Published: April 07 2013

At an event last week, I was introduced to the CEO of a post series-A startup I’d been following and found quite interesting. We spoke about his company for a few minutes, and he asked me to email him in case there were any opportunities for me as a freelancer to help.

I followed up. A few days later, I got the following email:

Hi Alexey,

Thanks for your interest in [Company]. We don’t have immediate needs for hiring more engineers at the moment but would be happy to keep you on file for future opportunities.

Please let me know if you have additional questions.

- [Recruiter], [Company]


Who are you, again?

I spent a good portion of 2012 running recruiting for the company I’d helped start, growing our team from 3 to 12. I’ve had a chance to deal a few dozen candidate rejections, and made my fair share of mistakes. Before that, I spent two years applying to internships. As such, some advice for would-be rejection-letter writers:

The effort going into the rejection should match the effort spent in the process.

At my last company, we flew a candidate in for a trial and ended up passing. The next day, I sent a two paragraph email saying, effectively, thank you but no thank you.

That was wrong. The guy deserved at least a phone call after giving us a week of his time.

Last week’s CEO asked me to email him; I was interested in the possibility of work, but I also just wanted to have a chance to chat and seek his advice. I got a response, without context, from somebody else entirely, treating me as yet another applicant. I hadn’t even sent in a resume.

Not that every possible candidate deserves a 500-word essay; a generic application or cold-email, (“Dear Sir or Madam…”) should absolutely receive a friendly, templated rejection.

There’s a difference between a euphemism and a lie.

On Tuesday, the CEO told me they were looking for engineers. On Thursday, I was told the opposite. Either their hiring priorities changed on Wednesday, or (hint: it’s this one) ‘not hiring’ was an excuse. As a candidate I can tell, and it reflects poorly on the company.

The flip-side is, of course, you don’t want to be incredibly specific in every rejection, because the occassional candidate is going to argue that in fact they ARE great at X and were just having a bad day and now you’re in this terrible position of saying “dude, no.” The industry standard seems to be some variant of “not a fit” or “no positions available that you would be well-suited for,” ending with “at this time.”

If you have an opportunity for a cop-out, take it!

A rejection is a bit like an needle injection; yeah, it’s not going to be pleasant, but at least you can make an effort to minimize the discomfort.

In this case, I was rejected because they didn’t want to deal with contractors, or my background isn’t impressive enough, or I wouldn’t fit in; who knows. Regardless, you could say:


Thanks for following up, it was good to meet you.

Unfortunately, I checked with our head of recruiting and we’re focused entirely on full-time roles right now for engineering. Thanks again for following up after we met on Tuesday and best of luck with your career!

And it’s not like I have grounds to be upset: I get it, and you haven’t told me that there’s something wrong with me. Other effective cop-outs that help a candidate save face including H1-B difficulties for internationals or a lack of experience or exposure to a particular technology or industry.

Why does this even matter?

From a friend at Google, their philosophy on recruiting is, roughly, “we should be really nice to the engineers we interview, because most engineers out there will remember Google as that company they applied to and got rejected from, and these are the people recommending technology to their parents and advising friends on where to apply.”

In 2011, I was introduced to Stripe (/dev/payments at the time) as a potential summer intern, and had a great conversation with Patrick. They asked for a code sample, and I sent them one.

It wasn’t very good.

They rejected me, going with something along the lines of “we realized we didn’t have nearly the bandwidth for interns this summer as we had hoped.” Since then, I’ve sent or recommended Stripe to several of my most impressive friends as potential hires because of the goodwill generated from that process.

Rejecting candidates correctly isn’t the most glamorous part of starting a company.

Still, it’s worth getting right.