Rejecting people isn't easy. In romance, we tend to beat around the bush ("I need more freedom . . .") or just stall for time ("I think we should date other people . . .") rather than rejecting someone outright. Those same techniques seem to apply in business, where undesirable job applicants are treated the same way as unwanted lovers.
That's our conclusion based on rejection letters we received from 13 companies. To see what techniques the companies use to reject unwanted applicants, we sent fake re'sume's to employment offices. The re'sume', from a nonexistent college senior named Clint Smalfurie, sought an entry-level accounting position. It was designed to be sufficiently mediocre so Clint would surely be rejected everywhere he applied.
With the exception of one call requesting Clint come in for an interview, the results confirmed similarities between romantic and employment rejection, and provide some surprising letters from unlikely companies.
Stalling was by far the most common technique employment offices used. Rather than tell Clint that he wasn't what they were looking for, they dangled a carrot in front of his nose, telling him that his re'sume' would be "kept on file" until an appropriate job opened up.
Of the 13 replies, 10 used some version of the maybe-I'll-call-sometime technique.
"Thank you for your interest in employment opportunities with Best Western International," Clint was told in one letter. "Currently we do not have any positions available at our corporate headquarters which would properly utilize your skills. However, we will keep your re'sume' in our active files for one (1) year in the event an appropriate position becomes available."
A letter from Burroughs Corp. was even less committal: "We will review your qualifications in light of our current employment needs. Should your background match any of our present job openings, we will contact you."
What's more, the stalling game seemed well thought-out. Motorola's professional recruiter pulled the ultimate stall by signing his letter not with his name, but with an "M", thus precluding any personal contact by the applicant ("Hello, employment office? Could I speak with M, please . . .").
In nearly all of the stalling letters, Clint remained on "active" status or his re'sume' was placed in an "active" file for one year or six months or 90 days. We would guess, though, that Clint's re'sume' is anything but "active" -- its last activity was most likely when it was tossed into a trash can.
The first sentence in nearly every letter was also similar -- an appreciation of Clint's interest in the company: "Thank you for your correspondence regarding employment opportunities at Arizona Public Service Company," or "Thank you for your interest in Valley National Bank."
While appropriate, the sentence seemed to indicate a lack of originality among rejection letter writers. The field is ripe for creativity.
Our favorite letter came from IBM, a company that we had expected to be the least personal of all. Instead, its letter was compassionate but direct. And it didn't give Clint false hopes:
"Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider you for employment with IBM.
"At this time, we have many candidates for a limited number of open positions. Consequently, competition among candidates is intense. Our goal is to find the best match of a candidate's skills and qualifications with the requirements of particular jobs.
"After carefully reviewing your educational background, training and experience, we have determined that we have other candidates whose qualifications are better suited to our needs. Therefore, we cannot offer you any encouragement for employment.
"Your interest in IBM is appreciated. Please accept our best wishes in locating a challenging and rewarding career opportunity."
The letter was honest: " . . . we cannot offer you any encouragement for employment." It didn't contain exaggerations about Clint's abilities, as did another letter ("Although your qualifications are excellent . . ."). But IBM did manage to let Clint down gently, without hurting his feelings.
At the other extreme, our least favorite letter -- if you could call it a letter -- came from another computer corporation, Digital. While all other companies seemingly used a form letter on a word processor and inserted Clint's name and address, Digital sent a postcard. It didn't say "Wish you were here."
Instead of a name and address, there was "Dear ". Someone had scrawled "Clint" in the blank. The bags and bags of mail at Digital apparently are piled too high for greater intimacy:
"Thank you for your interest in Digital Equipment Corporation," the postcard read. "The volume of inquiries which will be received this year precludes personal acknowledgement. If there is an interest in your qualifications and an appropriate position becomes available, we will contact you."
Not all the interesting mail came from business. Amusing (but stereotypical) responses came from the two government agencies Clint solicited.
A unusual reply came from Arizona State University, which tried a different technique to show it had taken time to consider him personally. The form letter contained a number of statements with boxes next to them. An "X" was checked in the boxes next to "We do not have any openings in the area of your interest at this time," and "Your application will be kept active for a period of two months."
An appropriately taxing response arrived from the Internal Revenue Service, which shunned the traditional beginning, "Thank you for your interest . . .," and got right down to business:
"A new application procedure has been established for Tax Technician (Tax Auditor), GS-526-5/7, positions with the Internal Revenue Service.
"The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) maintains a competitive register for this position. There is a test given by OPM prior to placement on this register.
"If you are interested in applying, please contact OPM for testing and application procedures."
It's a long way from the warmth of "Thank you for giving us an opportunity to consider you for employment with IBM," but it conveyed the information without misleading or stalling.
The writing in the letters tended to be dry and wordy, though without any glaring spelling or grammatical errors: "At this time however, I regret that our position requirements are such that we cannot offer you employment that would coincide with your background and experience," Ramada Inns wrote.
"We haven't got a job for you now" would have sufficed.
As recent college graduates, we know job hunting to be challenging and difficult. Days are spent running to the mailbox to see if any letters have arrived and staring blankly at the phone hoping it will ring (Is romance any different?). A little more honesty, a little less stalling, might be a good rule for Corporate America -- and lovers -- when delivering rejections.
Sure, companies have no responsibility to be compassionate or honest in their letters. They're not ethically bound to respond at all. But it makes good sense. After all, just like ex-lovers, we may come back to haunt them some day.