Giving negative feedback to candidates

For recruiters an interview is routine; for a candidate it’s a high-stress and potentially life changing event. Interviewer feedback is therefore very important. Sometimes it’s excellent, but many candidates say that it is frequently either non-existent or unhelpful.

Unhelpful feedback falls into several categories:


1. Bland

Often a variant on “we met other people who fit the job better”. This may be untrue, and it doesn’t help the candidate improve interview skills.

2. Vague

“We didn’t feel we got to know you” or “we didn’t feel comfortable with you” – neither assist unless you explain why.

3. Abruptly concise

You say “you don’t have enough leadership experience”, but the candidate hears “you’re not a leader”.

4. Pet hates

A rehearsal of the interview habits or mannerisms the interviewer finds most annoying.

Good interview feedback provides an important reality check, informing candidates how their imagined performance works in practice. It often reveals a lack of basic preparation, and misunderstandings about what the interview is for.


Negative Feedback

Negative feedback is hard to deliver well. This is the material the candidate listens to most carefully, and is most likely to misinterpret. Candidates hate rejection and will ask for feedback in a challenging way. Your response should avoid listing reasons for non-appointment and focus on where the candidate’s interview performance could improve. It’s better to give difficult feedback verbally –it’s hard to strike the right tone in writing and you provoke further questions.

Soften what you say by indicating that interviews can be stressful and few people get all their evidence across. People rarely see themselves as others see them, so highlight blind spots (poor eye contact, speaking too much, not keeping still, vagueness, saying “we” rather than “I”). Focus on future improvement rather than what didn’t go well in the room, e.g. say “what you might try next time….”. Make the unstated assumption that the candidate has more to offer, e.g. “what we didn’t understand so well….” or “what I didn’t hear….”.

Give feedback on the behaviours you saw, and avoid feedback on personality – it’s unlikely you gained an accurate picture of what the person would be like in a workplace context. It’s equally unwise to give feedback about “chemistry” or team fit – you almost certainly don’t have enough evidence to say anything a candidate won’t find worrying. Your focus should be on the evidence you heard about skills, competencies, experience, and achievements.

Feedback can sometimes show candidates they did the wrong kind of research, or misunderstood what the organisation was looking for – all good learning points. Help them to understand the difference between perfect and ‘good enough’. Encourage candidates to improve their performance through practice interviews, not by applying for more jobs.


Accentuate the positive

If you have to say things that are hard to hear, soften the blow by mixing in a number of positives. This is a good place to begin and end feedback. Praise strong interview techniques such as:

  • The ability to relax quickly and build relationships
  • Good listening and question focus
  • Well-prepared mini-narratives which don’t go on too long
  • A focus on evidence as well as claims
  • Keeping answers to the right length and not dominating the conversation
  • Conveying a coherent overall career “story”
  • Being open rather than defensive
  • Good preparation for standard questions (e.g. strengths and weaknesses).
  • Showing genuine interest in the organisation and excitement in the role.

Finally, teach candidates that it’s best not to try to fix everything. Small adjustments to one or two performance areas will usually make an important difference.


  1. Chris Brown July 26, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    the key is in the feedback being constructive rather than negative, so focussing on areas where they candidate can improve, rather then telling them where they failed. Its important for the interviewer to prepare for a feedback meeting or phone call, and not deal with it on the fly.
    I agree that a lot people fall back into the safety of giving generic feedback which candidates find dismissive and unhelpful. Someone I spoke to recently were told they didn’t seem to know enough about a subject that wasn’t discussed at the interview at all.

  2. Mike White July 29, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    Giving feedback is all about authentically delivering what it says on the tin! So beginning with ‘Giving Feedback to Candidates’ is a great place to start, rather than the mindset that takes its lead from ‘Giving Negative Feedback’. Clearly its not always possible to be wholly positive, but finding the balance between supporting and challenging the candidate to improve their interview performance offers a useful guiding principle to the work of the busy recruiter needing to manage competing priorities.

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