19 November 2013

Why candidates decline job offers (and what to do about it)

Every recruiter has had, or will have, the experience of a candidate declining a job offer, contrary to everything the candidate has said or done up until that point.

This is a very expensive failure of your recruitment process because at the time of the offer you have completed around 95% of the necessary work and have collected (if you are a contingent recruiter) precisely 0% of the fee. If your second best candidate is not to your client's liking, or if the second best candidate is not your candidate, then you either (i) have to start the whole sourcing process again (bad), or (ii) lose the placement to a competitor (really bad).

I still shake my head thinking about the candidate (an experienced recruiter) who I had taken through three interviews, only to ring him three times (once each at work, home and mobile) to offer him the job (which was explicitly communicated in the mobile phone voicemail message I left him) and never hear back from him. I caught his eye a few years later across the room at a recruitment industry event and at least he had the good grace to pretend he hadn't seen me, saving him from a potentially embarrassing conversation.

Why do candidates do this?

Candidates decline jobs, almost always, because they have doubts about some aspect of the position (eg duties, remuneration, reporting line etc) or doubts about some aspect of the company (eg size, location, industry, financial success etc). Candidates know that expressing doubts is not helpful to their chances of becoming the preferred candidate.

In most instances the candidate never had a strong likelihood of accepting the job but the recruiter optimistically ploughed ahead with the process, hoping that these doubts would prove to be unjustified.

As a result they generally keep these doubts to themselves. It's human nature that a person would prefer to be in the ‘power' position of declining a job offer rather than being ruled out of the running by the employer or recruiter due to another suitable candidate expressing greater enthusiasm for the role. Candidates typically want to keep as many (close-to-suitable) job options open for as long as possible.

It's likely the declined offer could have been prevented by the recruiter asking the candidate a more searching set of questions, both right at the beginning of the recruitment process and also during the recruitment process.

Here are some pre-suppositions that I always found helped me to avoid the ‘turned down offer' scenario:

1. All candidates are susceptible to a counter offer, no matter what they might say to you at the first interview.
My recommended action: After an offer is accepted, role-play the counter offer conversation so you know exactly how equipped the candidate is to effectively handle a counter offer should it occur.

2. The closer to the offer the recruitment process gets, the more likely it is that the preferred candidate will raise their salary expectations.
My recommended action:
At each stage of the recruitment process, re-confirm the candidate's agreement to the salary discussed at the beginning of the process.

3. Candidates don't seriously consider their resignation conversation until they actually have an offer.
My recommended action
: At your initial interview test the candidate as follows: ‘You have clearly been successful in your current job and I suspect your boss would be very reluctant to see you leave. What would you do if you resigned and were then offered a pay rise of $15,000 to stay?' (Pick a figure about 15% above their current remuneration).

4. Candidates won't tell you about other job opportunities they are pursuing unless you ask (and even then, they probably won't tell you the whole truth).
My recommended action:
At regular intervals ask the candidate ‘What other opportunities are you waiting to hear on?' (Always assume they have other opportunities).

5. Candidates will forget to tell you about relevant changes in their circumstances (eg received a pay rise or promotion etc).
My recommended action
: At regular intervals ask the candidate ‘Has anything changed at work or at home that is relevant to your job search?'

Also ask every single candidate who is in a permanent job when their next salary review is occurring and what increase they are expecting to receive. Then make a note in your schedule to call, just after the nominated salary review time, to ask the candidate what happened at their review.

The outcome of a salary review can often mean, either the candidate now has greater motivation for leaving (if the outcome was disappointing) or less motivation for leaving (if the outcome was better than expected).

6. The less responsive to your calls and other forms of contact a candidate becomes, the greater the chance they won't take the job.
My recommended action:
Always leave a time/day by when you want them to get back to you and always be specific about the reason for your call. Also given them additional contact options (eg ‘If it's easier to text me then do so, or a LinkedIn message is also fine').

7. When offered the job, if the candidate wants to ‘think about it' or ‘see the offer in writing', then there is a very strong chance they have a competing offer, have an offer pending or they will use the offer to gain a pay rise in their current job.
My recommended action:
Always respectfully press the candidate on what they want to ‘think about' so you can address their concern (they must have a concern or hesitation, otherwise they would have already accepted the job).

Pre-suppositions are statements that are not necessarily always true however it's to your advantage to act as if they are true. When you act as if each of the above is always true then you dramatically reduce the chances that any assumptions you make about candidate behaviour (either consciously or unconsciously) will de-rail a potential placement towards the end of a recruitment process.

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  1. Simply fantastic Ross!This is powerful.It is terribly disheartening even to the most of experienced recruiter when an 'almost-placed candidate' falls through the deadly cracks of "turned down offer" hole! I should know because I've been there sometimes.Your well-thought-out proactive suggestions,even if it looks like an exercise in double-checking the obvious,as I reflect on my experience, must constitute part of the critical success factors in making a successful placement.

  2. @LawNnaji you are right when you say in looks like double checking the obvious but I always found it was the assumptions that I made about candidate behaviour that were the cause of any problems at the end of a recruitment process. As you observe, it's about being pro-active, rather than reactive.

  3. There is one omission I notice in the article which is the behaviour of the interviewer themselves. About 5 years ago I took a day off work so I would be available for a first telephone interview with the head of the division of a potential employer, not only did he forget about the interview, when I called the company and we finally managed to track him down, he was so dismissive of the time I had taken out of my own schedule for him that I wouldn't consider taking the process any further.

  4. Jane Simpson30/11/13 10:46 PM

    One more reason applicants might decline is that when we tell them we use an independent specialist employment screening company and give them the forms to complete they take them away and call back a day or so later to say they have changed their mind. We believe some applicants have something in their backgrounds they are afraid of others knowing about.

    1. So, when candidates apply for your roles, you send them off to someone that doesn't even work for your company to play bureaucratic form-filling games? And they don't come back you say? How surprising.

  5. I declined a role this week. I wasn't as unprofessional as the candidate in your story. I communicated the reasons for my decision courteously and clearly, both to the recruiter and to the end hirer concerned. To be honest, though, in the latter case I almost wished I hadn't.

    I don't wish to offend, but to be brutally honest it seems to me that these days recruiters themselves are becoming even more unprofessional than they had been in years gone past. Even those recruiting for senior and/or hard-to-fill niche technical roles are extremely inexperienced. Recruitment has just become a body shop business, particularly technical recruitment.

    I always suspected that recruiters were a clueless bunch, based on the conversations I had with them in which they demonstrated a striking lack of knowledge about my industry, and a breathtaking lack of sophistication in negotiating. But in the age of LinkedIn, their credibility gap is even more apparent. I see 'recruitment professionals' whose LinkedIn profiles proudly proclaim that their only other work experience was six whole months working in a call centre selling double glazing, working as a shop assistant in a high street clothing chain, or running their own 'event promotion companies' (that are invariably never listed on Companies House.) They all seem to be either incompetent, brand new graduates, or complete fantasists. I ended up speaking with one such clueless individual this week.

    I sent a polite email declining an offer I'd been made on the simple grounds that no written contract had been produced by the recruiter despite several requests, even though the work was meant to start the next day. Later that day I received a call, during which I spent a pointless ten minutes being polite but firm in the position noted above. During the call they repeated the same inane question "but why are you not taking the role?" at least 17 different ways, even though I'd answered same clearly and unambiguously in my earlier email and the first time it had been asked during the call. Finally, after having been told that he was repeating himself and that my answer to his repeated question had already been clearly communicated, the nitwit pretend "not to understand" the very clear reason for declining the offer I had given, in the hope I'd keep talking and explain further. Feigning misunderstanding is one of the classic, tedious passive-aggressive games that children commonly play when they don't get the answer they want to hear. But it's rather less endearing or tolerable when grown adults do it. Rather than engage further with someone that was obviously hell-bent on keeping the conversation going at any cost in the hope I'd eventually cave in, I just said "I doubt that you really do misunderstand the simple reason you've been given, but if so you'll just need to die curious".

    I'd have respected them more if they'd just have said "OK, I get it. We screwed up. We should have produced a written contract by now. I'm sorry." But of course if they had that level of maturity and/or insight into the negative consequences of their own behaviour it's unlikely they'd have done something as stupid as fail to get an agreement for a hard-to-find candidate put into writing, despite having had ample time to do so and despite having been asked for same several times. Players do like to play their silly games, even (and perhaps especially) if they're no good at it. I eventually had to end the call by bidding him goodbye and hanging up the phone, as he launched into yet another round of "yes, but can you just explain why?..." Something tells me there's a job in selling mobile phones the individual in question's future.