Waiting (and waiting) for rejection
No one likes waiting. It doesn’t matter if it’s waiting for the bus or for the rotary evaporator to be done; it’s a pain to wait. It’s even more painful when the wait is about a job. Who wants to wait for that? And yet waiting is a big part of the hiring process. You apply, and you wait. You get an email about a phone interview, and you wait. You get an on-site interview, and this leads to an even more excruciating wait during which you turn over every utterance, each significant glance, all your answers to questions during a seminar and wonder if it was that moment when you made the right impression or struck the right note with the seven or eight people that assembled to determine your fate. Hopefully, you will hear from your potential employer. This response might come in the form of a congratulatory phone call. Sometimes, you will get a short email informing you that the company had a difficult decision to make, and although you were a good candidate, it has decided to “move in a different direction.” (I hate that phrase.)
The worst-case scenario is the ghosting, or disappearing act, that some organizations do. Apply for a position? You may never hear from that company ever again. Where did your application go? You’ll never know. Rather, you’ll wait by your phone and your computer forever. The practice of ghosting seems to be inflicted on many applicants. Will you ever receive that impersonal email noting that you didn’t get the job but that your application would be kept on file? You’ll just have to wait and see. Over the years that I have covered the chemistry employment market, I’ve even heard of applicants who were invited to on-site interviews and were then subjected to a silent rejection.
Why does this happen? I’m honestly not sure. I believe there are structural problems that allow the humanity that normally permeates the chemical enterprise to be stripped away when final hiring decisions are made. Maybe there are too many applicants to respond to each one with a phone call or personalized email. That’s understandable. Still, a form email is better than no contact at all. Fears that a formal rejection notice may inadvertently run afoul of employment laws or trigger lawsuits from disgruntled applicants may also cause companies to not notify unsuccessful applicants. Surely these are also reasons that rejections of applicants can be slow or nonexistent. There are human factors too; it can’t be fun to send out emails to people telling them that they were not selected. I am sure that some of these employers who disappear on applicants are people who procrastinate on this necessary but awkward task.
What should we have instead? In an ideal world, applicants would be informed as soon as possible if they were not selected for the next round of evaluation. Bad news doesn’t get better the longer it sits, and employers would do well to have fast, fair processes that put people through a minimum of pain and fuss. That assumes, of course, that the hiring process is fast and fair. Leaving aside the meritocracy debate, it’s not easy to comb through résumés, select people for phone and in-person interviews, and then collate a committee’s opinions of a group of interviewees. Budget freezes, difficult choices, sincere disagreements among coworkers, and first and second offers falling through all take their toll on the hiring timeline.
Nevertheless, employers should offer clear feedback to rejected employees. Sometimes employers are clear as to why a certain candidate was not selected. I remember one instance in which a potential employer had graciously called to tell me that I was not hired after my on-site interview. I remember being crushed because I thought that the position and location were ideal. But the employer said my salary expectations were not correctly adjusted for the location. The employer also felt that I had not demonstrated enough interest in living in the Midwest. I was lucky in getting frank feedback—it’s rare. The threat of lawsuits drives the lack of official, on-paper evaluations of candidates. In addition, many people hesitate to provide frank critiques, even to applicants who could use advice on simple steps to improve their interview performance.
I’ve participated in the hiring process, but never as a sole decision maker. Someday, I hope to rise to a position where I have the power to make hiring decisions and shape the process to make it as pain-free and expeditious as possible. It’s not easy to hire the right chemist, but it’s just as difficult and anxiety inducing to put one’s ego on the line, cover letter after cover letter and résumé after résumé. I challenge employers to remember that and to communicate their hiring decisions with all possible speed.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.