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Why NOT Me?

Seeking feedback from someone who turned you down can be tricky. But such information could pinpoint a hole in your resume or a tick in your interview technique where a fix can lead to future success, say experts on hiring. "It's difficult -- but it never hurts to ask," says industrial psychologist and human resources expert Joan Brannick.

John Drake, retired founder of a leading outplacement firm, says there are risks to seeking feedback on failure: "It may make you look wimpy or forlorn if you ask. And the odds of getting an honest answer are slight."

"Remember, many fine people get rejected for insubstantial reasons as well as substantial ones. It may have been a chemistry issue - but no one's going to say, 'I didn't like you.' They will say the job went to someone more experienced," says Drake, author of The Perfect Interview.

"May I Just Follow Up?"

Still, Drake says, "If you really want the job, or thought you did well in the interview and you were surprised not to get the offer, it may be worthwhile to try getting some feedback."

Techniques to start them talking:

"Be friendly and couch the request in terms that you're looking for feedback or information that could help you in your job search or in your career as you move forward," says Brannick. Barbara Mitchell, president of the Society for Human Resource Management's Employment Management Association, suggests a more open-ended approach, such as asking: "Is there anything you can tell me that I can work on and improve?" Try offering a theory of your own for them to respond to, says Drake. Something like: "Did I not sufficiently emphasize my experience with So-and-So Company?"

"Don't push," says Brannick. "You might be better off talking to a friend or co-workers about your strengths and weaknesses."

The Catch-22 of Feedback

Bear in mind that your request for feedback can put the interviewer or recruiter in a Catch-22 situation. Because they can get sued for negligent hiring -- e.g., hiring someone for a rug cleaning business who had been convicted of robbery, or hiring someone for a child care position who had been convicted of child abuse -- today's employers need to get as much information as they can on an applicant. On the other hand, individuals can sue employers for discrimination, slander or libel if they suspect misuse of information exchanged in the course of an interview. Employers are, therefore, very reluctant to give out much information to candidates or to other employers, knowing such feedback could be used as evidence in a court case."

When asked for feedback on why you didn't get a job, companies "most likely will not tell you the truth if the truth is not job related," Mitchell says. Do you suspect the real problem is that people like you -- say, of your race, religion, gender, marital or parenthood status -- weren't welcome in that workplace? That's tough to prove, person by person or interview by interview, unless the recruiters say or do something overtly biased.

However, Mitchell says, if you see a pattern of bias in their hiring, can prove it affected you and are willing to go public, "this can mean negative publicity -- and in today's job market, companies can't afford to be known as a place where applicants are not treated fairly."

Getting Feedback in Your Own Company

Seeking feedback is a bit different if you've missed out on a job opportunity at the company where you already work.

Presumably, the company is already invested in your success. Mitchell says it's worthwhile to ask what skills or abilities you can develop so you can be ready for the next vacancy. If the hiring manager won't tell you, your own current supervisor may be willing to help you learn -- and grow.

"Think about feedback you've received in the past -- both formal and informal -- from bosses, co-workers, and direct reports," says Brannick. "Oftentimes, we can figure out on our own why we didn't get the job."

-Cathy Lynn Grossman