Evil, Stupid or Busy: Why Don’t Employers Respond?

Let’s kick off this post with a note I recently received from a client:

“Matt: Had a weird thing happen to me recently I wanted to pass along. I landed an interview with an HR person at a company I’ve had my eye on for a while. After the meeting, the HR person thanked me for coming in and assured me that I would get a second interview. A few days later I was called in again to meet with the VP of HR and the COO and both of those interviews went well. The company seems really focused on “cultural fit” and on providing excellent customer service, and I spoke to each of these issues during each session. Then, a week later I was invited back and interviewed with the CFO and the CMO, again with lots of warmth and well wishes. I cannot recall stumbling on a single question and all seemed to go well. Then I was invited back yet again to meet with the Founder/CEO and we had what I thought was a very warm conversation. Throughout the process, I diligently sent out thank-you notes after each meeting and consistently followed up with the HR manager who was coordinating things. Then, out of the blue, all communication seemed to break off. After five days with no response, I followed up with the HR manager, who apologized for being out of the office and stated that she would get right back to me. No answer. Four days later, I sent another email and received a very impersonal rejection notice back in response. What’s the deal with employers these days? Why do they seem to have such trouble communicating in a respectful, timely way with candidates?”

Employer ambivalence.  What’s behind it?  On average, I probably hear a dozen complaints like this one each week from job hunters who are exasperated by the lack of clear communication and follow-up by the organizations they’re targeting for employment.  And we’re not just talking about cases where somebody sends in a resume, superficially, and doesn’t hear something back.  We’re talking about situations like the one above where both parties invest hours and hours in the process of getting acquainted, and then suddenly the employer simply stops returning calls or responding to e-mail inquiries.

So what’s the deal?  Are the majority of hiring managers today just disorganized and absent-minded?  Are they callous, cruel individuals who have zero concern for the people seeking to join their organization?  Are the halls of corporate America filled by sadists who enjoy nothing more than getting a candidate’s hopes up and then letting him or her twist in the wind?

These explanations seem highly unlikely, to me.  Despite the fact that respectful treatment from employers seems to have almost almost the exception today, not the norm, I refuse to believe it’s due to outright malicous reasons — and truly hope we’re not just witnessing some unfortunate job market equivalent of the famous Stanford Prison Experiments.  And yet, whatever the reasons might be for companies not doing a better job of communicating with applicants, there’s no denying that the phenomenon is taking a toll on many out-of-work professionals who are already struggling with confidence issues — and who can be quickly plunged into depression or discouragement when an exciting opportunity suddenly devolves into a “black hole” of communication.

So for job hunters who have been consistently encountering this issue, I think it’s important to understand the reasons behind this type of behavior from employers, so that you can adapt to it — even if you can’t necessarily excuse it.  In my experience, the top reasons why a given employer might suddenly become unresponsive include:

  • The HR department is understaffed and their representatives are simply swamped trying to fill a great many job openings, simultaneously
  • A key person in the process has gone on vacation and the hiring process can’t continue until this individual weighs in or makes themselves available
  • The company’s needs have suddenly changed, based on a market or customer development, and the opening has been temporarily put on hold, as a result
  • The employer may be waiting to hear back a “yea” or “nay” from another candidate they’ve courted — or an internal team member interested in the job
  • Or lastly, and perhaps the most likely scenario, filling the role in question is just simply not a high priority in the big scheme of things, compared to other pressing issues

All of these factors aside, I’ll admit, it seems to me that many HR departments could still do a better job of keeping candidates in the loop and apprising them of their status, even if the hiring process runs into a snag or a decision isn’t likely to be made for a while.  The silent treatment just isn’t an acceptable way of handling things.  Most job hunters, as mature adults, can deal with whatever update or news the HR department might need to share.  A total lapse of communication, however, is much tougher to swallow.  Not only is it extraordinarily impolite — but it might also create some untended blowback.  I’ve had several clients recently, in fact, turn down job offers and/or end their discussions with certain employers, proactively, based on their poor impressions of how the company conducts the hiring process.

Going forward, my hope is that all of this discourteous behavior is simply a consequence of the “great recession” and hopefully not the new normal” we can permanently expect, going forward.  As always, I’d welcome your thoughts on the issue — and you’ll find a related article on the subject here that was recently posted in the Seattle Times NWJobs section.

13 Responses to “Evil, Stupid or Busy: Why Don’t Employers Respond?”

  1. While it may depend on the individual employers as to who is responsible for the lack of response, the generic job application process really needs an overhaul. Here’s my take on the situation:


  2. AF: Thanks for your comments on this posting from a while back — and boy, that’s a tough situation, for sure. I suppose one could play armchair quarterback and ask whether there were any tip-offs or red flags in the interview process, or your due diligence on the company, that might have suggested this job offer was a little shaky to start with. There easily might not have been, however. And while I’m not an attorney, I wouldn’t think there would be any legal recourse for a person offered a job that doesn’t really, well, ever actually start. Shame on this company for mismanaging your expectations in this way, but as of right now, all I can think you can do is keep checking in with them as politely as possible to see if the job might somehow suddenly become viable again — and in the meantime, fire up your search and try to fill your pipeline with some potential other prospects. Again, though situation. Sorry to hear you’re having to deal with it…

  3. I certainly know the feeling, a while back I had an interview with a prospective new employer, the interview went well and they asked me back for a second interview at which point they formally offered me the job, we discussed wages and benefits and I was given a new employee packet, which I filled out and returned promptly. After I accepted the position we both agreed to start in two weeks in order to work out a two week notice with my current employer. The two weeks went by and I worked my last day at my soon to be former employer which I had been with for many years, completed my day and exit interview and so on. About 20 minutes after leaving my now former employer my new employer calls me telling me there is going to be a hold up in when I can start because business is slow, maybe a few weeks at most. It’s been 3 weeks now going on 4, I’ve attempted multiple times in person and by phone to get a firm start date. In person they tell me to “call them tomorrow” and when I call I get a run around bounced from person to person speaking to almost everyone EXCEPT the hiring manager that formally agreed to hire me. After being bounced around several times I’m asked to leave a message which I have both voicemail and messages with the receptionist asking for a return phone call… At this point I’m fairly certain they have no intent to hire me, but are too afraid they’ll loose my business if they tell me the truth (which they wouldn’t if they would just be honest and most certainly will if this keeps up) I’d just appreciate a phone call, 5 minutes or less just to let me know for sure and why. Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions with all this and maybe they are just busy, but if they’re so busy they can’t take phone calls wouldn’t you think they’d want to hire me? All the while the position I left was filled prior to my departure, I’ve asked my former employer and they cannot take me back at this time because they’ve simply got nothing open. I’ve started to look for work and had several interviews. If anyone has any advice I’d greatly appreciate it, as this had put a huge financial and mental strain on me.

  4. Remember employers: Your behavior and attitude reflects on the company. If you don’t get back to a candidate after interviewing them 3 times, it reflects in your character, or lack thereof. Yeah, were not “owed” a response per se, but most civil, decent professionals realize the importance of good PR. Karma does come back to haunt you…

  5. Maria: Very kind of you to say so! 🙂

  6. It’s interesting that we all try to find reasons while the simple truth is that it does not take extra time or resources to be polite or practice good business etiquette. It’s a way of being and, if you really care about others, you communicate and treat others respectfully. It is that simple.
    Matt is one of those rare career counseling professionals who supports candidates in an intelligent and respectful manner. Many others often write about candidates in demeaning ways. Thank you Matt, you do a great job!

  7. Read this post in the Financial Executives Networking group nightly newsletter, and while I have had similar situations, the same behavior is found in headhunters and recruiting firms; small and big, top #4 and bottom #50s. It is not a new trend that has been happening for at least 10 years. For all of them, they are dealing with other than people. They seem not to appreciate the time, effort and feeling of applicants, employed or not. This lack of closure of the hiring process (at least, one end) by not communicating the candidate that he/she has not been selected creates a negative image of both the person and the company. The feedback from candidates about the company and the process often portrait them as un-professional, not serious and not focused on their most important assets, their employees.

    Unfortunately nothing can be done from outside the company; generally there is not a survey to understand how applicants (who were not selected) perceived the process. And nobody would send a note back to the hiring manager to complain, for fear of burning a bridge. What we can do as employees, who have the power to hire people, is to ensure that our HR managers and recruiters to promptly return to each and all candidates and communicate them that they have not been selected. We should maintain our image, as well as our company image. If somebody is asked, we need to ensure that while they cannot say that they were hired, at least they can say that they were treated fairly.

  8. Nice post, and nice comments.

    As a sales leader I would add another “Excuse”. In sales as in recruiting a new employee, there is usually a process to follow. Me experience is that good news is easy to communicate. Bad news, likewise is very difficult and uncomfortable to communicate.

    In the case of both sales and recruiting anyone can deliver good news. Only the top most professional performers will deliver the bad news. In sales it is critical to communicate the bad news in order to make midcourse corrections. In recruiting, it is equally critical to communicate the bad news. Even if it is an impersonal e-mail. It is closure, and partially eliminates any bad feelings. The best closure for a candidate should include feedback. Not always available, and there is potential legal risk, but that will help the closure.

    As HR groups follow their “Process”. A critical step is often missing. That of closure. For the HR folks reading this. Please show respect and add the closure communication to your recruiting process. That is what builds relationships. And it is the right thing to do. Trust me, you will be sitting on the other side of the table some day, and really appreciate it.

  9. Is this the kind of company you want to be associated knowing the entire job market is this way. Is the best thing to do, tell the HR contact, et all, that you withdraw from the position? You can add – To succeed, you need a company that is more responsive. If this were only a perfect world! In today’s job market, candidates cannot afford to admonish “inaction.” However, I have been treated with more respect and had more results when I have taken the offensive. Is the real question: Does the CEO realize what just happened?

  10. Hi Matt,

    As a long time practicing HR exec, I can only nod my head and agree this experience is all too common – for me as a candidate as well, and I’m in HR!!! It isn’t new and it is most pronounced for management candidates, including those handled by some executive recruiters, where many report the “Black Hole” drop off as well….. You and I have discussed this in past blogs and I blogged about it on my People Thoughts blog back in 2011: http://johnspeoplethoughts.blogspot.com/2011/09/black-hole-swallows-everything.html

    There are signs of progress, but not enough. There are many causes: a perfect storm of economic survival, lack of budgets for training, lack of staff, lack of oversight, poor company and workforce culture, inexperience, lack of coordinated HR policy and processes, the explosion of non-face-to-face devices and social media and a real profit disconnect from the HR side. However, simplistically and realistically, bad manners and unprofessionalism is simply bad business. Despite the campaigns most companies, executive, mangers and HR remain oblivious to the customer and PR negativity and how these disconnected recruiting, interviewing and hiring practices impact their ability to attract and retain top talent and/or its impact on the bottom line.

    I recently started a lengthy HR strategy practice and policy series on most LinkedIn HR and retail group sites covering many of these same problems, why, the impact and how to start correcting them. It is receiving a fair amount attention, so I hope we can shine some more light on a dismal track record for the candidate recruiting and hiring process. It began here: http://johnspeoplethoughts.blogspot.com/2013/03/strategy-doesnt-matter-in-december-of.html

    Thanks and keep up the good work, Mark!


  11. Every HR and business professional knows the new paradigm we all face – we/they have had a good four to five years to work out the “kinks in the system,” so stop telling us that you are “understaffed” or “overwhelmed.” Pleanty of time has passed for those excuses to be addressed.
    It gets to basic RESPECT. Whether its pre- or post-interview, once you are not face-to-face with each other, its all too easy to reduce a living, breathing human being to an annoying voice- or e-mail that can be quickly deleted.

  12. Bill Dougherty April 6, 2013 at 5:05 am

    I am interviewing and coming across this exact lack of communication. I have gotten rejection
    letters from my last 2 interviews but they have come at least 2 months later and one of the
    jobs is still on the job boards and I have to figure the company is not as serious about filing the job as they appeared to be during the interview. They had consultants on board to fill those
    slots and that is probably part of the puzzle.
    My latest interview showed a lack of preparation on the part of the hiring person that I was to
    report and that is the “blowback” part of the equation. Candidates are spending the time and
    effort to have to prepare for all types of interiviews. In my case I am looking at smaller companies where the research on the companies can be somewhat difficult. I am finding the
    person doing the interview has put zero thought into how to conduct the interview. This also
    is very frustrating to say the least. Very difficult to combat a one-sided interview where employer is not holding up there part of the bargain.
    Thanks for your insight into the job market.

  13. Some other reasons I’ve seen: a) Internal office politics. As interviews progress, it becomes clear that a key person who needs to be involved in the hiring decision isn’t on board with the person or position. b) Potential mergers and/or acquisitions c) The longer the position goes unfilled, the more the company begins to wonder if the position is truly needed. As the work is spread internally across several employees there is an effort to try and continue without refilling and see how it goes.

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