How to Tell an Internal Candidate They Didn't Get the Job

A stressed business woman sits at her desk and talks on the phone.

Ensure that your decline process allows for the time necessary to connect in person, or at least by phone, to inform an internal candidate that they aren't moving forward in the selection process.

The task of telling a co-worker they've been passed over for a promotion or new position is a chore most professionals want to avoid. It becomes even more difficult if they are a valued member of your team.

The way you convey an internal candidate rejection is one of the most important aspects of your hiring strategy. It can have a profound effect on how current and potential future employees view your organization.

No matter how you look at it, declining a candidate is a difficult situation. But with some forethought you can share the news, reassure the employee and hopefully avoid damaging team morale.

Deliver the Message Personally

It's important that you not deliver this message haphazardly. An internal candidate rejection should not come via an automated message from your applicant tracking system (ATS), a conversation at the water cooler or the external candidate's hiring announcement. Provided you're in the same location, meet with the employee who was passed over.

Ensure that your decline process allows for the time necessary to connect in person or at least by phone to inform an internal candidate that they aren't moving forward in the selection process. The top priority when you tell an internal candidate they didn't get the job is to demonstrate that you have their interests in mind and want them to succeed.

Explain the Rationale

When you connect with an internal candidate who isn't getting the job, provide rationale behind why this is the case. If appropriate, explain the reasoning and offer a few pieces of relevant feedback. It is important not to give misleading or false reasons for the decision, even if you are doing so to be kind. When employers hide the real reasons for their decisions, there can be a perception of discrimination, which can lead to a formal complaint. This always requires careful consideration.

Don't keep the internal candidate guessing: Start by saying you have disappointing news. Next, focus on communicating that you value the employee's contributions and appreciate their interest. Share any specific job requirements that their experience didn't meet. Don't drag the conversation out; instead, tell them you'll schedule time in the next week for a follow-up discussion.

Offer Guidance (At a Later Date)

Don't let discouragement last. Make plans for the internal candidate to meet one-on-one with their manager, the training and development specialist or an HR professional to talk about development opportunities. You can discuss projects, time-limited assignments, job shadowing or mentoring relationships which could support the internal candidate's development.

During this conversation, focus on enhancing the employee's existing skills and identify any areas of opportunity they want to address. The improvement opportunities you suggest should be relevant to their existing role and not conveyed as a promise that they will receive the next promotion.

Make sure you let internal employees know they didn't get the promotion in a way that does not sacrifice employee experience or satisfaction. Likewise, if you don't hire an external candidate who may have been a good fit, do what you can to decline their candidacy on a positive note. Encourage them to stay in touch via email and connect with you in professional social networks.

There's no denying that it's difficult for everyone involved when an internal candidate is passed over for a job or promotion. But when you take care to share the disappointing news in person, provide some of the reasons for the decision and subsequently offer development opportunities, a disappointment can become a chance for growth. Handling these conversations with dignity and respect can help develop trust and create the space for an employee to engage with the organization on an even deeper level.