While we see a lot of advice for people on the job market, it is much more rare to see tips for people on the other side of the process. This is a shame, as poor execution on the side of the hiring institution can cause significant unnecessary emotional distress. While there is a lot that could be changed, I’d like to start by providing tips for one of the most common documents produced by academic departments: rejection letters. It’s a delicate moment, to be sure, but I think many common practices, even well-intended ones, make the situation worse. As such, here is my advice:
- Send a physical letter to all rejected applicants. First of all, of course, one should actually notify unsuccessful applicants. All of them have put considerable work into the application packet, and simply assuming they’ll get the idea if they don’t hear from you is disrespectful. Sending a paper letter has two benefits over e-mail: it takes more effort (hence showing some modicum of respect for the applicants’ efforts) and it is less likely than an e-mail to “ambush” the applicant at an inopportune moment.
- Don’t try to reassure the applicant. The last person the applicant wants to hear praise from is the person notifying them that yet another avenue of professional advancement has been closed off to them. Learning that their file, “while excellent,” did not make the cut is more likely to produce despair than consolation.
- It’s not about you. Do not talk about the difficulty of the decision. It can come across as asking for pity from the very person you are disappointing.
- It’s also not about the other applicants. Nothing is gained by sharing that you received over 100 applications — basically every job does. Also, implicit comparisons to the successful applicant are distasteful. Obviously you preferred that person, and obviously you had a good reason to do so. Language like “we hired a candidate who more closely met our requirements” is both unnecessary and slightly arrogant, implying a degree of certainty and rigor that no hiring process can actually provide. If we change the formula to make it more honest — “we hired a candidate who we believe will prove to be a better fit” — it becomes clear that these kinds of statements are redundant.
- Don’t string applicants along. If you’ve moved to the level of screening interviews, alert the leftovers that they should give up hope right away. If you think you may need to dip back into the other applications after screening interviews, then select a limited number of secondary choices and alert everyone else. It may be more convenient to leave everyone “in contention” in some sense, but it’s inappropriate for candidates to have to turn to the rumor mill to figure out where they stand. If they no longer have a real shot, let them know yourself.
- Take responsibility. Phrasing like “your application is no longer under consideration” is disturbingly Orwellian, implying that the application (as an active agent) somehow failed to measure up to an objective standard — when the reality is that a group of people made a decision. That group has the real agency; “we” should be the subject of all sentences relating to hiring decisions.
- Keep it short. All the candidate can do at this point is put the disappointment behind them — providing extraneous materials allowing them to speculate about alternative histories is not helpful. It may seem impersonal to use a “just the facts” tone, but then the purpose of this letter is, after all, to inform someone that you are not intending to have an ongoing relationship with them.
So with those tips in mind, here is my proposed form letter:
Thank you for your interest in [our position]. We are writing to inform you that [we are no longer considering your application / we have hired another candidate].