Should HR offer feedback to failed applicants?

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If you’ve worked in HR long enough chances are you’ve learned a thing or two about hiring the right candidate for the right job. And whether you’ve recruited, worked in talent acquisition or simply sat across the table and moderated an interview you know that the feeling of disappointment when a candidate is told that they didn’t make the cut is palpable.
 
But part of HR’s job is fielding questions from failed candidates looking for feedback on their application. This doesn’t happen all the time but when it does, it can be a delicate procedure. “You have to be mindful,” says Heidi Bachert-Burke, HR professional and instructor at Ashton College. “You don’t want to be detrimental in your feedback.”
 
The reasons for this are partly legal and partly humanitarian. Every job application comes with a reference list from a previous employer and if you choose not to bring forward an applicant because of a poor reference, you may not want to share this with the applicant. Many employers are uncomfortable - sometimes even downright scared - with giving a former employee a bad reference. This is because unless that reference is 100% accurate in every way shape and form, it is grounds for legal action. “You have to be careful not to be libelous,” says Bachert-Burke. “Candidates can and do take legal action for bad references. It happens.”
 
In a worst case scenario, if an applicant is able to prove that the information contained in a bad reference is indeed untrue and has had a detrimental impact on their finding meaningful employment, it can quickly snowball into a very ugly situation. Thus while giving bad references aren’t necessarily illegal the ramifications can be severe enough to make most employers steer clear of giving one. “Some organizations will provide very limited information in response to a prospective employer’s request for a reference. This usually includes employment verification as well as start and end dates to minimize risk and potential liability” says Bachert-Burke.
 
Typically, when a candidate is notified that they will not be hired, rarely is a reason provided except perhaps that another candidate was chosen.  Thus while an employer may not be prohibited by law from providing truthful information about a former employee, misrepresentations, spreading false information could be seen as grounds for defamation. “Applicants can request feedback but may engage in defensive debate as to why the feedback is inaccurate.  Employers could open themselves to accusations and liability.  Thus for many HR professionals, a bad reference just isn’t worth the risk.” says Bachert-Burke.
 
The other reason behind being mindful of how you provide feedback on failed job applications is humanitarian. The logistics of this aren’t complicated; people don’t like hearing negative things about themselves. But where this gets tricky is if a candidate actually asks for negative feedback. This puts HR in a delicate situation because while they may have been asked to provide it, negative feedback can be damaging. When combined with the messy potential legal ramifications of a bad reference, it’s enough to cause even the most seasoned HR professional to throw their hands in the air and say ‘no thanks!’
 
At the foundation of the conundrum of whether or not to give failed candidates feedback on their application are two very opposite perspectives. First, the right of a candidate to be told honestly and truthfully what they were not the best fit for a position and second, the right of HR to protect the company from potential liabilities. It’s easy to say ‘what’s the harm?’ in a bad reference or negative feedback but the ramifications of this can grow to outsized proportions. One solution worth its salt is to utilize confidential surveys. “A confidential survey is a great way to get accurate and useful feedback,” says Bachert-Burke. “For both employers and HR.” The important thing to remember however, whether you choose to provide feedback anonymously or not is that you are dealing with someone’s feelings. Be honest be truthful and most importantly, be correct.

Ashton College is accredited post-secondary institution offering flexible education options for working professionals including a Diploma in Human Resources Management and a variety of professional development seminars.

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  • Jeannie McQuaid on 2016-06-09 10:46:40 AM

    I generally avoid being asked to provide feedback by providing it when I tell the applicant they didn't get the job. I tell them where they ranked in the list of applicants, I tell them what I particularly liked about them or saw as strengths and I tell them what I think they might want to work on. I try to be constructively honest and sensitive to their feelings. I've been told by applicants afterward that getting my advice took the sting out of not getting the job.

  • HG on 2016-06-09 10:53:59 AM

    We seldom, if ever, give feedback to external applicants, too fraught with complications and actually I think a lot of times it is unproductive to invest time in someone who you will not be hiring. Conversely, we always give feedback for internal candidates as a grow opportunity and career development planning process for them.

  • Austin Uzama on 2016-06-09 1:09:47 PM

    I think its morally right for HR to provide feedbacks to all failed applicants irrespective of asking for it or not. I also think it should be made legal for feedbacks to be provided. The reason I support this stance its because of the unethical methods of recruitments by some companies-which is, choosing their friends, or family members against qualified applicants. secondly, because of scams and companies that doesn't exist but advertise for staffs.

  • Jeannie McQuaid on 2016-06-10 11:52:54 AM

    to HG: It usually only takes me about 3 minutes to prepare and send a feedback email to a candidate. I think that's a fair exchange since the candidate has invested a lot more than 3 minutes to apply and interview.

    It's not a wasted investment. I may not have hired this candidate this time, but my feedback may help them to be hireable next time or for an alternate position I may have in the future. I've had that happen.

  • Ryan Salmond on 2016-06-14 2:10:02 PM

    Found your comments very informative, Jeannie.

  • Marion Grobb Finkelstein on 2016-12-29 9:51:14 AM

    Feedback is important -- both asking for it and giving it. It's a growth opp for both parties.

  • Kellie on 2016-12-29 6:19:29 PM

    I agree with Jeannie. How can you say it's a waste of time? A job is someone having food on the table! Most people put a lot of time into a job search. If you want to be seen as an employer of choice, and continue to have good, strong qualified candidates applying for your positions; then you should make the time. I hate to say it, but that is the exact attitude that makes people dislike HR.

  • Kellie on 2016-12-29 6:21:56 PM

    By the way - the comment made in the article - “Candidates can and do take legal action for bad references. It happens.”

    Where has this happened? I have never heard of any Canadian cases.

  • Venkat Ram on 2017-01-04 1:32:48 PM

    Wow. I wish there were lot more HR Managers like Jeannie in Canada.

    Firstly, about references. The reason why HR is so paranoid about letting the applicant know about their negative reference is because HR has either no means or no willingness to verify a negative reference. If somebody was so bad, why the manager/dept. kept that person for number of years before firing them? Canadian Managers having a beef with an immigrant employee or wanting to keep him/her as a slave with loaded work and intern-level salary, will never give a positive reference for that highly educated and experienced immigrant.

    Secondly, immigrants are perceived as threats in Canada. Because we mostly come with at least 2 post secondary qualifications, have worked for at least 5-7 years, in 2-3 different countries before stepping inside Canada. That's way too much to swallow for a Canadian Manager, who at most drives from Sudbury to Toronto or have ventured to some 3-4 day vacation in Phuket. These kind of managers think such kind of immigrant is either lying or if true - then he/she is dead on THREAT!

    Who is mostly targeted among immigrants. Mostly male, colored immigrants are targeted.

    Its a struggle to be an internationally educated immigrant in Canada. We are labelled as 'over-qualified', lacking Canadian experience, having lot of syllables in our names (I've seen Albertans butchering French names so i dont feel bad anymore:)...but what we are not told openly is that we lack connections. We haven't spend time with those hiring managers during their college years, or in their gym session, or haven't played golf with them or simply not dated their daughters. The ones who have done that - are the ones getting the job. This is the simple & ugly truth.

    Caliber, merit, qualifications? Nah! In most of the industry, those things do not matter. Its WHO you know, NOT what you know. I wonder, why make all this journey when back in our homelands, its the same story. Where is the civilized, educated and caring westerner glamorized in media. To me, Canadian Immigration seems to be a very successful scam. Every immigrant has to bring $10k atleast at the time of entry to Canada. So 300,000 people immigrating every year, means $3Billion dollar instantly every year in your economy without any investments. That's a good one you played on us.

    But in the near future, we colored immigrants will be in the majority. Unfortunately, your children will face the trends you are setting today.

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