Seven ways to avoid treating job applicants like crap and detracting from your brand


Last year I wrote Five amazing things employers did, even though I didn’t get the job.  That piece had the positive vibe, and if you want positive, go there now.

I pointed out that being treated well during the hiring process, or even being treated better than well, is great marketing for the hiring firm — even if the firm didn’t offer you the job!  After all, it’s a small world. Who knows when you’ll be in charge of buying the product or service from the company that didn’t hire you?  Or when the hire-er will be on the other side of the desk as the hire-ee.  It’s a small world.

Here’s the flip-side of that essay; A few ways that I have experienced a hiring company not meeting minimal obligations to an interviewee and/or verging on the unethical/illegal. Actions that could lead to small (or possibly critical) impacts on a company’s brand.

1. Don’t waste hours of applicant and employer time by not sharing all job requirements early in the process

Both parties spend multiple hours on the phone, including internal recruiter and hiring manager. Travel into a nearby city (1+ hour commute) to meet multiple team members face-to-face. Then, when I was told I didn’t get the job, I was told that a major reason was that they wanted someone “local”, not a commuter.

They brought this commute issue to the forefront after the fact. I asked why they even brought me down for an interview with multiple folks at all if commute was an issue. The irony is had the mentioned this up front, I would have told them (a) I was actually looking for a room sublet to stay in the city a few nights a week so I could be closer to work and (b) I could actually work on the bus and get a lot done even if I commuted from my home.

This ‘commute’ thing was likely a smokescreen for deeper conversations about other issues. If I was passed over for other reasons, no worries, just tell me. I’m a big boy.  This brings me to:

2. Be honest, and not so damn afraid of lawsuits

If you spend hours talking to a candidate, scheduling meetings, asking them for samples, making them take intrusive tests, and contractually requesting their first born, you can at least be honest with them about why you didn’t choose them when you decide to take a pass.

Look, I get how hard it can be to tell someone you barely know why you chose not to hire them. And it opens up the possibility that the candidate will try to change your mind. But so what? You can preface your two minute follow-up phone call to the candidate with “I am not open to my mind being changed. However, as professional courtesy, I want to give you feedback that may or may not help you in your job search or even in future opportunities with our company.”

I’m not suggesting that this call happens with every person you phone screened.  But if you narrowed the field to 3 or 5 candidates and made your choice after a period of weeks of selection processes and dozens of hours of commitment by everyone involved, the least you can give the not-chosen candidates is two minutes of your time. And some form of human contact (see #7 below).

The reality is that nobody is going to sue you for telling the truth (well, if your truth is legal) and you will gain the respect of a professional person who in the future you may interact with or be connected to only by one or two degrees or even work with.

My LinkedIn connections are filled with folks who didn’t hire me, but who completely impressed me with their leadership and honesty–and then I actually referred OTHER people to them for hiring.

If you want the referral act like someone who deserves it!  Even when you don’t hire me.

If you must behind lawyers and HR policies, I feel kind of sorry for you. With that said, you wouldn’t have to hide answers if the staff you choose and train to interview candidates knows how to…

3. Mind your “-isms”: Sex-ism, age-ism, rac-ism, class-ism, etc.

As a man at the start of a certain “period of experience” in my professional life, the following things have actually occurred to me:

  • On an interview, I was asked by the interviewer (the first part is a quote, second part paraphrased): “This question is harder to ask someone of your age, but I have to ask you anyway.”  And then I was asked if I could come to work on a Saturday at a restaurant because that was where the ‘younger’ members of the team got a lot of work done.
  • At a lunch meeting, I once held the door for a woman who would be my manager.  That act led her to point out that she could hold her own door, thank you. Things could have gone much better after that. (I’ll continue to hold doors for women, thank you. And men too!)
  • I recently did an experiment where I purchased a stock photo of a man who is around my age but has a full head of hair and (in my opinion at least) is much better looking than me.  For full disclosure, I even put as the first line of my LinkedIn profile a link to the blog post about this experiment. I got a substantial bump in views of my profile (though that bump did even off after a while.)

This leads me to the famous non-response of HR “professionals”:

4. Saying “You are not a cultural match” when your team is really just plain ol’ discriminating

Look, I get it. Creating a cohesive team, especially in a startup but really in any firm requires a cultural fit at least equal in importance to the technical merits of a candidate. I too have interviewed folks for “culture.”

If there is indeed a cultural mismatch, and you can’t or won’t articulate out loud what that really means, you should probably deeply reflect what you are thinking about. You may be using “cultural match” as a codeword for “you are too old” or “you are the wrong gender” or “you are the the wrong race” or “we don’t think someone with weight issues would be able to keep up with our weekend bonding activities” or something else less sinister, but equally inappropriate. If you can’t pin down the cultural mismatch with actual thoughts you can articulate in writing, there may be a problem.  (See #3 and #1 above.)

I was once on an interview for a position where the person hired would have been in an open-style “pit” work area. When I interviewed in person, every one of the folks in the pit visually seemed to be under 30.  The folks that were in leadership roles (most of them seemed at least bit older than those in the pit) had either offices or worked on the road or at home.  I would have been an “older” person but my role would have worked “in the pit.” I interviewed with folks from the pit who were really excited about my experience and how I could coach them and get the job done and learn from them at the same time.  But, less than a day later, I was dismissed with the “the culture doesn’t fit” message with no specifics whatsoever after that sentence.

Was I discriminated against?  I can’t prove it. But there was no specific answer as to why I “wasn’t a cultural fit.”

Not to mention that building a culture with a variety of folks – inexperienced, experienced, various genders, various abilities, various world views, almost always creates a better company and product than a company where everyone is the same.

5. Assigning “homework” inappropriately or providing zero feedback to appropriate homework

This is a biggie.  Two examples, both of which have occurred to me:

a. Asked to do too large of a project: One time, I was brought in for an interview where the next step was for me to present a 7-10 slide PowerPoint to the management team about anything so that they could see my style.  No problem.

But a day later, they asked me to put together a full business plan to see how I worked and they gave me around a week.  A full business plan. First of all, I was working full time and that is a big project. Second of all, that is a really project.  And third of all, that is a REALLY BIG project to work on while I am employed full-time elsewhere. Please respect my time, I respect yours.

I told them I would be happy to spend 40 hours on it on nights and weekends, and that I’d be happy to do it at 1/2 of my “normal” pay rate.  And if they liked it, they could buy it and own it. Or they could hire me and not pay me for that time I spent.  They told me I was crazy. I told them I would withdraw from the process.

b. Work hard on a homework assignment and get ZERO response. Another time, I was asked to do a slide presentation by a hiring manager for a position.  A really appropriate assignment for the job.  I spent 2 hours researching and 4 hours putting together what I thought was a creative, kick ass visual presentation and set of speakers’ notes.

I got zero response from the hiring manager or the internal recruiter past “we’ll look at it.”  When I called a few days after the hiring manager returned from vacation (after I rushed to compete it without knowing they wouldn’t look at it for 2 weeks), the recruiter told me the manager had already chosen another candidate.

See the “big boy” comment above and #2 above.  I have zero issue if you liked another candidate better.  However, since we already had multiple recruiter conversations, and a hiring manager phone screen that ran much longer than planned, and I spent 6 hours doing homework you assigned me, could you at least bother to call or email me when you made your decision?  And provide me at least 20 seconds of written or voicemail input about my homework?  Was it my style? Was the content incorrect?  Anything?  Hello? Bueller?  Bueller?

Yes, I get it.  I know you are busy.  But I just spent 6 hours doing your bidding and I already have a full-time job!  You really should spend at least 2 minutes responding to a person YOU asked to do this kind of work.

6. Treating salary negotiations like a used car salesperson instead of with integrity and value

One time, I took a personality test, did a phone screen and had 3 in-person interviews.  Very early in the process, I told the hiring manager (the CEO of the company) what my absolute minimum salary would be.  I was willing to go low as I really liked the product and its upside.

I got the job offer!  However, inclusive of me getting 100% of my bonus (which would have made up a large portion of my annual earnings and was not guaranteed), the all-in number was at least $10K less than my clearly stated minimum requirement.  Which I had shared multiple times very early in the process and through the headhunter.

And, when I turned it down politely, not as a negotiating tactic, but because I decided that I didn’t want to work with someone with this style of negotiating, I was angrily accused of only seeking the money, only focusing on the money, and how it was a really good thing I didn’t take the job because all I was concerned about was money.  (I felt like I was at a used car dealership – even his pleasant business tone switched off as chided me.)  In fact, I was up front from day 1 about how I’d be happy to take a major salary cut to join his team and here’s how low I was willing to go. We all could have saved a lot of time on this one.

7. Not following up in situations where you yourself would demand follow-up

Lots and lots of recruiters point out how applicants need to appropriately follow up in a timely manner. Guess what?  So do employers.

Yes, employers have obligations in this process. And I am not talking about the legal minimums.  I am talking business.  And maybe even karma, if you believe in that sort of thing.

I am a realist. I have had points in my career with 75 resumes on my desk. It takes time.  A lot of work. And I am not saying every candidate requires hours of attention.  Or even minutes. Or even more than a minute, depending on the point in the process.

However, if you recently told me I was in the top 5 candidates being considered, and we did multiple phone screens and multiple in-person interviews, it is not appropriate for you to nevercall me back again.  Not even to tell me “thanks, but no thanks.”  That is just not cool.

And please have your HR folks or automated system at least acknowledge receipt of the application even for folks you have no intention of calling.  A “no thanks, this isn’t a match email” is perfectly OK.

Remember, total inaction reflects on you and your company. Inaction when being polite and business professional requires it just tacky.

8. Putting applicants through Applicant Tracking System (ATS) hell

Much has been written about the black hole of applicant tracking systems (ATS). Bottom line:  Have your internal teams try to apply.  See how long it takes.  See if it asks you inappropriate things.  See if it crashes.  See how crappy it works on a tablet or phone.  The usual testing you’d do with your product!

Here are two biggies:

a. Ensure that the recipient of the info is trained! One time, I applied for a job through LinkedIn and attached my resume.  (LinkedIn’s system is kind of cool.  It is short and easy.)

I received an email from the hiring manager saying he really liked my LinkedIn profile, but it was kind of weird for me not to send a resume and that that inaction on my part didn’t earn too many points for me.  Somehow, in their process they lost my resume.  I answered politely with a resume attached via email, but I could tell that I would never get a call back, as that manager pretty much came close to chastising me about how it was my fault he didn’t have my resume even though I followed their process. He never called back, even though he said he was interested in my via LinkedIn profile.  (Or was he just in a bad mood that day and wanting to dump on someone?)

a. If your ATS is customizable, choose the shortest and simplest path with as little information as possible.  Bottom line, high quality candidates are not going to waste their time filling in every field.  And check your ‘cart abandonment’ rates to find out what is really going on.

Dollars to donuts that you lost your next high quality candidate from someone who just said “screw this, why do some of the most successful companies use an application system that is one upload and one click and this one makes me spend 25 minutes filling out forms?” Many high quality candidates are already working!  Do you think they have 25 minutes to an hour of time to spend on administrivia?  You are courting them!  Make it easy.

If your ATS isn’t customizable or naturally very short, don’t use it!

When it is an employers’ market, you can get away with some bad habits.  But “getting away with” doesn’t build world-class brands. Do the right thing with your people and the people who may be your people in the future. Or who may introduce you to people who will be your people.  Or who may be your customers.  Or who know people who may be your customers.

It is hard sometimes, but there is a real impact on people, what they say about you, and how and if they and their networks will think about you–and do business with you or refer candidates to you–in the future.

It’s your brand, build it wisely!

What are some of the crappy ways you have been treated as an applicant?  What are some of the best things hiring companies did, whether or not you actually got the job?

Warm regards,