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Ask the Headhunter: What’s the real reason I was rejected for this job?

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979 and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community.

In this special Making Sen$e edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.


Question: I love your blog. I’ve been a follower for many years and always found your advice great while I was on the hiring side of the table. Now that I’m on the other side and getting a bit confused, I hope you can shed some light on my situation.

I’ve been job hunting for 10 months. In that time, I’ve set up my own consulting business, but continued to search. Interviews have been few and far between, but most have gone to three or four rounds.

READ MORE: Ask the Headhunter: Managers, it’s your job to recruit. Don’t let HR waste an applicant’s time

The peculiar thing is when I ask if there are any concerns about progressing in the late stages,  I often hear vague, conditional reservations like:

  • “You have the industry knowledge and experience but… I’m just not sure about fit,” or
  • “I’m just not sure you’d be happy with this or that mundane aspect of the role,” or
  • “We’re all for personal development, but I need someone who will stick with the team.”

Is this some kind of new concept or secret code in hiring language? Isn’t this type of assessment too subjective to be of value? Provided all the players are qualified and experienced, who really knows how the team dynamic will work out?

So my question is twofold: What do you think it means? And is there a constructive way to counterbalance or overcome this type of concern?

Nick Corcodilos: When an employer interviews you for a job, you have an obligation to give useful responses. Likewise, when an employer rejects you, they are obligated to give you useful reasons. Employers who argue with that reveal a double standard.

The reasons for rejection you’ve been given are not useful. (See “Will employers explode if you squeeze them for interview feedback?”) But I think there’s more to it. You have to step back and consider the baseline odds that any interview you go on is with a company and manager who is ready to hire anyone.

READ MORE: Ask the Headhunter: Beware of pay-to-play job interview scams

Regardless of your skills and attributes, their readiness to take action overshadows everything else. In my experience, few interviewers are ready to make a hire. They’re tire-kickers. So, sadly, most interviews are doomed — and folks like you try to attribute it (naturally) to something they said or did or to some failure of their own.

Most of the time, it’s just not a real opportunity. I don’t mean it’s a fake job — I mean the employer just isn’t ready to hire for any of a number of reasons. So the “reasons” they give are not useful. The emotional cost of this to the job applicant can be huge. Discouragement. Loss of confidence. Confusion. Self-doubt.

The only way I know to deal with this is to control the interview and to test the employer. I think the simplest, most honest and direct way to do it is like this. Ask:

Can you lay out a live problem or task you’d want your new hire to tackle — without disclosing anything proprietary of course — and explain your objective? That is, what would you like the outcome of the new hire’s work to be? What would you want me to deliver in the first three, six and 12 months on the job? I’d like to show you how I’d go about it, and then we can discuss how you’d want me to tweak my approach. In this way, I’d like to give you an idea of how I’d approach the work, so you can get an idea of whether you’d want to hire me.

Note that you’re asking to talk about the work and offering to show how you’d do it. You’re also testing the employer. Is this interview about doing a job, or is it about something else?

I think you’ll find most employers can’t give you such a task or problem, because they don’t really know why they’re trying to fill the job. I know that sounds goofy – but I think you’ll find it’s often true. (See “The Do-It-Yourself Interview (for managers).”)

Others will just decline and be offended that you asked this. But it’s exactly what you’d ask your boss if you were assigned a project! Nonetheless, I think you’ll get a lot of blank stares — because the interviewer doesn’t know how to talk about the job or the work. That tells you that you’re not the problem.

Employers that respond helpfully — for you and for themselves — have real jobs, real needs and are ready to hire. They know what they want. To them, it won’t matter how old you are, where you worked before, what your title was or how much you earned. Their focus is on the work they need done, and they’re grateful for someone who wants to talk about it. If they think you can’t do it, they’ll tell you.

I think this approach separates real opportunities from tire-kicking employers who are wasting your time and risking your sanity.

The useless comments you’re getting after multiple interviews are either dishonest or reveal inept managers. A job interview is about getting a job done. The comments you’re hearing have nothing to do with the work. They reveal employers who are not focused on whether you can do the job. They reveal employers who are not really ready to hire.

Try my suggestion to test an employer. Then ask yourself: Was this employer ready to talk about me doing the work it needs done? Or is this employer out to lunch?

Don’t assume that useless explanations about why you’re not the right candidate mean you’ve been rejected. Often, these comments mean there’s no hire to be made. To avoid interviews like this to begin with, please see “How and when to reject a job interview.”

Dear Readers: When is the last time an employer gave you a reason for rejection that was confusing? What was it? How did you handle it?


Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps,” “How Can I Change Careers?” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

Copyright © 2016 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask the Headhunter® is a registered trademark.

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