins advises his clients to maintain documentation for five to seven years.

    “If an unsuccessful candidate threatens legal action or makes any reference to filing a charge, cease communications immediately and contact corporate counsel,” Elkins says. “Let counsel handle it from there.”

    If a candidate is so persistent that a recruiter or another employee feels concerned or threatened, HR should notify counsel.

    “State laws may come into play,” Elkins notes. “Counsel may contact local law enforcement to establish a record of any suspicious activity and to fulfill the employer’s obligation to protect employees and respond to any potential threats.

    “If recruiters are straightforward and treat candidates with respect, that goes a long way toward defusing any potential problem. People respond positively if a recruiter is genuinely responsive and interested in them and timely in communications.”

Striking the balance
   Based on his experience at MRINetwork, Ritchie reports that when recruiting occurs through a third party, unsuccessful candidates usually direct their anger at the employer, not the recruiting firm.

    “They want to tell off the offending party, and they don’t see us as the offending party,” he says. “We gain their trust, and if we’ve presented them to a client, they see the employer as the obstacle and channel their negative energy there.”

    If a candidate presses for information about why they were rejected, keep it simple, Ritchie says.

    “We assure them that the hiring authority made the decision and we often don’t know why,” Ritchie says. “Employers will sometimes give us reasons, and we may pass them along. If candidates are weak in a specific communication skill that is required for the job, I may tell them that. If they have a bad reference, I can’t tell them that. If they threaten charges, that’s the end of the conversation. And if they display poor judgment by being excessively persistent, then we won’t work with them because they have demonstrated poor judgment.”

    Ritchie believes the potential for discrimination charges often stems from what is said during interviews at the company.

    “There’s still a lot of education to do with hiring managers about what to ask and say,” he notes.

    In the current economic context, serious issues often arise from any reference to a candidate’s age.

    “Some candidates who were working at higher salary levels lost their jobs when companies looked to cut costs. They didn’t lose their job because of their age but because of their salary level. But they may see it as an age issue and become very sensitive about their age.”

    When recruiting firms are involved, the agency or the employer may handle rejections, but Ritchie believes it is preferable to let the agency deliver the message.

    “We should be the bearer of bad news,” he says. “It’s not HR’s job to inform the candidate. It’s better if we do the rejections because of the relationship we’ve established with the candidate. It’s easier for the candidate to take it and it’s less demoralizing.”

    Ritchie believes candidates who receive no response only become more aggressive.

    “You can’t just not take their calls,” Ritchie says. “If you are the fifth rejection and you won’t even take their calls, they may think it’s time to file a charge. Think about how the candidate may perceive the rejection.”

    Some companies have a zero threshold for exposure, and they will continue to be harassed by unsuccessful candidates, Wittenberg says.

    “Companies may fear the damage to their reputation that occurs when discrimination charges are filed, but they should also fear the damage to reputation that occurs when unsuccessful candidates are frustrated by the company’s response to them,” he says.

    Given the long stretch of high unemployment that lies ahead, employers may need to re-evaluate their threshold.

    “It’s the recruiters and HR executives who are in the trenches, so they should be part of the discussion with the company’s executives about the spot the company will occupy,” Wittenberg says.

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