Rejection Hurts: How to React When You Don't Get the Job

Setbacks are an inevitable part of the human condition; the job market is certainly rife with them. But there are good--and bad--ways to deal.

President, Shimmering Resumes

Originally Posted: Feb 4, 2015
Last Updated: Feb 4, 2015

Setbacks are an inevitable part of the human condition, and the job market is fertile ground for all the setbacks you could ever want.

If you applied for a job and didn’t get it, you have plenty of company. In fact, you have plenty of illustrious company, and you can find examples in every field of endeavor. Andy Warhol had his work rejected by the Museum of Modern Art when he offered it to the museum as a gift. The museum simply didn’t have the room. The Atlantic Monthly returned Kurt Vonnegut’s work as part of the magazine’s annual house-cleaning, giving no indication that the work was even read before its unceremonious return. There are many other examples, but the fact that they have suffered through rejection is cold comfort to job applicants who find themselves in the same unhappy place.

Like those famous names, job applicants don’t get feedback as a matter of routine. Instead, applicants are left twisting in the wind, wondering what they could have done better, and that can be truly frustrating. It’s completely understandable that applicants want to know where they went wrong, but they’ll have to look elsewhere for guidance.

Employers, of course, have reasons for their silence. In part it’s because they’re too busy to give customized replies, but their reluctance is compounded by worries that they’ll open themselves to litigation if they dare to get specific. While that may be understandable as well, it also does little to ease applicants’ frustrations.

Some job-search authorities advise applicants to request feedback. They recommend writing to the people you met and asking them to explain themselves. That’s bad advice. Hiring managers are not accountable to applicants. They don’t want to be put on the spot, and they certainly don’t want to be pursued by candidates who didn’t make the cut. Even if some kindly manager wanted to give feedback, company policy may forbid it outright.

In that context, remember than an applicant’s real goal is to keep doors open, not to alienate the very people who can help him down the road. You may cross paths with that same manager again, and you don’t want to be remembered as “that guy who wouldn’t leave me alone.”

A demand for feedback looks especially futile when you realize that any feedback will be inherently untrustworthy. If a hiring manager actually responds, are the reasons given the real reasons? Does the person responding to your heartfelt request truly know what went on behind the scenes? If you want feedback you can actually use, you’ve come to the wrong place, and the dubious reward is hardly worth the risk of alienating people who might otherwise be allies.

Does that mean you should do nothing? No, but you should act with restraint. Here are much more constructive ways of dealing with rejection:

  • Send a simple note to the person with whom you’ve had the most contact. Thank her for her time. Thank her for considering your application. Acknowledge the difficulty employers have in hiring the right person.
  • Keep it short and sweet, and don’t feel compelled to send your message to everyone involved. If you can, include something specific to the company in question, and you’ll avoid looking like someone who’s responding to rejections in bulk.
  • Keep your emotions in check. Rejection hurts, but this is not the time to vent or to demand an explanation. Remember that good things can still happen if you handle this moment well. The person hired may not work out, and you’ll hear about it when that same position needs to be filled again. Another position may open up, and you’ll find your name on the list of candidates worth a second look. Perhaps your name will get passed along to someone, whether inside or outside the company, who is looking for a candidate who’s just like you.

Those good things won’t happen if you mismanage your post-rejection communication. If you must vent, do so in private. Keep your public dealings completely professional. Send a simple note, the act of a grown-up, and keep doors open everywhere you can.

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