Does Your CEO Know You’re Rejecting Tens of Thousands Who Like Your Firm?

Any firm in the Fortune 200 is likely rejecting half a million applicants each and every year. But unbeknownst to most recruiting leaders, their awkward and mostly unmanaged process for notifying applicants that they have been rejected is likely causing millions of dollars in damage to your firm’s product brand.

This rejection process (at any Fortune 500 sized firm) is probably disappointing and frustrating hundreds of thousands of applicants each year who have taken the time to apply and to show an interest in your firm. And the CEO or the corporate branding office would be furious when they realized that one business function was unscientifically rejecting this amazing volume of individuals who at one time “liked your firm.” And if they further knew that as many as two-thirds of these rejected applicants would likely become “detractors” of your firm, heads would roll. And to make matters worse, this rejected applicant process is also a missed marketing opportunity. Because this database of hundreds of thousands of names (with current full contact information) is unexplainably never used for product marketing purposes.

So what else do you need to know? This under-designed and in my experience literally the worst managed element of the entire recruiting process is unnecessarily disappointing hundreds of thousands of applicants, many of whom are also current customers. At the same time, it is not being used to market to them proactively. Obviously, a dramatic shift is needed.

Breathtaking volumes — One Fortune 250 company rejected nearly 475,000 applicants or 97.2 percent last year, while Alphabet with its 2/10 of 1 percent acceptance rate disappointed up to 3 million applicants.

The Damage from the Process Is Literally In the Millions

Most recruiting leaders simply haven’t taken the time to calculate the damage resulting from a weak process for rejecting applicants. But Virgin Media did. And it found that nearly 2/3 of rejected applicants became “detractors” (they spoke negatively about the firm). Up to 15 percent of applicants who were also simultaneously customers quickly stopped being customers. And thanks to the groundbreaking work of Graeme Johnson, we know the total cost of the damage at Virgin Media was over $5 million, and it was over $14 million at British Telecom. And those dollars of damage don’t include the recruiting loss of hundreds of thousands of applicants who may be so discouraged after their initial rejection that they would never reapply for a job at your firm, even though they initially liked it. And of course, don’t forget to add the “missed opportunity costs” that result from failing to use this huge database for positive marketing purposes.

No other business function rejects more individuals who “liked your firm” in a non-data-driven and more callous way than recruiting.

The Applicant Rejection Process May Literally Be the Most Poorly Designed One in Recruiting

After examining dozens of corporate applicant rejection processes, my conclusion is that many of them must have been designed by interns. No one in recruiting seems to even be aware that there are established design principles for rejecting potential customers. So recruiting’s rejection process consistently appears to be an afterthought with many faults and omissions. Those typical problem areas include:

  • The rejection process has no measurable goals — the process should have goals and metrics in the areas of the percentage of rejects who received notifications, the timing, rejected applicant satisfaction with the process, and whether applicants take any positive or negative follow-up actions. But I’ve never found a rejection process that had a single metric beyond “did we notify them?”
  • The process is not data-driven — the applicant rejections process was not designed or updated using data. Like any other customer service process, it can’t be improved without data.
  • The consequences are not quantified in dollars — like any other customer-service process, both the negative and positive actions taken by rejects need to be converted into their dollars of impact on corporate revenue.
  • The content of the rejection notice is haphazard — the typical rejection is not written using any proven design principles. So the timing, the content, and the wording of the message seldom meet customer service standards.
  • The database is not used for marketing — I have only found one single firm (a Midwestern Bank) that purposely uses the applicant rejection database as a marketing tool for gaining new customers. In order to protect your options, be sure and include a clause in the job application process that gives your firm the right to also use applicant data for marketing purposes.
  • There is no process for discouraging no-chance applicants — no matter how well a rejection process is designed, rejecting hundreds of thousands of individuals can never be a good thing for a firm’s image. Unfortunately, most firms (including recruiting powerhouse Google) have no data-driven process for actively discouraging individual potential applicants who realistically have no chance of getting hired. It makes no sense to waste corporate time and resources on these “no-chance” applicants who simply flood the system. And rejecting these individuals, unfortunately, increases the opportunities for more lawsuits and negative social media messages.

Recruiting Leaders Don’t Seem to Care About Rejected Applicants

Even though recruiting leaders claim to care about “the candidate experience,” most don’t seem to include the rejection process as part of that experience. Even though the rejection element may be the most damaging component of the whole experience, it may not be much of an understatement to say that recruiting leaders care little about rejected applicants. Little effort and fewer resources have been put into the design of this notification process. And also it’s a topic that never even appears at recruiting conference agendas, even though the possible damage, as well as the value of the marketing opportunity, is in the millions.

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5 Quick Action Steps

If you want to fix this process, simply benchmark with your customer-service function to learn how professionals discourage and reject those who have applied.

  1. Develop a process to discourage “no-chance applicants” from ever applying.
  2. Work with the CFO’s office to measure the dollar impacts of a weak rejection.
  3. Learn and use established “rejection principles” to change the rejection message and the process.
  4. Work with marketing to make sure that the reject database is fully used.
  5. Continually measure process results and improve.

Final Thoughts

Corporations have recently begun to spend millions on making the job application process faster and less cumbersome so that they get more total applicants. They have also focused on building the candidate experience so that fewer discouraged candidates drop out during the hiring and interview process. But almost no one has applied data to learn how ineffectual and possibly damaging the process is that notifies applicants that they have been rejected.

Look to other internal business functions that routinely reject customers (e.g., credit applications, bid rejections, and requests for refunds, returns, or discounts). Learn from them the “standard rejection principles” and the dos and don’ts that are already successfully applied elsewhere. At the very least, find out what percentage of rejected applicants under their current process ends up becoming reenergized supporters or active detractors of your firm. Treat this process as a business process, with many possible positive marketing and even more negative image damaging possibilities.


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Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



7 Comments on “Does Your CEO Know You’re Rejecting Tens of Thousands Who Like Your Firm?

  1. This has been enlightening. I head the marketing efforts for a medium size business who rejects around 20,000 applicants a year. Our business is service related, so everything revolves around a solid recruitment strategy. However; as you mentioned above, the rejection process might be lacking.

    We send out rejection emails for those individuals who make it to an interview and no further. That makes up about 15% of the total while those who don’t even make it to the interview point are never communicated with that they were rejected. What is your opinion on resumes that don’t meet your standards, and automatically get rejected. Should they be contacted as well? I can see some benefits. We sometimes have a high amount of re-applies, and a rejection process for those candidates could help eliminate that.

    Also, our applicant tracking system allows for multiple email outreach, but it does not allow for the emails to be designed in any type of fashion. What would be your opinion on how to handle that? It would make it difficult to create rejection letters based on solid customer service design principles.

    Best regards,

    A Fan

    1. Oh, also, I was wondering about the use of that applicant database for other marketing needs. If you did not have a clause in your application process, would it still be ok to utilize the information? Or should we get a clause in there and only use those who apply after it is in place.

  2. Great article. I’d add an action in here.

    For all the ‘not this time’ candidates they should be continously nurtured using talent pipeline software which will keep them informed, enthused and ready for ‘next time.’

    My data shows that even people who aren’t in the market want content which will help them get ahead in their career. Nurturing pipelines is the biggest underutilised opportunity available today to recruitment marketers.

    Adam Gordon
    CEO & Co founder, Candidate.ID

  3. Sadly, the reason companies don’t have a rejection-based metric beyond “did we notify them?” is that most don’t even do this. I was listening to Stacy Donovan Zapar speak at a conference recently, and loved her idea of feedback Fridays. She blocks out time every Friday afternoon to update candidates on their status, before going in to the weekend. She also suggested doing one final pass-through to ensure that all candidates have been notified before closing out a position, and offers them resources to lessen the blow. I wrote up all of her recruiting hacks here: While it’s likely impossible to eliminate all detractors, it shouldn’t be that hard for most companies to reduce them with a few steps they can essentially automate through their ATS.

  4. As a job seeker, I’ve experienced hundreds of missing rejection letters. As an HR professional, I’ve witnessed countless employers/recruiters not knowing where to start or thinking that they simply don’t have the time to send a personalized rejection email to every candidate. That’s just not the case anymore. With the technology that’s available, you can automate emails and still add in a personal note. There are also ways to keep “rejected” candidates in talent pools for later followup with notes and info on that candidate that could be of great use later in the game. Recruitee offers both solutions:

    Thanks for sharing. I think that if employers follow your steps above and use the right tools, they will be on their way to less jaded candidates and better fits for their open positions in the future.

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