Ask a Manager: Why You Didn't Get Hired

Alison Green from the Ask a Manager blog recently wrote a good article in the US News & World Report called ‘Why You Didn’t Get Hired’:
The job looked perfect for you. The description matched your experience and skills so perfectly, you could almost visualize yourself at your new desk. But now you're staring at a rejection e-mail and can't figure out what happened.

The article makes a good read, particularly in the current hiring climate. Though, if you’re at all familiar with hiring, getting hired, or the recruitment industry then none of what’s in there will come as a surprise to you.

Why This is Useful Anyway

Still, the article gives a good checklist to go through before applying for any job. I know that I self-select myself out of a number of potential job applications for some of the reasons listed in the article.

For example, I can tell when I’m under-qualified for a job and, unless I can clearly and succinctly justify why the company should take a chance on me despite my (apparent) shortcomings, I don’t bother applying for that role. Note that I’m not underselling myself by doing this, I’m simply being a realist.

Taking Self-Selection a Step Further

Indeed, before I apply for any job with a company I’m not very familiar with I learn all I can about the company and its employees. Naturally, a lot of my research is online since that’s the area I work in but my research has, in the past, included locating people who work for that firm and, through them, finding out first-hand what the culture there is really like. And I have, on occasion, not applied for an open position that I was qualified for after completing this research and realizing that I wouldn’t be a good fit there.

My research continues well into the interview stage, by the way. For example, just by looking at the office and the employees who walk by when you’re waiting in the reception area can tell you a lot. Specifically, it tells you what the company values and what it prides itself on. To give you an example, one organization I interviewed at had a huge world map on the wall with a dot representing where all its major offices were (over thirty of them across four continents) and a set of clocks that were set to the local times of major regional offices. Obviously, being global was important to this company. This kind of information is not only useful for the interview but twice I’ve realized early on that these weren’t places I could see myself enjoying working at. (The proudly-global company wasn’t one of them, by the way.)

Later, during the actual interview, I try to figure out which of the items in the job’s position description are important, necessary, optional, and added bonuses as far as the interviewer is concerned. If you’re lucky, your interviewer will tell you their preferences explicitly. If not, you have to figure it out from the company introduction and the overview of the role than they often give you at the start. Figuring out what they really want from you becomes particularly challenging when, for example, you have multiple interviewers who have differing priorities. And these priorities could differ both from each other and sometimes from what’s written on the position description itself.

For example, I once went through a three-round interview process and made it down to the last two applicants but got rejected because the head of the department – i.e. my potential boss’s boss – preferred a web strategist with a marketing agency background over one with an IT background (despite my MBA). My potential boss, on the other hand, really liked me because he had a marketing agency background and so he was looking for someone to complement his skills, not reinforce them. Indeed, he said exactly that during my interview with him. So when I highlighted my technical background during my final interview – this one with the head of the department – I ended up giving her a specific reason to reject me. Still, what I loved about this company was that they were clear about why I didn’t get the job and they were willing to state this reason openly and unapologetically – something that a lot of companies don’t do, even if you ask them.

So What Have We Learnt?

The point of this post, then, is two fold. First, if you didn’t get the job you thought was perfect for you, there are two reasons for this: (1) there was someone for whom this job was even more perfect or (2) you figured wrong and the job wasn’t perfect for you in the first place (i.e. maybe you were under-qualified or over-qualified, maybe you didn’t fit the team culture, maybe you underperformed at the interview, etc.).

Second, it’s crucial to debrief yourself on why you didn’t get that job. And be honest because sometimes the reason you didn’t get the job is you (i.e. you messed up the interview, you didn’t have an accurate understanding of what the job was about, you weren’t qualified anyway, etc.) and not the company (i.e. they didn’t understand you completely, they were too quick to reject you and probably didn’t read your entire resume, they’re just plain wrong, etc.).

Final Thought

Actually, if I could add one more thing it would be this: Don’t get disheartened.

I’ve had my fair share of job rejections over the last few months but I’ve also rejected tens of applicants who applied to jobs that my company advertised and for which I was the hiring manager. I’ve actually been in situations in which I’ve had three applicants who I know can do the job equally well – with some minor, mostly inconsequential differences among them, of course – and I’ve had to reject two of them. And, on occasion, I haven’t had a clear-cut, easily explainable reason for why I chose one over the others. In other words, the applicant I hired basically lucked out.

So when I’ve been rejected for a job I really wanted and knew I could do incredibly well – this has happened to me twice in the last year, by the way – I’m pretty sure it happened simply because I was unlucky that time. And I know that it’s only a matter of time before things go the other way and I’m the one who gets lucky. Of course, I just hope this happens sooner rather than later!