Let’s kick off this post with a note I recently received from a client:

“Matt: Had a weird thing happen to me recently I wanted to pass along. I landed an interview with an HR person at a company I’ve had my eye on for a while. After the meeting, the HR person thanked me for coming in and assured me that I would get a second interview. A few days later I was called in again to meet with the VP of HR and the COO and both of those interviews went well. The company seems really focused on “cultural fit” and on providing excellent customer service, and I spoke to each of these issues during each session. Then, a week later I was invited back and interviewed with the CFO and the CMO, again with lots of warmth and well wishes. I cannot recall stumbling on a single question and all seemed to go well. Then I was invited back yet again to meet with the Founder/CEO and we had what I thought was a very warm conversation. Throughout the process, I diligently sent out thank-you notes after each meeting and consistently followed up with the HR manager who was coordinating things. Then, out of the blue, all communication seemed to break off. After five days with no response, I followed up with the HR manager, who apologized for being out of the office and stated that she would get right back to me. No answer. Four days later, I sent another email and received a very impersonal rejection notice back in response. What’s the deal with employers these days? Why do they seem to have such trouble communicating in a respectful, timely way with candidates?”

Employer ambivalence.  What’s behind it?  On average, I probably hear a dozen complaints like this one each week from job hunters who are exasperated by the lack of clear communication and follow-up by the organizations they’re targeting for employment.  And we’re not just talking about cases where somebody sends in a resume, superficially, and doesn’t hear something back.  We’re talking about situations like the one above where both parties invest hours and hours in the process of getting acquainted, and then suddenly the employer simply stops returning calls or responding to e-mail inquiries.

So what’s the deal?  Are the majority of hiring managers today just disorganized and absent-minded?  Are they callous, cruel individuals who have zero concern for the people seeking to join their organization?  Are the halls of corporate America filled by sadists who enjoy nothing more than getting a candidate’s hopes up and then letting him or her twist in the wind?

These explanations seem highly unlikely, to me.  Despite the fact that respectful treatment from employers seems to have almost almost the exception today, not the norm, I refuse to believe it’s due to outright malicous reasons — and truly hope we’re not just witnessing some unfortunate job market equivalent of the famous Stanford Prison Experiments.  And yet, whatever the reasons might be for companies not doing a better job of communicating with applicants, there’s no denying that the phenomenon is taking a toll on many out-of-work professionals who are already struggling with confidence issues — and who can be quickly plunged into depression or discouragement when an exciting opportunity suddenly devolves into a “black hole” of communication.

So for job hunters who have been consistently encountering this issue, I think it’s important to understand the reasons behind this type of behavior from employers, so that you can adapt to it — even if you can’t necessarily excuse it.  In my experience, the top reasons why a given employer might suddenly become unresponsive include:

  • The HR department is understaffed and their representatives are simply swamped trying to fill a great many job openings, simultaneously
  • A key person in the process has gone on vacation and the hiring process can’t continue until this individual weighs in or makes themselves available
  • The company’s needs have suddenly changed, based on a market or customer development, and the opening has been temporarily put on hold, as a result
  • The employer may be waiting to hear back a “yea” or “nay” from another candidate they’ve courted — or an internal team member interested in the job
  • Or lastly, and perhaps the most likely scenario, filling the role in question is just simply not a high priority in the big scheme of things, compared to other pressing issues

All of these factors aside, I’ll admit, it seems to me that many HR departments could still do a better job of keeping candidates in the loop and apprising them of their status, even if the hiring process runs into a snag or a decision isn’t likely to be made for a while.  The silent treatment just isn’t an acceptable way of handling things.  Most job hunters, as mature adults, can deal with whatever update or news the HR department might need to share.  A total lapse of communication, however, is much tougher to swallow.  Not only is it extraordinarily impolite — but it might also create some untended blowback.  I’ve had several clients recently, in fact, turn down job offers and/or end their discussions with certain employers, proactively, based on their poor impressions of how the company conducts the hiring process.

Going forward, my hope is that all of this discourteous behavior is simply a consequence of the “great recession” and hopefully not the new normal” we can permanently expect, going forward.  As always, I’d welcome your thoughts on the issue — and you’ll find a related article on the subject here that was recently posted in the Seattle Times NWJobs section.