The Art of Rejection

The job interview process, like every process where we present ourselves for selection, is vulnerable. And like any environment where we play the role of hopeful candidate—romance, for example, or academics—hearing “no” hurts. How employers deliver that no makes all the difference.

How do you deliver a good rejection?

Well, for starters, it’s not automated.

It’s also not a stuffy, three-sentence goodbye you penned in a few minutes burning through your emails.

And for the love of your morning coffee pod, it’s not silence—the reliably dreadful career ghosting.

One of the best letters I ever received from a prospective employer arrived in my inbox last spring. And it was a rejection.

Thoughtful, elegant, compassionate, it spoke to me not as part of a crowd vying for the approval of a hiring manager, but as an equal player in a process where we’re both getting to know each other in the hopes that it might work out, and that ultimately we’d become part of the same team.

It spoke with the wisdom that knows that, after a couple meaningful conversations, your expectations might not align with an employer’s. At least not at this moment.

I was vying for a position as a copywriter at Interrupt, a branding and marketing agency in Toledo, Ohio with a ballsy cohort of 30 team members serving the building materials industry. Jen, the head writer, had taken a chance on my application—I was looking for a writing gig that would allow me to be a digital nomad as I travel around the world, exploring different cities. Though they were open to a remote worker, a globe-trotting one was new for the agency, and they weren’t sure it would work. Being a place that prided itself on disruptive thinking, though, they were willing to explore the idea with me.

(Yes, I realize I’m writing this essay as an employee of Interrupt—the plot thickens.*)

We talked about our respective goals, what the work would entail, why I thought I could do it well. I was in London, a few months into my escape from routine, having rethought my original plan to travel without a steady job. Jen was in Toledo—on the other side of our Zoom call, an abstract painting hanging behind her, a wooly shawl held tight around her shoulders.

The pandemic made it possible to imagine a life of travel that could include work, rather than a complete break with the responsibilities of life. I told her as much.

She took it all into account, and asked me more questions about what I thought it might look like—how long did I imagine my stretches away from the office would be? How would I manage the different time zones?

After thinking it over, they delivered their answer: no.

It was the first no I’d ever received in the world of work that didn’t land with a thud. She wrote with humanity, as someone speaking to an equal. She was appreciative of my efforts, but didn’t think it would work for the team, and worried that having me stick to an Eastern Standard Time schedule could hamper my “ability to fully participate in whatever location you happen to be.”

“It’s obvious the travel component is important to you, and honestly, I would not want us to be the reason you don’t pursue it,” she wrote (the mercy! the compassion!). “There are only so many of those windows in a person’s life and it’s important to take advantage of them. You’re a wonderful writer … I think you could very likely be a great fit for us at some point, but right now our needs for the full-time position don’t quite match up.”

In that moment, I felt satisfied. I hadn’t gotten the job, but I’d made a connection with someone who acknowledged me, saw my efforts and skills and had the kindness to recognize them. Someone who respected me enough to write a few paragraphs, to part with integrity.

Think about Jen the next time you’re rejecting someone, in any context, but especially at work. How can you do it in a way that recognizes their dignity and honors their vulnerability? Don’t freeze up or fall back on formality in the squeeze of discomfort that comes with saying no. We all owe the people who aspire to be part of our teams the same effort in parting that we expected from them when they hoped to join. It’s such a simple concept. When sharing news, whether good or bad, taking time to deliver it with care can make all the difference.

*A few days after our final interview, the team at Interrupt revisited the subject and came to terms with a new experiment: I’d work a trial period where we tried each other for a couple months in-office, and if we thought there was a good work fit, we’d experiment with remote work in a different time zone and see how it went. Almost a year in (I’m currently writing from Istanbul, Turkey), we’ve been able to successfully manage fully remote work.

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