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How to Reject Engineering Candidates (dblock.org)
37 points by tacon on Aug 1, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 47 comments

Please don't do this. I actually find these example emails much more insulting than the generic "we're going in a different direction" emails.

The reason I prefer the generic emails is that in many ways they're a testament to the fact that interviewing has a high degree of randomness. In many/most cases, rejecting a candidate comes down to an amorphous feeling that they won't fit in. Or just a brain block on a particular problem which doesn't speak to overall technical ability. Bottom line: the process is often quite random, so attempting to ascribe random decisions to inherent personal attributes is insulting.

The one kind of feedback I appreciate is when it's specific and actionable. For example: "we only hire people with an active open source presence" or "we've decided to curtail all remote hiring." This is something with a clear reason that isn't inherently personal. And no, "improve your culture fit" is not actionable.

I've seen interviewers that were worse than the candidate, knew less, made mistakes in asking questions and evaluating the answer and then rejected the candidate anyway. To get an email like from the OP after something like this would be pretty terrible.

Recruiting personnel in human resources are not in a position to evaluate the merits of the interview and it might help if this person wrote the feedback from the perspective of the interviewer and not as a collective "we".

These aren’t perfect and they stay pretty general, but they aren’t canned bullshit responses either.

Hm, I find that debatable. Your example rejection strikes me as overly verbose with little substance, is almost comically apologetic, and again boils down to the exact same one-liner of "You're not a good fit at this time."

It's really a long-winded way to convey the exact same (lack of) message, but with tidbits of one's resume and lots of apology sprinkled in to seemingly convey depth and empathy.

Oh god, please don't do this. This is worse than "We decided to go a different direction," because at least that takes less time to read.

If you're not going to provide substantive feedback ("we felt like your performance on the nearest-neighbor problem was pretty rough and were looking for a more optimized solution") then just give the one liner and be done with it.

We get it: you're hamstrung because of legal liabilities. That's fine. Don't make it worse by making us read a paragraph that isn't going to be helpful for the future.

> We get it: you're hamstrung because of legal liabilities.

At one place that rejected me the recruiter offered to tell me the reasons over the phone.

I think that sidesteps any liability problem. The phone calls leaves no paper trail, and recording it without his consent is illegal.

> recording it without his consent is illegal.

Depending on your (and his) jurisdiction. In many US states, it is legal.

I'm in California, where it is illegal.

We appreciate your huge desire to learn and your creative instinct. You’re obviously excited to code and solve hard problems. But tech-wise we don’t think you meet the bar that we’re aiming for a candidate for this position.

Stopped reading right there.

You don't need to provide a wall of text why I'm not the right candidate. I don't intend to read your summary of my resume. There's really no point. I'm already in a mad/frustrated/disappointed/etc. state and giving me a great wall of text is adding insult to injury.

Engineering candidates are really looking for feedback on how the interview/technical component went. The "cultural fit" answer is a blackbox and stating it doesn't really answer what you're looking for.

You're better off just telling me I'm not the right fit and for legal reasons, you can't go into details. That's really it. Don't tell me about what you think of my previous experience. Don't tell me about the other candidates (frankly, I don't care unless they become my co-workers).

This does have useful info in it - the line starting with "But tech-wise".

I think you're right that technical feedback is the biggest thing, and even a binary answer is useful. "Cultural fit", "we found someone better", and "the boss' nephew got the job" are all somewhat interchangeable from the candidate's perspective, but "we didn't think you could do the work" isn't.

For a company willing to provide information (and yes, most seem to be scared of the legal issue), that's the most value-dense thing to provide.

I got rejected from Netflix, and they gave me the best feedback I've ever gotten after an interview. They said "Based on the interviews, we don't think you could get done what we need to get done fast enough".

I disagreed with them, but that didn't matter. I looked back on the interview and could see exactly why they thought that. That feedback helped me improve for the future.

They are expecting you win coding marathons when you work there?

We pride ourselves to be rational/logical but these interviews are so counter intuitive to every thing we believe in.

Don't these interviewers have a little voice in their heads telling them "this is stupid" when they are going through this?

Was the interview about stuff they need to get done, or doofy puzzlers?

Stuff they get done. It was a really good interview. Without going into too much detail (NDA), I had a take-home project about a real world problem, then there were a lot of questions about the project. Of course there are always doofy puzzles too, but those weren't a focus.

The only thing I didn't like about the interview was that they compared themselves with qualifying for the Olympics. That I should "consider it an honor" because I made it to the interview, which is like making it to the Olympic Trials. While I understand what they meant, I think it was a very pompous statement.

I've heard similar statements to that one, and never been pleased. I met someone with Dropbox who spent much of our conversation telling me how they only take the best (with extensive namedropping) and most applicants never even get a return phonecall.

I think it was meant to draw me in by promising a selective team (he took my resume), but it didn't work at all. It simply felt like he was bragging about his own greatness (because he did have a job there) while telling me they would probably waste my time.

Even if the sentiment is good, any variant of "we're so great that failing is still an honor" feels tacky and self-aggrandizing.

Providing feedback is pretty hit or miss - if you give anything specific enough to be constructive you also end up with people often wanting to argue the particulars. The feedback examples here are pretty bad. "You don't have enough experience" - so you are going to hire him or her in two years once they have gained experience? "You aren't a culture fit" - why not? Is it because he or she isn't a 20-something white male who likes video games and beer?

The feedback I have tended to give is along the lines of "Our process has a high chance of providing false negatives, so just because we are not offering you a position doesn't mean we are convinced you are not qualified. On [Programming Problem X] we felt that your code involved too much deep nesting and the variable naming was poor; in an environment with many programmers that is one of the most important things to do well. You also missed [Requirement Y] which, while not critical for the functioning of the program, did show a lack of attention to detail of the problem statement." And then they still argue. :-)

If they are really horrible they get rejected in real time, and if it's late in the process we have a conversation internally about how they managed to make it so far.

I think your first line is a great generic response and sufficient in itself:

Our process has a high chance of providing false negatives, so just because we are not offering you a position doesn't mean we are convinced you are not qualified.

I don't really care for the reason why I'm rejected. I'm deluded enough in my own abilities to rationalize the reasons why you're making a huge mistake. :)

The main thing I want is a timely response. What drives me crazy is not getting any response at all.

That is something I didn't realize before but seems to be a common theme in the comments here - So I learned at least one thing to do better from this thread, even if it wasn't from the article. :-)

As somebody who has been rejected a few times (and been on the other side), I completely disagree.

All I care about is speed. A boilerplate rejection in 1 day (or even that night) is 10x better than a more specific email. Also the reasons given in the example emails are so vague I think I would be more annoyed. Rejection sucks, there is little an employer can do to lessen the blow other than do it quickly, so as to avoid days of agony while the candidate waits.

I do tons of hiring and there is no way I would ever write rejections like that. First of all if you are running a business and doing lots of hiring, there is no way you have time to write that many long thoughtful emails that refer to research you've done on their background, etc. Second, I highly doubt any adult developer gives a crap.

The only thing people want (and appreciate in my experience) is hard, cold facts about exactly where they messed up so they can do better on subsequent interviews. There is nothing that feels worse than failing and not feeling empowered to succeed in the future. As lovey dovey as those examples are, they don't do anything to help the person succeed in the immediate future which is what really sucks about overly terse rejection emails.

I completely agree. I would never write anything like the examples in the article and would be very discouraged if I received any of those responses to an interview I attended.

Even though it is from a movie, I think this is better advice: "Do you want a bullet to the head or five bullets to the chest and bleed to death?" [1]

If you want to add something about what to improve, I think that is fine too but do it succinctly (not terse).

1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXEtOPMW2hM

Yeah I think that's much better advice. The problem with giving out reasons is that there's a good chance your perception of them disagrees with their own self perception, and so you run the risk of insulting them.

I remember years ago, one company I interviewed with ultimately didn't hire me because "my experience was very strong in graphics and game development but they needed more of a generalist". This was, I think, because my unix command line skills were mediocre (At least that's where I flubbed the interview a bit); but at the time they rejected me I was working in web development... so it's not like I'm not adaptable. Anyway, the only reason that I even remember that is because their rejection was memorable, and it was memorable because I thought they were wrong. Of course I didn't argue with them because their minds were made up, but with this sort of decision you don't even want to invite the possibility of debate IMO, you just want to give a yes or a no.

Thanks for your article suggesting a better way to reject peeps. It made a good point, and I'm confident your hiring and rejecting career will be a colourful one, but we're going to stick with being human and not over-analyzing others' perceived shortcomings because we decided not to pull the trigger on doing the money-in-exchange-for-services thing. Cheers!

Yes! I wish more companies would do this. I wrote a little blog post on this topic a couple years ago: http://brandonb.cc/startups-stop-using-generic-form-letters-...

It's incredibly time-consuming to do well, so I cannot claim to hit the target 100% of the time, but I think it's worthwhile.

Writing, in general, is an activity that engineers usually put at the bottom of the priority list but it's when you write that you actually organize your thoughts and think things through. The process of writing the rejection email, even if you don't actually send it, is likely to make you think about why you're rejecting them, and formalize/ reinforce concepts and ideas to keep in mind at the next interview.

I would not find it easy to operationalize the feedback regarding cultural fit, either as a hypothetical jobseeker or as someone who theoretically knows what "cultural fit" is supposed to mean, which I would not model the modal jobseeker as understanding.

While this was interesting, what I'd love to hear about are the candidates that were accepted who very obviously turned out to be a bad match within a few months time, and how they adapted the interview process and questions as a result.

I'd hit delete on those messages after I'd have read the first sentence, which is one sentence sooner that on the generic one. If you're a hiring manager, please, don't post emails like this.

I always thought they said nothing as a matter of liability.

Yeah, that's the explanation I've heard. "We don't feel you're a good fit at this time" says nothing beyond 'no', and so there is nothing for a particularly litigious candidate to use against the company. A more verbose explanation, which would be appreciated by a majority of candidates, might accidentally give them fodder for a lawsuit.

I'm actually curious how useful it would be though. I can only think of a couple of times I've interviewed, and been genuinely curious why the company decided not to continue with me. Most times it's been "-Wow-, that was a poor fit", either culturally, or what they expected me to know, or how the position was sold to me, or whatever (my favorite being an interview with Microsoft, where the HR rep scheduling it said coding in Java would be fine, but then the interviewer was predominantly a C guy, and so was telling me that my for(int i=0; i<stringObj.length; i++) meant I was running in O(n^2) time, and my having to correct him...yeah), and only one or two times left me curious what their impressions were.

A litigous candidate would litigate based on the interview experience, not the rejection letter, and then access to internal notes (where the illegal discrimination happens) during legal discovery. The rejection letter is irrelevant. I cases that win, do you think the HR rep said "sorry blackie, we don't want your kind here"?

Ding ding ding!

Which seems more damaging in an [unlawful discrimination](http://www.eeoc.gov/) case:

“Thank you for coming to interview with us. Unfortunately we decided to hire another candidate.”


“You had trouble connecting with the interviewer. We call that “culture fit” and value it tremendously. We encourage you to practice your interviewing skills, so you can fully take advantage of your superior technical abilities.”

The discrimination fear is a boogeyman. The example you gave isn't risky at all. The risk is that one time someone will actually leak a illegal behavior.

I literally walked out of an interview at AirBnb in tears after the humiliation. I've been so traumatized after that I've stopped looking for jobs for over 3 years.

Only point of the idiotic BigO/whiteboard kind of interviews is to make the interviewer feel good about himself/herself.

Some of the emails you present are straightforward and useful - the second one in particular I'd be happy to receive. If you feel like someone would be a good fit after improving their skills in some specific area, that's a good thing for the candidate to hear.

Others, though, feel downright insulting - especially the first email. Praising someone's programming background, past projects, and eagerness to solve hard problems isn't an appropriate lead-in to telling them they failed a technical interview. It's either vacuous (they weren't talented, but you needed something to compliment) or back-handed (if their technical skills weren't good, how can you actually respect their past projects?) That's just a way to leave a candidate feeling worse about themselves and you.

Don't abandon this idea. I hugely value specific rejections, even blunt ones like "You don't have the skills we need" or "You failed the second technical interview". Just don't mix that with praising traits you're about to reject someone for.

Do you have evidence that rejected candidates prefer this? That they find it less insulting, instead of more? Do candidates take you up on your offer to help with placement elsewhere?

All I see in defense of this approach in the article is "As a hiring manager, I...". This isn't about you.

I tend to agree with others saying this is a bad idea. What I find the most irritating and insulting is when someone primes me to have a discussion about something (such as mentioning exactly what went wrong with the interview) and then acts as though there's no room for debate. If I got a rejection email like that, the first thing I'd want to do is write a reply detailing all the different reasons the interviewers were either wrong or overly concerned with the significance of my particular responses.

A lot of people are determined enough to start a debate about an interview. Comparatively few companies are willing to engage in such a debate and they shouldn't pretend otherwise.

All the examples in that article come across as instances of a "praise sandwich" (also known by a less savoury name). The formula is, "We thought you were good at X, BUT, we need someone also good at Y".

Perhaps it's the impact of reading them all back-to-back, but the insincerity of that interstitial BUT begins to stand out. The impact of reading this feedback is to discount the praise, and emphasize the gaps.

Given that, the feedback doesn't seem specific and actionable enough in most cases. The last example in particular, I parse as [we appreciate your interest, but your skills aren't good enough], which I'm struggling to read as better than the standard template.

A feedback sandwich is:

1. Congratulate for successes.

2. Point out weaknesses to improve.

3. Give encouragememt to keep working at it in future.

Plenty of people do it wrong and give BS feedback, but those people can put BS in any form.

The standard rejection, even more "thank you for your interest, while you have excellent qualifications, we have chosen a different candidate" is fine.

The main thing is making the selection process visibly fair and undemanding. The rejections that are most annoying are those in which the employer has candidates jump through numerous "hoops" and then rejects them, especially if the rejection is "oh you passed the test but we don't think you fit the culture" or something similar.

Great topic! I try to put myself in the engineers shoes. I'd want to know why they didn't pick me and how I could improve.

Writing these emails does not seem productive. You say you spend at least a half hour writing a draft, and you have someone else look over. That's alot of valuable time spent on a response that is almost as vague as the canned one liner.

Also, the cultural fit responses were worrisome.

I like the intent behind it. I don't like the verboseness of it. Would you send this out to your own team? A simple "What worked, What didn't" with bullet points would definitely be way more useful.

Author here. Old article, looking forward to reading your feedback!

Has your approach changed since posting that article? What's the feedback been like from candidates that have received emails like that?

I still send detailed rejections and so does my entire team. We get a lot of genuine thanks for doing so and some smaller amount of nothings meaning this was either useless or the candidate got upset.

I try to minimize unnecessary praise and focus on actionable items. And I always use written feedback as source.

There is no good rationalization for not hiring someone, because you cannot empirically connect your hiring process to more objective measures of success.

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