7 Reasons why your candidate turns the role down

Matt Baty Matt Baty
19th March 2024

Why does the candidate say no?

Managing job offers is one of the most rewarding, yet also challenging part of the recruitment process. After weeks of searching, interviewing and assessment and to-ing and fro-ing it all comes down to a series of conversations, the result of which is either a decision that will either conclude the process and enable a client to call off the bloodhounds, or go back to the drawing board and start again (or reconsider others at the final stages).

We often describe the recruitment process as an exercise in risk management. In reality, whilst some risks can be calculated, there is still a leap of faith involved. Despite our best efforts to talk to all the available market, in reality a successful process requires an element of interstellar alignment; the right role, the right person, the right company at the right time. I’ve looked at the reasons why a client might reject a candidate in a previous blog, but what about when candidates reject the client? Accepting a job offer is also a leap of faith; leaving the comfort and familiarity of a business you may have worked with for a long time is a big, multi-faceted decision. It’s equivalent to accepting a marriage proposal after just a few dates. And whilst you might not be heading off to Mauritius for a fun and sun-filled honeymoon and sharing more than just a workspace, it can have a similar effect. In fact I’d describe it more as leaving a marriage for your mistress. Even if your relationship (that is to say your current employer) has become loveless and dysfunctional, your mistress has likely presented a very appealing vision of what your new life will look like. However, surreptitious meetings in secret locations followed by the buzz of being told ‘you’re the one’ is quite different to putting out the metaphorical bins on a Monday morning, budgetary planning and the repetition of ‘BAU’. It’s often the uncertainty or fear of what that real life will look like that sows some seeds of doubt. This is also not to mention that the dysfunctional relationship you’re thinking of leaving might suddenly appear (and behave) more like the figurative person you married when you resign – the dreaded counter offer.

This is even more apparent within sustainability hiring. Not only do you have the usual dilemma of a known versus an unknown quantity, you also have an extra layer of boardroom buy-in, the ambiguity of impact and the spook stories of peers who have moved, only to find a role is box-ticking or like pushing water uphill. There are myriad reasons why a candidate may turn a job down. Over the 20+ years I’ve been doing this job I heard it all from the sublime (unexpected pregnancy after years of IVF) to the ridiculous (losing a driving license after being caught speeding when late for a shortlist interview), but here are 7 that are common across all levels:

  1. The candidate isn’t clear about the scope and direction of the new role.

Companies can spend a lot of time working out if the candidate is right for the role, and very little time figuring out if the role is right for the candidate. Exploring the structure, parameters and expectations of the position is a vital part of the process. Currently a client is inviting the candidate under offer to meet the team they will be working with. This is a useful step.

  1. Within ESG, the candidate has a concern about where a company (or department) is on their sustainable journey.

There are two sides to this. Firstly and most importantly, a hiring team may not have clearly articulated where they are in the cycle, or what the direction of travel is. They may not necessarily understand the challenges involved. ESG professionals have, for years, dealt with changes in regulations and focus, understaffed teams, tight deadlines and a lack of knowledge and understanding of what the department does. Candidates can understandably worry that they will be starting again and may have to effectively go backwards to go forwards. Secondly, a candidate may, in their current role be on the cusp of making the impact they were employed to do. Imagine building a large and complex lego model, only to abandon it before connecting the final blocks. That can be hard to walk away from.

      3. Money (and wider compensation)

At the start of a recruitment process there is often a bit of secrecy / uncertainty about the pay and benefit parameters. Companies can look to pay what they feel they can get away with rather than for what a job may be worth. In sustainability it’s still not explicit how a role may increase revenue or save money which leads to a bit of uncertainty over how to ‘price’ a candidate. People can view a salary offer often as a starting point for a negotiation. However, if an offer comes in well below where expectation levels have been set, the emotional transference of energy is affected. A candidate will feel undervalued, even if an offer is raised. Once that spell is broken, it can be hard to fix. Interestingly counter offers are rarely just about money; if an offer makes someone feel undervalued, then a counter-offer is easier to negotiate as you can draw on years of relationship with that person.

  1. It’s just not the right time to move.

This is tricky. Despite our best efforts, candidates can enter the process out of curiosity rather than a burning desire to move. They get swept up in the process, enjoy the experience of meeting others and the flattery that comes with it. They probably haven’t really thought about moving until they are forced to by an offer. When that offer comes in it tests someone’s buy-in. It’s important to evaluate whether the role represents a logical career step for them. If it seems illogical, then it probably is.

  1. The process lacks coherence

As a recruitment process concludes, it’s frustratingly common for additional stages to be introduced, more people wheeled out to take part and more time to elapse. This, in isolation, is not necessarily an issue. It can be a good thing; that gradual coming together of candidate and client can strengthen relationships and give the them time to evaluate whether the role is right or not. However, what can also happen is the sharing of information between stages lacks care and thought. A candidate can find themselves answering the same questions multiple times, or can’t really understand why someone is involved in the process. Messages may contradict. Being brutally honest, some people, despite their seniority do not possess good interviewing skills. They might not have been effectively briefed from colleagues. When a process is clearly defined from the start, and each stage is a continuation of the previous meeting, it should flow smoothly. Managing a candidate’s expectations from the first engagement is vital.

  1. The goalposts change

This can be a big thing (the scope of the role changes from first engagement to offer) or something fairly minor (the title differs to what is advertised). Things like hybrid working arrangements can become a sticking point. Candidates who have ‘earned’ flexibility from their current employer through good service are understandably reluctant to give it up. Bear in mind that a candidate may not have considered hygiene factors in the initial engagement. When an offer is made, things like commuting time, travel commitments and peripheral benefits become part of the calculation. Flush this out early and deal with it head on. If you don’t offer flexible working, brushing it under the carpet will only cause it to fester when the offer comes out.

  1. Factors Unknown

This may seem like a ‘cop out’, but the reality is in lots of situations the reasons for rejecting an offer are not explicit. Consider it a ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ scenario. Something somewhere just doesn’t feel quite right. The chemistry isn’t there and the candidate just can’t picture themselves in your business. The more you force it, the more they pull away. In my experience, unless there is a clearly defined reason given, accept it and move on. Anecdotally, I’ve seen a number of clients ‘settle’ for number 2 on the shortlist, only for that hire to go on and be amazing. A good shortlist should comprise a range of appointable candidates. Find the one that fits you and consider potential and scalability. 'Good enough' is not necessarily compromising. If you have run a watertight process more than one candidate at the end of the process may fit.

Candidates’ engagement is at its most fragile, strangely, between the penultimate and final interview. It is at that point where we ask more of them and they start to think more seriously and practically about moving roles. Having a pre-offer conversation that is less assessment and more ‘get to know you’ can have a positive impact on your chances of success.

Any situation where you are dealing with people is by its very nature unpredictable and nuanced, but getting it right should result in a much better fill rate.

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