How do you deliver bad news without closing doors?

No one wants to either deliver or receive bad news, but it’s one of those unavoidable parts of life, especially for hiring managers, although even for job seekers. So how can you deliver bad news without shutting doors or burning bridges?

Business author Seth Godin puts it this way:

“Not yet” is the safest, easiest way to forestall change. “Not yet” gives the status quo a chance to regroup and put off the inevitable for just a while longer.

You want to leave as many doors open as possible but it still needs to be clear – leave no room for ambiguity. Say as little as possible and “don’t sell past the close” (basically, stop talking before you make things worse).


Hiring Managers: telling a job candidate they didn’t get the position

Hiring is a really dynamic thing; a “no” today might not be a “no” further down the road, so it’s essential to leave that door open. You’re not making any judgments on the candidate, but just articulating the fact that you’re making a choice.

Be aware that everyone is considering lots of different options all the time. The candidates are evaluating you as much as you’re evaluating them. Neither of you is making a one-sided decision – it’s much more of a dance and a relationship than that.

Until there’s a deal struck (and even after that), keep your options open. Things change: your economics, funding at a company, co-worker relationships – you never know when you might need to hire that person you just turned down.

Ultimately, you want to preserve as much goodwill as possible. If you think someone has a really bad resume, don’t send them a note that says, “You have a really bad resume.” You may get a call tomorrow from a trusted colleague who thinks that person is fantastic, and that recommendation holds more weight than the resume alone. Simply say, “I don’t see a fit right now but I appreciate your interest. I would love to reconnect if the situation changes.”


Candidates: turning down an offered position

On the candidate side, if you need to turn down a job, the same advice applies. Be succinct and don’t go into too many details. For example: “I’ve made a choice, and sadly am choosing not to move forward with this. I’m grateful for your time and consideration and if something changes on either your end or mine I would love the opportunity to revisit this decision.”

The hiring manager may be unsatisfied with that response, but that’s not a bad thing. It can actually sometimes lead to a deeper conversation.

What does that look like? Well, say that as a job seeker, a specific aspect of a health care plan is important to you. You’ve only used the “I’ve made a choice” language to turn down the offer, but if the hiring manager is really interested in you, they may ask why you’ve made the decision. This is your opportunity to elaborate on the why, if you’re comfortable with that. Perhaps the company is in a position to adjust benefits, or perhaps they’re in a benefits renewal cycle and the change you needed is already in the works. By declining the position in a gracious way, you leave the door open for them to have a deeper conversation about how the position might be a fit for you or at least provide good feedback for the hiring manager.

As a job seeker, these decisions are complex – they involve family, kids, aging parents, geography, salary, benefits, and so many other variables – and things change.


Ultimately, the minimal sharing of information is the best way to go on both sides, just in case things change in the future.

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