Sunday, August 07, 2011

When and when not to take employer to task

Companies that don't give prospective employees who've been brought in for interviews the courtesy of some sort of response even if they don't get the job are wrong. That's what I wrote a few months ago and I believe it as strongly today.

But that column generated a letter from the Columbus, Ohio, mother of a college freshman. When her daughter was home over Christmas break, her parents encouraged her to start sending out her resume and filling out applications for summer work.

Her parents knew jobs were becoming more difficult to find before "those who had lost their jobs would also be competing with all the students in the area."

The daughter applied to three places. By late spring, only one prospective employer had responded. The daughter was invited in for an interview. At the end of the interview, the daughter was offered the job.

"As for the other two employers," her mother writes, "I was disappointed and frustrated, as was she, that they did not respond to her follow-up emails and phone calls."

The mother says that she herself has applied for many jobs in her lifetime. Almost always, she was given the courtesy of at least a letter when the employer chose not to interview her or hire her for a position.

"My daughter was ignored and I found this rude," she writes. "This is not teaching our younger generation any good lesson about proper etiquette and common courtesy."

The mother points out that my column "makes the case that employers owe their applicants this kind of respect."

"What is your recommendation about how the applicant should politely point this out to employers when this respect is not shown?" she asks. She hopes such a letter would force employers to "make the necessary improvements" for future applicants, but she also wouldn't want her daughter to "burn any bridges" by writing it.

Tempting as it might be to write that letter to "politely" let prospective employers know about their rudeness, this might not be the best route.

In his book, Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing (HBS Press, 2002), Joseph Badaracco makes a case for the use of restraint when faced with such circumstances. If the goal is to get the company to change its practices, then receiving a letter from someone about how disrespectful it was not to call her back might not do the trick. The potential downside (closing the door on future possibilities, for example) may outweigh the upside (feeling better about getting a slight off your chest).

The right thing is to figure out how best to get a desired message across as effectively as possible. Rather than write the businesses to point out their shortcomings, the daughter might consider writing a letter to each of the companies that didn't give her the courtesy of any response to let them know that since she'd applied, she wanted them to know that while she hadn't heard back from them yet she was offered and took a position at another company. By politely letting the companies know of her changed employment situation, she also lets them know that another company not only got back to her, but offered her a job. She stays positive, gets her message across, burns no bridges -- and gets to enjoy the summer working.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Anonymous said...

Leave it be. If she applied blindly, she does not deserve a response.
If she applied on an ad, let it go and consider it as evidence of how they are.
And the only thing she gains is self satisfaction which is nothing.

Joe said...

Only one or both of two reasons would prompt any kind of letter to the interviewing company.
1) To whine - for her own benefit
2) To change the company's policy

I agree with Anonymous that doing nothing is the most pragmatic response. If the company and number of applicants were small, she probably would have received a note. But the administration and expense of such for a large hiring search is not practical, and certainly not done with social maliciousness in mind.

Anonymous said...


My company recently participated in a hiring event in which eight managers reviewed 1000 submitted resumes, interviewed 400 candidates and after whittling down the list made job offers to 32 of which they expect maybe 25 to finally be hired. Is it really reasonable for every submitted resume to receive a personal response? No. Every interviewed candidate did get at least a phonecall though... Its a madhouse out there!

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