New Year, New Hire, Part 6: How to Write a Rejection Letter

A close-up photo shows a person’s hands, which have coral-colored fingernails, as they use a keyboard and trackpad to write a rejection letter to a job candidate on a desktop computer.

Picture it: you just wrapped up your interview, and you’re confident you’ve found your ideal candidate. They’re smart, hardworking, qualified, socially skilled, and you know they’re going to blend well with the team. You’ve even got the personality assessment results to prove it. You send them the job offer, and they accept. Everything is great, right?

Not so fast.

Unless they’re the sole person you brought to the interview stage, chances are that there are a few (maybe even several) other candidates who didn’t quite make the cut. To avoid joining the ranks of companies that leave their applicants with a negative opinion (rejections are one of the biggest factors that lead to this), consider this option: the rejection letter.

To be clear, the purpose of the rejection letter is to deliver bad news, so you shouldn’t expect cheers of joy from the recipient. But that doesn’t mean that the letter can’t serve a constructive purpose.

How to Write a Rejection Letter to a Job Applicant

The key to a good job candidate rejection letter is being honest, kind, and compassionate. Your letter should build the candidate up and let them know that, even though they may not be eligible for this role, they will find more opportunities. Remember that this rejection reflects on you and the organization as a whole. The tone you set will determine if the candidate will consider applying again in the future, and it also impacts your organization’s reputation and employer brand.

Here are the four steps to write a job interview rejection letter that will send the right message.

Step 1: Thank Them

It should be self-explanatory, but thanking the candidate is a good idea. Studies show that saying “thank you” has ripple effects that directly and indirectly benefit the health and happiness of those who experience it. Remember that the applicant has given their time and effort to apply, take personality assessments, and interview for the role. Acknowledging this and showing your gratitude for their candidacy will cast your organization in a more positive light.

Step 2: Break the Bad News

This is it — the hardest part of the entire letter. While it may not be possible to alter the essence of your message, the words you use to let the candidate know that they did not get the position are important. Of these two examples of a rejection, which do you think would be better received?

  1. I regret to inform you that we have chosen a different applicant for the position.
  2. After careful review and a difficult decision, we’ve decided to move forward with another candidate for the role.

If you chose B, congratulations: you’re correct. The key here is that we’ve let the candidate know that it was a challenging decision and that their application was legitimately considered. Additionally, note the subtle difference between the phrasing, “chosen a different applicant” versus “decided to move forward with another candidate.” The latter gets the point across more gently.

Step 3: Explain Why

Still with us? Good. Now that you’ve broached the subject, it’s time to explain why they didn’t get the job. In most cases, it’s a best practice to be open and honest, but this should be determined by how your interactions with them went.

Good interview – As great as they are as a candidate, it’s possible that some factor meant that they just didn’t make the cut. Was it insufficient experience that made the difference? Let them know gently (follow a similar methodology to Step 2).

Bad interview – If the candidate made a negative impression during the interview, you shouldn’t call them out on it. Instead, say nothing and skip to Step 4.

Step 4: End on a High Note

We’re in the home stretch. After you’ve thanked the candidate, broken the news, and explained your decision, end the message positively. Ideally, you should highlight strengths that stood out in the interview and/or their personality assessment results, point out their valuable qualifications, and express your interest (if you have any) in keeping their application on file for consideration for future roles. Positivity in your closing note will establish a good foundation for any future conversations you have with them.

And that’s it. With those four steps, you will have a thoughtful, constructive rejection letter for a job applicant that may leave them disappointed but thankful for the experience and hopeful for future opportunities.