How to write the perfect rejection letter

Mounting layoffs are creating a glut of qualified and aggressive job hunters who are desperate for work. As their frustration grows, more applicants are reading deeper into their rejection letters—sometimes spotting job promises or hints of discrimination that you never intended.

While a well-written rejection letter can actually boost company good will, a few misplaced words may spark a lawsuit fire that burns for years.

That’s especially true now. Employee lawsuits typically spike during recessions, and this one seems to be no exception. A new government report says job discrimination claims filed with the EEOC climbed 26% in the past two years.

Your goal: Write legally safe rejection letters that also don’t anger the applicants. Here are seven tips, some of which slay long-held myths about rejection letters:

1. Don’t say anything about the experience and qualifications of other candidates, either individually or as a group. Don’t say you decided to hire another person who is more qualified or that you received applications from several more-qualified candidates.

Hiring for Attitude D

Reason: “A lawyer for a rejected employee who files a legal complaint may ask for the applications of the employee who was hired and the top candidates,” says employment lawyer Louis DiLorenzo, of Bond, Schoeneck & King, in New York City.

2. Don’t say, “We will keep your résumé on file should a suitable opening occur in the future.”

If you later discard or misplace the résumé and hire someone with inferior qualifications, you could be vulnerable to legal action. 

3. Don’t suggest the candidate apply for future jobs, and don’t recommend specific openings.

Reason: It could give the impression that you believe the applicant is qualified for at least one other job in the organization. Candidates who receive repeated rejections for different jobs from the same company could become frustrated enough to strike back legally.

4. Do make the letter short and direct, but gracious and polite. It’s OK to use a form letter, but personalize it by inserting the applicant’s name.

5. Do thank the person for applying for the position. Then get straight to the point. Wish the candidate good luck in the future, and thank the person for taking an interest in the organization. Sign the letter “sincerely” or “best wishes.” Include your name and job title.

6. Don’t use phrases such as “I’m sorry” or “unfortunately.” They feed the rejected candidate’s negative feelings.

7. Do write the letter soon after making a hiring decision. Unnecessarily dragging out the wait for several weeks or months builds resentment toward the organization.

A simple, safe rejection letter …

Dear (name),

Thank you for sending your résumé in response to our advertisement for an IT support specialist. We are unable to offer you an interview at this time.

We appreciate your interest in our company, and wish you much success in your future endeavors.

Very truly yours,