How to Reject a Great Applicant

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“Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”Winston Churchill

If a candidate does not have the necessary skills, or is an obvious bad fit from the start, the rejection process is generally pretty simple. Sure, it’s never fun to tell someone “no,” but in those instances, things tend to be pretty clear cut.

However, there are times when you interview someone, and they are a great applicant, heck, a PERFECT applicant, but…there is always a “but”…for some reason, and you need to reject this applicant.

Ultimately, it’s all about judgment. We’ll outline a few situations to see how and how much you should communicate when rejecting a great candidate.

How to Reject a Great Applicant

There are two major categories of reasons why you may need to reject a great applicant (if you know of others, share with us in the comments).

1. Timing

The bottom line is, sometimes, the proverbial calendar stars simply don’t align. It may be that you need someone to start immediately, and the candidate is in the middle of a six-month consulting engagement.

Conversely, maybe you are anticipating a need in six months, but your perfect candidate has a baby on the way and needs to get going right away.

In this case, if the candidate is truly special and the company’s financial circumstances allow it, it may pay off to hire them anyways, especially if it is for a particularly hard-to-fill role.


Generally, when timing is a problem, you can be straightforward and explain the circumstances. The labor market is becoming more fluid, and things change all the time. So, make sure you stay in contact in two ways.

First, inform the candidate of any updates in your timeline. If they are good, you want them to be your first call if and when your timing changes.

Second, make sure you touch base with them every 3-4 weeks if the role is still open. Staying on their radar and keeping them in the loop are great trust and relationship builders.

2. Cultural Fit

There are many different cultural reasons why a candidate who looks great on paper may be the wrong fit with your company’s chemistry.

A candidate may not be the right fit for the stage in the company.

For example, if you are a startup that barely has a product, you probably do not need to hire a VP of Sales with lots of experience scaling an organization (yet). The opposite could also be true….will your large organization’s bureaucracy pose a problem for an energetic, somewhat wild, and entrepreneurial candidate?


This is a more sensitive situation.

You have to be careful about how you word your rejection in this case. You want to avoid the perception of discrimination in any form. Even if you have the best intentions at heart, you never know how your message will be received. Feel free to communicate the dissonance if you see an upside (for example, if your company will grow into that need in three years), but in general, less is more.

Things become much more sensitive when there is a personality conflict with a key member of the team.

Right or wrong, sometimes people just don’t get along. Being a professional means that sometimes (read: often) you have to work with people who would not be your first choice to watch the game with over beers.

But what if there is a true conflict? What if the candidate wronged a team member in some capacity in the past?

In these cases, details may really open the door for problems. You want to be courteous and professional, but ultimately your team needs to function, and you need to figure out a way to move on.

In this case, less is definitely more.

In Conclusion

When you find a good candidate you cannot currently hire, you need to use your judgement to decide on the level of details you give and how much follow-up you do.

If appropriate, set calendar reminders to continue to stay engaged. Follow them on Twitter, read anything they publish, and if something new happens at your company, keep them in the loop.

Happy hiring.

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Pablo Fuentes

Co-founder and CEO of Proven, Pablo is committed to helping people find jobs through their mobile phones. He is also passionate about helping minorities and women start technology companies.

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