Should HR offer feedback to failed applicants?

One HR educator explains the pros and cons of offering advice to unsuccessful candidates.

Should HR offer feedback to failed applicants?
If you’ve worked in HR long enough chances are you’ve learned a thing or two about hiring the right candidate for the right job. And whether you’ve recruited, worked in talent acquisition or simply sat across the table and moderated an interview you know that the feeling of disappointment when a candidate is told that they didn’t make the cut is palpable.
But part of HR’s job is fielding questions from failed candidates looking for feedback on their application. This doesn’t happen all the time but when it does, it can be a delicate procedure. “You have to be mindful,” says Heidi Bachert-Burke, HR professional and instructor at Ashton College. “You don’t want to be detrimental in your feedback.”
The reasons for this are partly legal and partly humanitarian. Every job application comes with a reference list from a previous employer and if you choose not to bring forward an applicant because of a poor reference, you may not want to share this with the applicant. Many employers are uncomfortable - sometimes even downright scared - with giving a former employee a bad reference. This is because unless that reference is 100% accurate in every way shape and form, it is grounds for legal action. “You have to be careful not to be libelous,” says Bachert-Burke. “Candidates can and do take legal action for bad references. It happens.”
In a worst case scenario, if an applicant is able to prove that the information contained in a bad reference is indeed untrue and has had a detrimental impact on their finding meaningful employment, it can quickly snowball into a very ugly situation. Thus while giving bad references aren’t necessarily illegal the ramifications can be severe enough to make most employers steer clear of giving one. “Some organizations will provide very limited information in response to a prospective employer’s request for a reference. This usually includes employment verification as well as start and end dates to minimize risk and potential liability” says Bachert-Burke.
Typically, when a candidate is notified that they will not be hired, rarely is a reason provided except perhaps that another candidate was chosen.  Thus while an employer may not be prohibited by law from providing truthful information about a former employee, misrepresentations, spreading false information could be seen as grounds for defamation. “Applicants can request feedback but may engage in defensive debate as to why the feedback is inaccurate.  Employers could open themselves to accusations and liability.  Thus for many HR professionals, a bad reference just isn’t worth the risk.” says Bachert-Burke.
The other reason behind being mindful of how you provide feedback on failed job applications is humanitarian. The logistics of this aren’t complicated; people don’t like hearing negative things about themselves. But where this gets tricky is if a candidate actually asks for negative feedback. This puts HR in a delicate situation because while they may have been asked to provide it, negative feedback can be damaging. When combined with the messy potential legal ramifications of a bad reference, it’s enough to cause even the most seasoned HR professional to throw their hands in the air and say ‘no thanks!’
At the foundation of the conundrum of whether or not to give failed candidates feedback on their application are two very opposite perspectives. First, the right of a candidate to be told honestly and truthfully what they were not the best fit for a position and second, the right of HR to protect the company from potential liabilities. It’s easy to say ‘what’s the harm?’ in a bad reference or negative feedback but the ramifications of this can grow to outsized proportions. One solution worth its salt is to utilize confidential surveys. “A confidential survey is a great way to get accurate and useful feedback,” says Bachert-Burke. “For both employers and HR.” The important thing to remember however, whether you choose to provide feedback anonymously or not is that you are dealing with someone’s feelings. Be honest be truthful and most importantly, be correct.

Ashton College is accredited post-secondary institution offering flexible education options for working professionals including a Diploma in Human Resources Management and a variety of professional development seminars.

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