My sister is job hunting, and recently had an interview that went really well. The company called her for a second round, which she also aced, so the hiring manager invited her back for one last meeting with the entire team. But then, a couple of days later, she received a bewildering email from the firm. With no explanation, they informed her that they had hired someone else.
Another friend went through a similar scenario. She had two home-run interviews for a position in hotel management. After checking her references (glowing!), the HR manager told her they wanted to move forward with an offer and that she would hear from them the next day. When 48 hours passed without a peep, she checked in only to be told that they were no longer in a position to extend a formal offer.
Sometimes the reason why you didn’t get a job is a no-brainer: You lacked key qualifications, you and the exec clashed, you flubbed the interview. But it’s not always personal. Frequently, there are behind-the-scenes factors at play that influence a position’s status.
We convinced HR professionals to pull back the curtain and reveal seven insider explanations top-notch candidates ultimately didn’t get the job.
Can’t Get a New Job?
The Budget for the Position Wasn’t Approved
You’d think that if a company went to the trouble of posting and interviewing for a position, they’d have already gotten the budget green-lit, right? Not so. “Sometimes jobs are posted with confidence that the budget will go through in time to make a hire, but for one reason or another, internal forces change the winds and cancel the requisition,” says Brian Browning, founder and CEO of the management consulting company Consuleris. Browning once worked with an organization that had a manager who wasn’t performing well; his request for an assistant was nixed at the last minute because higher-ups believed he wanted to find someone to do the work he was incapable of.
Even if the salary for a new hire was given the go-ahead prior to posting the position, that decision can be reversed. Aoife Quinn, founder of Quinn HR Consulting Group, once worked with a firm whose profits for a popular product line dropped unexpectedly. The company reacted by putting things on hold while it conducted an investigation into what had gone astray. “I’ve also frequently experienced executives who realize at the end of the year that they need to adjust fourth-quarter numbers to meet financial goals, so they tighten their budgets and instigate a last-minute hiring freeze,” says Quinn. If you apply to a job in the fall and the hiring manager mysteriously falls off the map, it might pay to bide your time and stay on good terms — the job could reopen after the first quarter of the new year.
Someone Else Was a Stronger Match
You could be an outstanding candidate, but another prospect was more closely in line with what the company’s looking for. “Sometimes the person who got the job simply dazzled everyone in her interview, or had amazing experience with widget making, which wasn’t mentioned in the job description but happens to be an area the company is expanding into next year,” says Alison Green, author of the workplace advice blog Ask a Manager. “In this job market, employers generally get flooded with well-qualified candidates, which means that you might have been someone they would have been thrilled to hire, except that Candidate B just happened to be a better fit in some specific way.”
Or perhaps the hiring team changed its vision for the role since posting the job. “For instance, maybe another employee just resigned and so now they’re looking for someone with additional skills to cover that work too, or they just learned they’re going to need a Spanish speaker for a new campaign, or all sorts of other possibilities,” adds Green.
There could also just be a cultural clash. No matter how great you are, there’s bound to be some organization or supervisor you won’t click with. “The hiring manager might know something you don’t about the job that’s totally unrelated to your qualifications. Whether to hire you or not isn’t just a question of having the skills to do the job, it’s also a question of fitting in well with this particular position, with this particular boss, in this particular culture, and in this particular company,” explains Green. “Maybe you seem like you’re too fast-paced to thrive in their slow, bureaucratic environment. Maybe they need someone with an insanely thick skin because the boss is a jerk. Often, one personality type will simply fit better into a team than another.”
Finally, another applicant might have a leg up on a personal level — maybe they went to the same college as the hiring manager, or they both spend summers in the Outer Banks. If a manager is choosing between two qualified options, those little points of common ground can be a deciding factor.
Restructuring Eliminated the Position
Any major upheaval at the company can delay hiring. “Since these are top-level decisions, often the recruiting team simply gets word that an open position is being put on hold without knowing the real reason why,” says Quinn. For instance, maybe the firm is in the process of being purchased and the new owner wants to take things in a different direction; the company is merging with another organization, so there’s overlap in positions; or a current employee is moved into the open role to save them from a layoff. Another possibility: Certain business functions are being relocated.
Along the same lines, a shift in management — whether with the job’s direct supervisor (say, the hiring manager is fired) or at the executive level — can lead to a dropped position. “If there’s a senior leadership reorganization, it’s quite common to hold off on hiring for non-critical positions to give the new management a chance to structure their teams,” explains Quinn.
If you suspect this might be the case and you really love the firm, keep in touch with the hiring manager. “Explain that you’re sorry it didn’t work out but you’re still super interested in the company, and follow the hiring manager and company on social media sites such as Twitter and LinkedIn,” Quinn says. “You may find that a job for you will open up in a year or so.”
A Team Member Raised a Red Flag
It turns out the most seemingly random minutiae can make or break your job offer. In the final round of interviews, Quinn has seen a candidate vetted for mentioning her child’s illness (even though there were no attendance problems on her record, the manager was worried she’d need time off) and another cut after asking what the hours were (the hard-driving team felt it showed a lack of commitment).
“Hearsay about a candidate is also a common issue,” adds Quinn. “If a decision maker has heard negative gossip, even if it’s baseless, they might unfortunately pass up a great applicant.” Google your own name to make sure there aren’t any falsehoods flying around — and if you find something, correct it immediately. And of course, most interviewers check out applicants on Facebook, so scan your profile for questionable photos and comments. “In my opinion, you should not post anything that you wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing printed on the front page,” says Quinn.
Politics Came Into Play
So you’ve had several rounds of interviews, been promised an offer, and then … crickets. When you reach out to your contact for a status update, she’s cagey. What gives? One possibility is that a senior-level staffer exerted her influence over the decision, strongly “suggesting” that the hiring manager interview a different candidate (a friend of hers, a board member of another company who could give her leverage, etc.). “If the manager doesn’t have enough of a backbone to go to bat for the candidate she truly believes in, she could be persuaded to instead hire someone who has an in with the executive team simply because she’ll get brownie points for it,” says Quinn.
The Hiring Manager Is Overwhelmed
It’s a Catch-22: Frequently, the more urgently a new staffer is needed (be it because the team is down a couple of people or there’s an uptick in clients), the less of a priority management makes finding someone. When a supervisor is saddled with extra work, hiring often falls to the bottom of the list because she can’t carve out time to accomplish what needs to be done in order to bring a new person on board. In the long run, she’s hurting herself by putting off the task.
“In my experience, it’s most often internal inertia that causes the delay or cancellation of a new hire,” says Browning. “People would be surprised to know how many hiring managers can’t make time in their schedule to follow the necessary steps to make the hire happen, and as a result the position flounders indefinitely.” They fail to submit the appropriate paperwork, send post-interview assessments, or make themselves available for candidate interviews and follow-ups. “If there’s a big gap of time between submitting your resume, the screening call, and/or the in-person interview, that’s a sign the process is internally disorganized,” says Browning.
You’re the First Candidate They Interviewed
The deck might be stacked against those who meet with the team early on. If you’re among the first to interview in a long hiring process where several candidates are being considered, you may not be remembered as well as someone introduced later on. “The candidate who’s freshest in the hiring manager’s mind often has an edge — it’s human nature,” says Quinn. Even if you received an enthusiastic response during the interview, a fabulous new candidate can swoop in and steal the spotlight.
In addition, unless you have a differentiator that no one else can offer the company, it may not be smart to become the person they measure other applicants against. “When organizations benchmark candidates, they’re hoping to find someone even stronger,” says Quinn. To avoid being trapped in the first candidate slot, do your best to schedule a later interview date. “Ask the hiring manager when they are starting to see people, and try to come in towards the end of the process,” suggests Quinn.
The Position Was Filled Internally
Do you ever feel like the hiring manager is playing mind games with you? She’ll send you an enthusiastic email, then go MIA for days. Is she into you, or not? What could be at play when she’s hot and cold: The position you applied for might have never actually existed in the first place — in other words, all along the company was planning to give the job to a current employee and was just going through the motions. It’s definitely not cool, but it does happen.
“Management or HR may have decided that to be fair, a full hiring process needed to be followed, when in reality, they knew all along who would be placed in the role,” says Browning. “Sometimes managers stage this to avoid appearing too controlling, i.e., by handpicking people for a position and not letting others apply.” Other times, private companies have policies stipulating that jobs be posted publicly — having more people in the applicant pool improves the chance of landing a great hire. And for government jobs or contractors, it’s usually a legal mandate that positions must be advertised.
In other words, it’s not you, it’s them.
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