Be the Bearer of Bad News

I have been a recruiter since 2003. I always, repeat ALWAYS, call candidates to let them know their status. For sake of argument, let’s say I submit five candidates for every position. Except in a couple of cases, where the client decided to hire two candidates because they could not choose between the “final finalists,” for every search I have done I have had to deliver bad news to at least four people. Clearly, I have made hundreds of “Sorry, but they have decided not to continue with your candidacy” calls. Maybe even a thousand. I don’t know. But I do know that in all this time I have only been yelled at once by a rejected candidate.

The impetus for this article was a call I just had with a candidate who my client rejected. It lasted five minutes. The man did not stop thanking me. He was grateful for the call. He told me that I was the only recruiter who called him back. (That is something I hear often and have experienced myself which, among other reasons, is why I do not like recruiters!)

So why do I make these calls? It is the polite thing to do. I know what it’s like to be on the other side of the phone. It’s the right thing to do. But it is also something that my first boss taught me.

As a student I had a job at the School for Overseas Students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I worked in Admissions. We were being computerized. The boss gave me responsibility for filling out the IBM data cards. (Remember Number 2 pencils?) It was a lot of work and I finished with a little time to spare.

I went home, proud of myself…until I woke up at 2 AM in a cold sweat realizing that I had made a huge error and would have to redo all the work. I had enough cards; I didn’t have enough time.

I got to the School at 7 AM when the gate to the building was opened. I immediately went to my office, turned on the lights, confirmed that I had, in fact, messed up big time, and got to work.

Around 8:00 the boss arrived. He saw the lights were on and came to the office. He asked what I was doing here so early (the guard had told him I had arrived at 7:00). Shaking, I stood up, apologized, said I realized at 2:00 that I had made a mistake, I knew that the work had to be submitted the next morning. I told him I would skip my classes and get everything done that day.

He told me that I would NOT skip my classes and that I would get the work done as soon as possible. I reminded him of the deadline. He told me that that was his problem, not mine, and to get the job done as quickly as possible, but not to miss my classes. He told me, “I have your back.”

The next day, after attending all of my classes, I completed the work and went to his office and told him. Then I waited to be fired.

He asked me what I was waiting for. I told him. He said, “I never fire anyone who delivers bad news. You made a mistake. You told me. You had a plan to correct it. I never fire anyone for making a mistake. I only fire people who make excuses and who do not take responsibility for their actions.”

Best boss ever! And that is why, in all my jobs, I always make sure that when there is bad news to deliver, I deliver it. That also eliminates the problem of someone else, who may not exactly like me (Yes, there are people like that!) delivering the news inaccurately and with a spin against me and in their favor.

In that regard, I remember once discovering that something had gone terribly wrong. The details don’t matter. A colleague, a rival, found out about it and went running to the boss, salivating at the thought of my imminent dismissal. He, and the boss, came to my office. The boss asked me what had happened and why I had not told him about it. I said, “It was an easy fix. I took care of it. There is no problem and nothing to bother you about.” My rival was gone by the end of the week…

So the moral of the story is: Don’t be afraid to be the bearer of bad news. You’d be surprised how many people appreciate it. You might even get a promotion or keep a client because they appreciate your honesty and problem solving abilities.