When I was in graduate school, I applied for a competitive summer internship. The application process was intensive: a cover letter, multiple recommendations, a work sample, and a series of assessments and interviews. The entire process took nearly a month to get through. I made it to the final round and I was feeling fairly optimistic about my chances, until I received a generic rejection email from the human resources department. Just like that, my chances were over—and worst of all, I had no idea what their rationale was. Not only was I disappointed, I was frustrated: what had gone wrong?
Most people have a similar story of applying for a job that they didn’t get. It’s not a great feeling, and one of the toughest parts is the uncertainty of why exactly we weren’t selected. Did we mess up the interview? Or was it our testing score? Did we ever stand a chance? During times like these, it may seem downright cruel that most organizations do not provide any sort of follow-up feedback on a candidate’s performance throughout the hiring process. But now that I’m on the other side of the equation, I’d like to defend this trend and shed some light on its rationale.
Most hiring managers are stretched thin. They barely have time to review developmental feedback to their existing employees. Even a highly competitive or specialized position will likely have dozens of applicants, and if you’re applying for an entry-level position, that number skyrockets into the hundreds. It’s simply not feasible for a handful of hiring managers to follow up with every interested candidate. Of course, context matters: if you’re applying for a senior position with multiple in-person hurdles or the competition has been whittled down to just a few choice candidates, then the process of rejection should also be more personalized if possible. For the vast majority of open positions, though, the issue of timing is the main barrier to personalized feedback on your application performance.
In some countries, like Germany, providing feedback to candidates is actually the norm. However, those countries don’t tend to have the enthusiastically litigious applicants that we have in the United States. American culture, particularly in terms of the workplace, favors a more guarded approach to sensitive topics such as hiring. Engaging in a discussion with a rejected applicant about why they were not hired is a delicate matter, and not many hiring managers or recruiters would voluntarily add that duty to their job description. Providing feedback to job applicants in the U.S. is so rare that there is not much data out there on lawsuits, but the fear of saying something wrong and being sued is very real. And as most hiring managers or recruiters would say, better safe than sorry.
Lastly, even if you still feel strongly that this would be a good practice for your organization, where do you draw the line? In order to be fair to all candidates, a consistent approach should be taken to feedback sessions. Would you provide feedback to every single candidate who submitted their resume, or would you create a cutoff for feedback based on how far they made it in the process? If so, how would you determine those hurdles? What if your decisions are based on employee assessment results – do you simply provide their testing score? And how do you handle follow-up questions about personal development? If you’re actually going to provide this service, it should be worth everyone’s time: but it’s difficult to provide thoughtful feedback to a candidate that you barely know.
Do I still wish that I had been given some feedback on my internship application? Of course. But as I’ve grown and gotten to see the other side of things, I respect the limitations that most organizations are working with. Keep these factors in mind next time you apply for a job and receive a generic rejection email. Because it’s really not you – it’s them.