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Applicant Tracking System best practice - responding to applicants who are not appropriate for role

Today I'm going to write a few thoughts about the best practices of how to make use of an applicant tracking system (ATS), to positively reflect your brand. Specifically about the scenario of how you reject applicants that you decide are not appropriate for the role they applied for.

Does how you recruit people really have anything to do with marketing and your company's brand?

Yes it does!

The reality is that if you have 1 job role that you advertise, and 100 people apply for that role, there will be 99 disappointed applicants, and only 1 happy one. How you handle those 99 is important.

Scale that up to 5 different job roles that you are recruiting for, and 100 people that might apply for each one. There are now 495 people that you can either leave a positive or negative impression of your company with.

It’s easy to see that if you’re a popular, well respected company, rather than 100 people applying for each role, you may get over 200 people apply for each of those jobs In that case that's 1,000 or more people who you can influence their perception of your company.

Those 1,000 people may also tell other people about their experience:

  • If they had a good experience, some might say to friends, family colleagues "I didn't get the job, but they were professional, responsive and clear. So I'd certainly like to work for them if there is an opportunity in future. They seem like a good company".

  • If they had a negative experience, they might say to friends, family and colleagues "I didn't get the job" followed by whatever reasons - "they took ages to reply", "I never heard back from them", "they seemed disorganised", “I don’t think they've really seen how good I am”. This may go on to reflect on how they feel about the company or brand.

So those 5 people that you’ve successfully recruited is great – they will help drive your business forward.

But the others that you reject, whether that’s just 5 or 6, 99, 495, or over a 1,000 will also take away a perception of your company, and pass that on – either positive, or negative.

Therefore, it is very clear that it is important to give a positive impression of your organisation, whether an applicant is ultimately the right person to join your company, or not.

Even if they're not the person that you ultimately choose for the roles that you're recruiting for, how you communicate with them through the process, and how you turn them down, will reflect on your business. The applicant may at some point in future also be a potential future customer, or may speak to someone else who is a potential future customer.

So how you treat them through the process, and how you reject them can affect your brand.

Building an “Talent pool” to ease future recruitment

As well as your brand as a company, it is also important to cultivate your “employer brand”. Just because you don’t have a role for an applicant right now, it doesn’t mean they may not make a good potential employee in future.

Admittedly, many people who apply for a role, may not be right for any role with you, and they need to be rejected politely and clearly, and taking minimal time from your team. You need to handle these applications very efficiently, whilst still positively reflecting your brand.

However if your company is an attractive place to work, you may get more good applicants than you have roles for right now. You might need someone like them when you need more people doing the role that they applied for. Or they may have skills and attitude that could be valuable in another role in the team, or even another department.

If applicants have experienced a good process that they believe is fair, and they have been turned down appropriately, they may still be very interested in applying for future roles. It might be in a month’s time, a year’s time, or 5 years time.

Leaving a positive impression can make hiring for future roles much easier. It means that you are already in contact with the applicant. They already have a positive experience of your organisation. You may be able to “fast track” their next application putting you ahead of other companies trying to recruit them in future.

In addition, there may not be a recruitment fee due to an agency - though do bear in mind that if an applicant originally applied via an agency in the first place, the agency may have a claim for an introduction fee for a period of time after they are introduced, depending upon your agreement with the agency. Please read your agreement with the agency before making any assumptions, and discuss with the agency if you are unsure. Even if you don’t have an agreement, or the period has expired, you may feel you have a moral obligation to pay a fee.

Taking the previous scenario I described of 100 applicants for 1 job. In the first scenario of 99 people turned down, even if just 10% of the applicants have potential to work somewhere in your company at some point in the future, that's 9 people that if you gave a good experience to, and that if you keep in touch with them as a potential "talent pool" then you may already have future applicants lined up, who already have a positive perception of your organisation.

Even if you only have 2 people that apply for the 1 job, the person that you turn down could still be a good potential future candidate.

So how you turn people down, will affect your “employer brand” and your ability to build a talent pool of future potential employees.

Initial applicant screening - How to use an ATS well to reject applicants efficiently – avoid the “not hearing back” problem

I'm sure at some point in future a future blog post, I will discuss the importance of giving a positive experience to candidates all the way through the application and interview process and beyond - to make sure that the best candidates want to work for you and don't drop out of the process before you make them an offer.

But today, I’m going to focus on the “negative” side – rejecting candidates. Because as I’ve just described, you will typically be rejecting many more candidates than you offer a job role to.

So how you handle rejecting applicants at this stage is important.

An applicant tracking system makes this easier. However just because a company has an ATS, it doesn’t mean they use it well.

So if you’ve got one, please make sure you do think about how to use it, and use it well. I'm pretty confident that the companies that I've been involved in, where we've deployed an ATS they use it to turn down candidates in an efficient, and informative way. And they do so every time. It’s only polite, isn’t it?

However I have seen some first hand experiences over the last year, where many companies do not do so, even though they are clearly using an ATS.

My sons (in their early twenties, in the first few years after completing their university degrees) have various experiences, which seem fairly common.

Unbelievably, one of the most common experience is “not hearing back” from the company they applied to. This is most common at the initial application phase.

There is a common theme that quite a few companies put on their application “If you have not heard back from us within 2 weeks, you can assume your application has not been successful”.

Really!? They’re going to review an application, and reject it but not even tell the person that they’re not accepted? We all know that sometimes people and computers “miss things” – don’t see an e-mail or application, things slip through the net. Or overlook a good candidate as a result of looking at lots of CVs. Can those companies really say that their processes are so good that they’ve never overlooked an e-mail or application?

I hope if you’re reading this, your company is not one of those that doesn’t send a rejection!

The reality was that around half of companies seemed to apply this approach. Half, that these candidates did not hear back from, other than the initial confirmation e-mail indicating that their application had been received.

In most roles they applied, for the application went into an applicant tracking system of some sort – they were all online applications.

If every application is reviewed, then someone must be making a decision to either reject the application, or take the candidate forward in the process. Any ATS will allow that decision to be recorded. (If that decision isn’t recorded into a status in the ATS, how can there be any audit trail to ensure that decisions are being made fairly?)

If the applicant is marked as “rejected”, almost every ATS will be able to send an e-mail to the applicant letting them know that their application is not being progressed.

A good ATS will:

  • Allow the e-mail to be personalised, or for a default template to be used

  • Allow the timing of the e-mail to be delayed – e.g. the reviewer may look at the CV within 5 minutes of the application and make an instant decision and update the ATS, but may not want the candidate to feel that they have been rejected within 5 minutes. So a good ATS will allow the rejecting e-mail to be delayed for a preset or random amount of time. E.g. send the reject e-mail at least 24 hours after application, and only in working hours for the company.

  • Allow the applicant to request to be added to the “Talent pool” to be informed of other vacancies that come up. Ideally with the ability to indicate the sorts of roles that they’d be interested in

  • The best systems will also have a portal which will allow the applicant to log in to see their status – so even if the e-mail notification gets lost in a spam filter somewhere, the candidate can still log in and see their status. The status should ideally have a similar delay to the timing of the e-mail.

Each of these small touches will avoid the “I never heard back” feeling which just gives the impression of the company as being big and faceless.

So when you first set up your HR system or Applicant Tracking System, and especially when you advertise your jobs, do spent some time setting up/reviewing the e-mail template for rejecting candidates who are rejected at the initial CV/application screening phase. It will save you time in the long run.

The vast majority of applicants will probably receive this message, so make sure it sends the message you want it to send.

Consider doing 2 versions, one for those people that haven’t been selected this time, but you’d very much like them to apply in future. And a subtly different one for those people that you don’t think it is worth them applying for other roles in future.

If you can set up a delay in sending the message, consider doing that.

If your system supports it, consider creating a “talent pool” management system.

And then the critical step, make sure that every candidate that gets rejected, receives a polite, clear notification that they have not been selected to proceed to the next stage this time.

It’s usually very easy to do. Just please make sure that those e-mails are set up and being sent, and that the applicants status is being sent to trigger those e-mails.

If you have 2 or 3 templates set up for slightly different rejection messages, then this can make it even easier for your team to send these rejection messages efficiently, simply by setting an appropriate status on the applicant, or choosing an appropriate template.

Automated screening

Some advanced applicant tracking systems will automatically review the application form/CV and screen it using either keywords or artificial intelligence, and reject the application without involving a human. This is more common in the ATS systems used by larger companies, and is less common in HR systems used by SMEs.

However even if you have automated screening, that is still no excuse for not sending an e-mail to the applicant. In fact it’s even more reason to send an e-mail to the applicant – because computers can easily do this automatically.

If you do have an ATS that can do this automated screening:

  • Make sure you do configure it to send a notification of the rejection to the candidate – this will save your applicants from ending up in the “Never heard back” scenario.

  • It’s worth thinking about what that auto rejection message says. You may give the impression that you have considered their application and rejected it, in which case you may want to delay the sending of the e-mail to the applicant.

  • But it’s also worth considering that computers aren’t 100% in their decisions. You could consider configuring the message to indicate that the application has been reviewed by an automated system and that “based upon your application, you do not appear to have the required skills/experience required for the role”. The message could indicate that if the applicant strongly feels that they have some attributes that have been overlooked, then give them the opportunity to point them out why they think they are right for the role, and what has been overlooked.

  • Most candidates will accept the rejection, but you may get a small percentage – maybe 10% - of applicants that feel they do have something that should be considered and really does need looking at and considering by a human – and doing the above will ensure that those that do will have the opportunity to put their argument across for someone to review.

  • Occasionally those applicants could be really beneficial to the business, even though they don’t tick the usual boxes. Those people could take a very positive perception - that the company is efficient and uses technology appropriately, but recognises that computers can make mistakes and gives the option to add extra information.

  • Even if after reviewing the extra information, you then still reject them (with an appropriate message indicating that their extra information has been reviewed by a human), they will feel listened to rather than ignored.

  • And sometimes, you may find a great candidate that otherwise would have slipped through the net.

So it’s worth thinking about how you reject people, even if you have an automated screening system.

Rejecting applicants after various stages of interview process

Most readers I’m sure will be very conscientious about ensuring that once a candidate has been interviewed, they receive a follow up e-mail or phone call.

Whether that is after a telephone interview or a face to face interview, I’m sure you respond to the applicant and let them know whether you want them to come for a further interview, or to offer them a job, or to let them know that you won’t be taking them further in the process.

However, amazingly, not all companies do this!

So if you don’t always send a message for every outcome, please make sure you do.

Also, please think about how you reject these candidates. There is no right or wrong. Do you give the applicant guidance about what they could have improved on? Or do you just say “It was a difficult choice with several suitable candidates. In this case, we have decided not to take your application further.”. Different companies and different HR professionals will have different perspectives.

It definitely is worth considering building several templates, so that as far as possible, the recruitment team/person can easily pick a template to send the appropriate message. E.g. you may have one version saying “Thank you very much for attending the interview, but we won’t be taking your application further.”, and a second version which says the same thing, but adds “We encourage you to register your details on our Talent Pool so that we can let you know about future job roles that might be suitable”.

By having several templates, the recruitment team can send the right message to the applicant, without taking too much time to do so.

Of course they should be encouraged that if there is a particularly good candidate, but just no capacity to take them on, to add extra personalisation to show how much you’d like them to apply in future.

But even if you don’t do these things, do please send the candidate a response within a reasonable timeframe.

Unbelievably, not all companies do this, as evidenced by one of my sons. He applied for a games testing role at Sega. I wasn’t going to name them – but then as I wrote this blog, I thought – why not, if this is how they want their company to be perceived. I will summarise the sequence:

  • He applied for the role online, using their applicant tracking system. He didn’t hear anything for a couple of weeks. This was not unusual – many applications were taking that long.

  • After a couple of weeks, on a Tuesday, he got invited by e-mail to come to an interview in 2 days time on Thursday morning at 10:30am in West London. There wasn’t any way to change the date or time, he just had to accept the interview or reject it.

  • So he rearranged his shift at the restaurant job he had. Made the 2.5 hour journey from north of Cambridge to West London for the interview.

  • He performed the interview reasonably well – he came away feeling that it went OK, but recognising there were several other candidates and all could be equally good for the job. So completely accepting he could be offered the job, but may be rejected.

  • He never heard back.

  • I’ll say that again. They didn’t send him a notification by e-mail.

  • His status on their portal didn’t change, so his application was still pending.

  • Even worse, after a couple of weeks and he hadn’t heard anything, he e-mailed the person that had invited him to interview, and asked him if they were still deciding, or if he was no longer in the running. He didn’t get a reply.

  • After another week, he phoned them up, but the receptionist was unable to put him through to anyone, and didn’t know who he should contact.

  • Obviously the right thing to assume was that as he hadn’t heard back, he obviously hasn’t got the job.

  • But they didn’t even have the courtesy to let him know, despite him having a spent a day of his life, and a significant train fare going to their interview. And having responded

I don’t know how Sega are doing as a company now, but I they certainly didn’t give me and my family a good impression of them. Which is a shame because when I was much younger, I had a great impression of them.

They could have given a much better impression, as well as saved my son time and “I hope I get it” thoughts for a few weeks, if they had just updated their Applicant Tracking System to change his status after his interview to “Rejected”, and send him a polite templated e-mail letting him know they weren’t progressing the role any further.

Unfortunately stories like this exist with applicants for both large and small companies.

But they are easily avoided if you think your processes through, and set up your systems to make it easy to communicate with all applicants consistently.

Please make sure that you do send a rejection notification to every candidate promptly after you’ve made your decision. Even if you’re rejecting them, it will still leave a better impression than not letting them know at all.

Summary and conclusion

OK, so I’ve had a bit of a rant about companies, and how they don’t all do recruitment as well as they could. But many organisations do it well, and there is plenty of best practice out there to learn from.

Conclusions, it’s pretty simple if you plan and prepare, and use an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) well:

  • Think about each step of the process from Applicantion -> Job offer

  • For every step in between, write a template e-mail to be sent to an applicant, for both rejection, and progress to the next stage of the process

  • Make sure the rejection e-mail reflects the stage through the process that the applicant got to. Don’t use the same template for an initial application screening, as for rejecting someone after 2 interviews.

  • Consider variants of rejection, depending upon whether you want to encourage the applicant to join a “talent pool” mailing list/system

  • Make sure applicants have their status changed in the applicant tracking system, to reflect where they are in the process, after each review/interview

  • Make sure that when a decision is made to reject someone, that an e-mail is sent to the applicant and that they’re not left in the “never heard back” state

  • If you are wanting to move someone to the next stage of the interview process, make sure you do so promptly

  • Use an ATS to make each of the above steps quick and easy for your team

If you have the ATS/HR system set up well, you can give applicants a positive experience, and have great communication with them from beginning to end, without it taking any more of your time than it takes to actually make the decision.

If you don’t have an Applicant Tracking System, and don’t have an HR system, or don’t have an HR System, with applicant tracking functionality in place consider getting one. And if you are likely to recruit even just one or two staff, – definitely get one! It’s not just about the candidate that you do recruit, it’s also about the ones that you don’t.

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About the Author:

Dave Abraham is an independent consultant, working with a number of small businesses. Working at a strategic level, he looks at the strategic direction of the business with the directors, and helps the business improve processes, people management, and technology to help the business grow for the benefit of the staff, customers and owners of the business.  A core theme in recent years has been helping small companies improve how they nurture, grow, recruit and develop their staff, as it has such a massive impact on how a small company can go from surviving to thriving. 

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