You’ve gone through a lengthy hiring process and you’ve settled on a final candidate. There’s been a good deal of back-and-forth with the hiring manager and his or her team. You’re all good with the selection, and then the worst happens. The candidate of your dreams turns you down. So now the best, brightest, most amazing choice for that role after your long hiring process is gone. First things first: Look deeper at your candidate experience. It might need some overhaul. But more importantly in the specific moment: You still have an open seat. You don’t necessarily want to restart the entire process again, because in all likelihood that final employee choice -- the one who just turned you down, sigh -- was selected from a final pool of 2-4 candidates. Good! So there are other candidate options who got to that final pool approved by the hiring manager and their team. But, now comes the big question: Should you be selecting one of those runner-up candidates and giving them the job offer? Or is it time to go back to the drawing board and start again?
The pros of hiring your second choice
Let's start with the positives. A lot depends on your runner up candidate and what the interview process was like. If this person was a close contender and the hiring manager or team was involved in their interview, then yes, it might be a good idea to extend an offer. Clearly, they made an impression and if all the other pieces of their interview check out (screening, assessment results, background checks, etc) then there's probably little danger of bringing them onboard.
If you decide to go this route, however, the most important consideration is language when you reach out to them. This candidate just got rejected (or might just never have heard from you again for weeks), and now you’re coming back to them with an offer or a request to re-interview. Be prepared for questions. Candidates are savvy and they know how long the typical hiring process is. Even if you haven't told them directly they're your runner up, they likely know. It's not uncommon for these candidates to ask questions, request larger salaries, or play hardball when negotiating. Some employers do come out and tell candidates “You are the back-up,” in which case these “You are now getting the offer” conversations are a bit easier. Be prepared to answer a new set of questions, though, such as:
- What happened to the first offered candidate?
- Are you prepared to offer more to me now?
- Is anything else flexible?
- What was the reason it didn’t work out for me the first time, and could that be an impediment if I take it now?
In these instances, honesty is the best policy. If you want this person to be a teammate, then don't try to lure them into taking a role they may now be unsure of. Instead, layout what happened, any concerns either side has, and look for the best way to move forward for everyone involved. And keep in mind, just because you want to hire the runner up does not mean they want to work for you any longer. Be prepared for them to turn you down as well and if that happens, be gracious to keep the door open in the future.
The cons of hiring your second choice
If they made it all the way to the final round, you should totally hire them, right? Well before you rush out the door, take a step back. If the two candidates were very similar, like in our "pro" scenario, they might be a safe bet. But what if there's a large gap between your number 1 and number 2 choices? In this scenario, hiring the second choice candidate could be a Pandora's box. If there is a large skill, experience, or personality gap between the two candidates, your second choice may have been passed over for very good reasons originally. It's important to think about the end team and company culture when making this decision, not just about filling an open role. Sometimes it is better to restart the hiring process than offer for the wrong person. In some cases, it's even cheaper to do this than to deal with early turnover of the second choice if things don't work out well. You don't want both job seekers and managers to regret taking a chance on the wrong fit. So when examining your runner up choice, ask yourself these questions:
- Did they meet all the job posting requirements?
- Were they interviewed by peers and if so, what did the team have to say about their culture fit?
- Did Human Resources flag any concerns or considerations the first time around?
- Have you had an honest conversation about where the hiring process is at now?
- Are you prepared to offer more to entice them to take the job?
It's also worth pointing out that if you first choice hires are consistently turning you down there may be more at play than just hiring competition. It might be time to examine your candidate experience, compensation package, interview process, length of the hiring process, and start collecting candidate feedback to see if there's anything you can do to improve your chances at a "yes" answer next time.
What if you’re the candidate in this situation?
This is a bit tricky psychologically. Obviously, none of us want to feel we’re the “back-up plan” or the “second-favorite child.” We all have a natural tendency to want that first slot or offer. So, in order for you to feel good about the job as a back-up candidate, you need to think a bit differently. It might help to ask yourself these questions:
- Is the company willing to offer anything more to entice you?
- Is the stated reason that you didn’t get the job something major, or can it be worked around?
- Were the team members you met nice and collaborative?
- Was your rapport with the hiring manager good enough to survive this start to the relationship?
If you can get to a good place with these questions, it’s worth taking the offer. If you don’t think you can get over being the second choice, then keep looking for the place you really belong instead of accepting. It may begin your employment there with a degree of resentment and when that happens no one wins.
How employers can keep runner-up (and others) in their pipeline
What about a scenario where both candidates were equally great and you had to make a tough call? It happens to everyone and rather than letting strong candidates get away, it's worth taking a long term look at your approach to talent acquisition. There is a concept called “candidate rediscovery” now, where an artificial intelligence program scans through your Applicant Tracking System (ATS) and finds ideal matches based on people who applied to previous jobs. Let’s say someone named Sam applied for a job two years ago; the AI would determine that his resume and ATS data from that period is a good fit for a currently-open role. Now you can contact Sam and see what his professional situation is. That’s one way to re-engage previous candidates with technology.
Beyond that, it’s about actually keeping in touch, such as:
- Send them relevant industry emails.
- Send them emails with openings.
- Encourage them to follow you on social.
- Invite them to local events that your company sponsors, such as speaker series, etc.
- Have recruiters send an email every 2-3 months to runner-ups saying “Hey, it was great meeting with you in our process. Sorry it didn’t work out. But we are growing and I wanted to see what’s happening with you now in case we have something open here soon…” That’s building a proactive pipeline, and it’s typically great for filling open roles.
Have a strong and diverse talent pipeline is the lifeblood for many organizations so there's no harm in letting your good candidates know you want to keep them in the mix and will reach other later if anything ever opens up
There’s definitely a lot of psychology and “Oops, we missed our top target!” at play when moving from Option 1 to Option 2 employer-wise, and when getting a job offer as the runner-up candidate-wise. But if runner-ups are treated with respect and engaged and communicated with, and if candidates look carefully at the different elements of the company now offering them a job, both sides can still find a great fit even if they were initially not meant to be.