one that got awayThere’s nothing worse than being rejected by a candidate – and don’t lie, it’s happened to all of us in recruiting, unless you just started last week or are somehow the world’s greatest closer this side of Mariano Rivera or Alec Baldwin’s character in Glengarry Glenn Ross.  So, since we’re all in agreement that getting spurned by a job seeker sucks, I’d like to pose a question: how do you react?

If you’re like most of us in recruiting, your instant reaction was likely to write them off and add them to the “do not hire” blacklist every recruiter mentally maintains, or shot them back a pithy note that said something to the effect of, “nice knowing you,” or, “you’ll never work with another recruiter in this industry ever again.” Because, you know, that’s kind of how recruiting rolls when a search rolls downhill.

While rejecting candidates is basically the core competency (and professional necessity) of most talent acquisition practitioners, being on the other side of that rejection stings worse than a Dear John letter or those overly candid Glassdoor reviews that nail just how bad your company sucks. Breaking up with a candidate you or your company are hot on is never easy, but getting dumped can be devastating.

Hey, they might just not be that into your company, but that doesn’t prevent us from taking it personally.

And like any bad breakup, the first response most of us have is almost always out of spite – admit it, we’ve all gone straight into our ATS and put a “red flag,” (the HRIS version of the Scarlet Letter) on their candidate record, meaning that they’re forever dead to you and your company. Sure, you won’t admit it (you’re different from other recruiters, just like everyone else), but you know I’m right. And you know I’m right when I say that sometimes, having the power to push back with pettiness feels pretty damn good. But even though most of us have, at some point, fought fire with fire when rejected by a candidate, I’m here to tell you how wrong this worst practice really is.

Are you ready, boys and girls? It’s story time.

Turning Rejections Into Relationships

A few years ago, I was assigned one of those really tough reqs that you instantly know is going to be a fight just to find a single qualified candidate, much less get one of them through the process and to an accepted offer. In this case, the job was for a Program Manager with full software development lifecycle experience. But it gets better. This needle in a haystack also had to have full scope polygraph clearance – no lie. If you’ve ever filled secure roles, you know just finding cleared candidates is enough, but in this case, they had to understand both deliverables and development. Basically, hunting for a unicorn is easier than finding this candidate.

When I got the requisition, the job had been open for a little while, and after it sat shockingly unfilled, the master service provider originally tasked with filling this position opened the search up to outside staffing subs. Which follows the general process flow of government contracting – it always looks like this. The larger firms, the ones selling themselves as search experts and pulling in lucrative contracts for beaucoup bucks, can’t actually find or attract the talent their clients need, so therefore, they turn to subs to fill in the gaps – and fill their hardest reqs. Many specialized staffing firms, in effect, act as private, white-labeled subcontractors tasked with keeping the candidates (and ultimately, the contracts) coming to the bigger, better resourced master vendors whom they often work for exclusively, albeit not as direct employees.

Since I worked for one of these specialized, smaller subs, of course I had a magic database of perfectly pipelined warm leads just waiting around the phone with baited breath for me to call them about their next great gig. And because we have a relationship, they’ll take my advice – and any position I offer them, compensation, commute or complicating factors be damned.  Yeah, right. If you believe that, I’ve got some beachfront property in Arizona you should take a look at.

Of course, this is how most managers seem to think specialty recruiters really operate, but the truth is, tilting at windmills to find that proverbial purple squirrel is always a grind, no matter how experienced or well connected you happen to be. This search, of course, would be no different – and it took several days to find two candidates who were close enough fits to warrant further consideration. Of course, neither were exact matches – the fact that there’s such a thing as a perfect candidate is a perfect lie, a myth invented by career coaches and management consultants.  But these two were really pretty close, as far as things go.

I proceeded to reach out to them, and after the initial opportunity conversations and phone screens, I knew that they were going to get an interview – and when I followed back up to invite them to advance to the next step in the process, they and the client seemed equally ecstatic. Of course, as often happens, the hiring team liked both candidates after meeting them in person, but after a very close call, one just nudged the other out as the one who would be getting an offer.

Recruiting, like football, truly is a game of inches – and I let the candidates immediately know the feedback I’d received from the clients, since I believe in the importance of preclosing candidates – and I knew after our conversation, that I had their top choice locked, loaded and ready to accept the inevitable offer. Or so I thought.

Getting Back The One Who Got Away

In recruiting, shit happens. Often times, that shit comes in the form of a candidate. In this case, that candidate had gone through the complete process only to finally reveal that, in fact, they had no real desire to work for this client – after the interview and some due diligence, “it just didn’t feel like the right place” to continue his career. OK, dude – thanks for letting me know, because after passing on this kind of news to my client, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to continue my career, either.

Needless to say, I was shocked. Totally blindsided, which I try to do everything in my power to preempt. I tried in earnest to get him to take the position, and pulled out every trick in the book to try to use my powers of persuasion to get him to change his mind – or at least take another look. But I remained at a loss as to what the hell, exactly, happened with this guy. Luckily, I still had my other candidate, who, fortunately, remained interested in the job – and we were able to get him in there and make a hire.  But as successful as this outcome ultimately was, it left me wondering about the one who got away.

So we met up for lunch. I grilled him about his rationale and reasoning, the recruiting process and his thought process, and what, exactly, scared him off from the role. He told me that, even though I was working for a sub, he had no desire to work for our prime contractor who passed along the search to my firm – he had some major issues with them and although he would work for our firm, not theirs, he just didn’t feel comfortable with them involved in any capacity.

Which is an issue that even the best recruiter can’t fix – and I got that it had nothing to do with me or the process. So, no harm, no foul, and no reason to angrily red flag him or in any way jeopardize our relationship or respective reputations. After all, this guy is one tough find, and even if this wasn’t the search, jeopardizing our relationship because of one requisition would be silly – particularly if that search ever came up again.

Just about a year later, a new contract came out, and we were awarded as the prime – stepping up from our secondary status and getting a bigger piece of the pie by going against the same prime we had been working against – this guy’s sentiments, turns out, were no anomaly.  Those guys sucked, and everyone, including him, knew it.  And wouldn’t you know it? The person who turned me down for a job a year ago became my program manager. Why? Because we stayed connected, and I gave him the benefit of respect, professionalism and never closed the door on future opportunities. The same advice we give candidates but rarely ourselves, as recruiters, really reciprocate.

I did right not writing him off, and when we went to bid on this contract as a prime a few months later, I kept him in the loop every step of the way. That relationship, in no small part, led to him ultimately accepting an offer to join our team – a fact that I think won us the government contract and new business. After all, we knew the client liked him before as a candidate – so why not now as part of our project team? They had no reason not to reward us the contract, and a candidate rejection actually paid off as new business – even if it took a full year for that hard work to directly impact the bottom line, with no guarantee that there would be any reward whatsoever for keeping this relationship alive. Which, turns out, is actually easier than posting, praying and starting a new search for scratch.

The Moral: Morals Matter in Recruiting

As recruiting and sourcing professionals, we seem obsessed with constantly finding new tools, techniques or technologies instead of optimizing the ones we’re already working with – the same goes for candidates.

We post jobs before we search our ATS; we source externally well before we turn to our own extant network which took so much time and effort for us to build explicitly so we can leverage those connections in just these kinds of situations. But even if they’re not right for a job, or not interested in a specific opportunity or company, doesn’t mean that you should retaliate when a candidate rejects you – instead, use it as a learning experience and opportunity to stay in touch with a good candidate.

Because as we all know, good candidates don’t come along all that often – unlike, say, vindictive recruiters who’d rather burn bridges than build relationships. Remember: sometimes, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. And playing the long game almost always pays off.


By Derek Zeller

Derek Zeller draws from over 20 years in the recruiting industry, and he currently is the Director of Recruiting Solutions and Channels with Engage Talent. The last 16 years he has been involved with federal government recruiting specializing within the cleared IT space under OFCCP compliancy. He has experience with both third party agency and in-house recruiting for multiple disciplines. Using out-of-the-box tactics and strategies to identify and engage talent, he has had significant experience in building referral and social media programs, the implementation of Applicant Tracking Systems, technology evaluation, and the development of sourcing, employment branding, and military and college recruiting strategies. Derek currently lives in the Portland, Oregon area. Follow Derek on Twitter @Derdiver or connect with him on LinkedIn.