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by Jill Witty | March 10, 2009

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The phone rings, and you pick it up. The voice on the other end sounds distressed. She identifies herself as a job applicant that your company recently rejected. Could you please tell her why she didn't get the job?

According to attorney Barbara Kate Repa, such questions are commonplace among rejected job applicants. Proceed with caution, advises Repa. "The rejectees have little to gain from you - and you have everything to lose," writes Repa in her book, Avoid Employee Lawsuits: Commonsense Tips for Responsible Management.

Rejected candidates may feel that they have been snubbed unfairly, and in some cases may take their cases to court. Consequently, adequate and thorough preparations for how to reject an applicant are necessary to avoid eventual legal entanglements.

The following are some guidelines about how to turn down a job applicant:

-Notify rejected applicants as soon as possible. The longer candidates are forced to wait for word of their fate, the more likely it is that they will become angry or stressed. A good rule of thumb is that within ten days, candidates should be contacted by potential employers, even if only to tell them that a decision still has not been reached.

-Don't feel the need to give an explanation as to why the candidate was not selected. Often the best language is intentionally vague, such as "the candidate and the position were not a good fit." Avoid referring to specific selection criteria, such as education or experience.

-Keep a positive tone and thank the applicant for his or her interest. This applies both to phone calls and to rejection letters.

-Be straightforward and honest. Don't give the applicant false hopes by alluding to the possibility of a job opening in the future, if no such opening will exist or if the candidate would not be considered for such a position.

-Don't say the position has been filled if it hasn't. Such a lie would reflect unfavorably on the company if the truth comes out.

-If you have selected someone else for the position, avoid saying that the chosen applicant is "better qualified." Such language leaves an employer open for legal complications in the future. It is better to use vague language, for example, the chosen candidate is "more appropriate" for the job.

If you follow a set strategy of fairness and honesty, you'll reduce the risk of unhappy or bitter rejectees, and you'll pave the way for a smooth hiring future.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues
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