Jacob Kaplan-Moss


Should you give candidates feedback on their interview performance?

Brett writes:

The candidates I am seeing are quite junior and it is possible that my interview is the first one they have had for such a role after graduating. My gut is telling me that I should give the unsuccessful candidates some feedback on what they did and didn’t get right, but I suspect there may be some landmines here. So what would you suggest?

This is a common question – in nearly every interview process I’ve designed we’ve had to make a call on whether and how to give candidates feedback about their performance. And it’s a hard question for me to answer: I’ve changed my point of view twice over my career! I started out always giving feedback, which was a disaster: way too much time, and most candidates reacted poorly (a couple scarily so). So then I overcorrected and for quite some time never gave feedback. I’ve now settled on a middle ground of “sometimes give feedback, under specific conditions”, and I’m happy with this approach.

Before I describe that approach, two caveats:

  1. You’re never obligated to give feedback. There are some risks in doing so: it’s not uncommon for candidates to get angry, and in some (rare) circumstances there may even be safety issues in giving rejected candidates feedback. It’s also a time-suck, and managers need to prioritize their time. Under the right circumstances, feedback can be kind, so it’s nice to try. But it should be a low priority, and only if you feel safe doing so.

  2. Your HR department may forbid feedback as a matter of policy. They may worry that you’d tell a candidate you didn’t hire them for some discriminatory reason (e.g. you didn’t offer someone a job because you worried they might get pregnant), and they don’t want to open the company up to legal exposure from your feedback. My feeling is that the way to avoid this risk is to not discriminate, rather than to avoid communication… but not all HR departments may see it this way. I wouldn’t recommend fighting with HR over this; it’s not a big enough deal to risk a good working relationship with HR over.

With those two caveats in mind, here’s the approach I use and recommend:

  • Don’t give unsolicited feedback.

    When I’m interviewing junior candidates, like Brett is doing, often there are lessons that I feel junior candidates “need” to learn; feedback they “need” to hear. I resist that temptation: almost nobody wants to receive unsolicited feedback. Unsolicited feedback is much more likely to make someone angry than to help them.

  • Be ready for anger.

    Unfortunately, my experience is that many candidates respond to interview feedback with some degree of anger. My approach has, in my experience, substantially reduced the number of “go fuck yourself”’s landing in my inbox … but it hasn’t eliminated them. If you’re not feeling up to handling this sort of thing, that’s a completely fine reason not to offer feedback. Again: it’s nice, but not a requirement.

  • Offer feedback, generally, towards the beginning of the interview process.

    That is, early on, usually on the phone screen or the job posting, I tell candidates that if they want feedback after the process is complete, they can email me and ask. I won’t make that offer at the end because it can feel pushy.

  • When a candidate asks for feedback, make a judgment call about whether you think they’ll take it well.

    If I’ve rejected someone because they were a jerk, I’m not going to tell them that – they’re pretty likely to just be a jerk in response, and I don’t want to open the door. Likewise, if there’s any sort of safety issue, I’ll demur. For example, I once rejected a candidate because he deliberately and aggressively misgendered a member of the interview panel. As much as I wanted to tell him that his behavior cost him the job, the chance that he would blame that interviewer personally and retaliate meant that we’d never give him that feedback. It’s never a problem to say something anodyne, like “we found someone who’s a better fit”.

  • When you do decide to give feedback, wait until the hiring round is complete, or at least a week or two.

    This serves two purposes: it means that when you do give feedback you’ll have a better idea of what our overall hiring decision ended up looking like, and the time delay gives emotions time to cool. I find adding this delay has reduced the number of angry responses substantially.

  • Focus on job fit and interview performance, and avoid making any judgment about the candidate’s skill or experience or quality.

    The key is to focus on what you observed in the interview process, and not to pass judgment. Don’t tell a candidate that they’re “bad at Python”; tell them that their code sample had some bugs, or was inefficient, or used different APIs than you were hoping to see, etc.

    A phrase I really like is, “you failed to demonstrate…”. You’re not passing any judgment on the candidate’s skills or personality; you’re telling them that you wanted to see something in the interview and you didn’t see it. You can phrase this in different and less formal ways: “we didn’t see…” / “we didn’t observe…” / “I was expecting to hear … but ….” / “I was hoping you’d cover …”, etc. These are all variations on “failed to demonstrate”: they’re about what you wanted to see from an ideal candidate, and didn’t from this person.

  • Refuse to argue.

    Some candidates ask for feedback as a sneaky way of getting a second chance: they think they can argue with your feedback and talk their way back into the job. Refuse to engage; it’s always a total waste of time. You don’t need to prove them right; you’ve made your decision.

    If you’ve made a legit mistake, it’s of course fine to revisit. If you missed something so big that it might have changed the outcome, then, yes, maybe you should re-interview. This is hypothetical, though: I’ve never been part of an interview round where we just totally missed something big enough to potentially change the outcome.

This is the approach I’ve been using for the last 4-5 years, and it’s been working fairly well. I’ve been able to provide feedback, without a huge time expense, and most of that feedback seems to have been received well.

I’m curious to hear from readers: does your approach to candidate feedback look similar? How does your approach differ? Let me know: email ([email protected]) or toot at me: (@[email protected]).