Mark Hammer

The nature of post-interview feedback is a tricky thing. For a short period, I worked on assessment centres for management-position candidates, and we were instructed to be very guarded in our feedback. So guarded that we were provided a booklet of approved phrases to use with candidates.

Why? The answer is simple. In many instances, candidates re-apply to the same sorts of competitions, that in turn re-use the same assessment tools, such AS a set of structured interview questions and simulation scenarios. The discouragement for “winging it” in terms of the feedback we provided was to assure that nobody would benefit from feedback that unintentionally gave them an advantage over other candidates next time out. So, the phrasebook provided phrases of sufficient generality that they did not unwittingly give “the answer” to different aspects of the assessment centre. Essentially, the guarded nature of the feedback extends the shelf life of the assessment methods/tools.

In other instances, I imagine the aversion to providing feedback is simply because of the potential administrative burden, given the sheer volume of unsuccessful candidates. Keep in mind that managers have to do hiring on top of all the other things they have to do, and a great many view all the interpersonal stuff as eating away at the time they need to allocate to their real job. I’m not saying this is justification for being curt or rude or inconsiderate (all of which can have an impact on the attractiveness of that employer to applicants in the future), merely suggesting an explanation for why it happened.

In still other cases it may well be a reaction to “misadventures” of those providing feedback in past that was not well thought out and poorly received. You know, the looming spectre of, and paranoia over, discrimination or harassment litigation.

Kudos to you for remembering what your mom taught you about saying “Thank you”, and kudos to your mom for making sure you learned to do so.

As an aside, Stephen Gilliland at the University of Arizona did a wonderful field experiment about 10 years back. Seems they had a faculty opening and received a great many applicants, but ultimately the dean rescinded the funding for the position, so they had to send “the skinny envelope” to all applicants. He seized the moment and randomly sorted the applicants into two groups. One group received a very terse form letter, typical of what usually gets sent out “We regret to inform you….”. The other group received a “Sorry about that….” note that was really apologetic, and laid it on thick that it was a shame they could not have offered a position to someone of your calibre, yadda, yadda, also explaining that and why the position was not offered to anyone. Not saccharine, but clearly humble. These same two groups of folks were sent out a short survey to inquire about the application experience and how fair they thought it was. Not surprisingly, recipients of the longer rejection letter perceived the process as much fairer.

Gilliland went a step further and kept track of who was in what group. The following year, they managed to score the money for the position and it was readvertised. The re-application rate for the position was significantly higher for the group who received the longer letter.

Just goes to show you, in the world of HR, it is often costlier to be short with folks than it is to be pleasant and considerate.