Etiquette for fun and profit

Back in the dark ages of the 1980s, I did my first hiring of people while still an undergrad and was trained to regard all the candidates with respect.  The meant the ones that were clearly not qualified, but especially those with whom we had interviews that did not get selected for positions.  We sent letters to people as soon as possible once a decision was made, regardless of whether the outcome was positive or negative.

By 1986 I was responsible for hiring, training and managing nearly 350 people – including 15 supervisors.  Again, that process included respectful and prompt handling of both those we wanted to hire and those best suited for other employment (sometimes elsewhere in the organization).  So everyone got letters regarding outcomes, and in hiring supervisors, those who did not get promoted learned of that fact in face-to-face meetings.

In the decades since, there has been a marked decline in the respect afforded candidates.  During periods of my own job search in the 1990’s, it appeared to be the poor behavior of certain firms at which I interviewed.  Unfortunately, it seems to have been a trend across all organizations.  Whether facilitated by the advent of email and the Internet, legal counsel advising against some forms of communication, or other cultural factors, the net result remains saddening.

The worst part of this situation stems from the fact that while managers and HR people at organizations large and small attempt to be insulated from having to personally or even electronically give people bad news, their organizations suffer diminished reputation in the process.  Interviewing people and then never communicating again, with a “they’ll figure it out” attitude, deeply changes the perspective of your second, third and other level candidates.  Certainly each ignored candidate represents only one stakeholder of the many thousands or millions the organization serves, but how much might it truly cost the firm for managers to act in this cowardly way?

Imagine your firm is a service company that survives by conducting a dozen or more major projects in a year.  After interviewing candidates for a project management position, you choose to hire one of five candidates who came in for interviews with three or four people at the firm.  In the old world I knew, the day the position was accepted we would send letters informing the other four candidates.  Today, most people just ignore the other candidates and hope eventually the rejected folks stop making inquiries about the process.  The assumption appears to be that these people are low level workers and have no influence or status that warrants the courtesy of an acknowledgement that a decision has been made.

What if one of those individuals goes on to work for a company that your firm will likely pitch in a few years?  What if another one has a family member who is a decision maker or key influencer at one of your prospective customers?  Maybe a third has a grandfather who golfs with one of your current clients?  What if the last one has nothing to lose and starts a social media barrage against your firm?

Only one of those potential pains will ever appear on your radar, but all could cost your firm money.  If you are absolutely confident your current customers will always be sufficient to meet your income goals, or you don’t plan for the business to grow in the future, none of the potential issues mentioned will matter.  Otherwise, investing a few moments to complete and send an email form letter in timely fashion seems like a pretty good communication investment.  Especially if you are among the minority of firms that continue to treat people as important.

Dr. Michael C. Porter, APR is director of the Master of Business Communication Program at the University of St Thomas Opus College of Business