The Lost Art of Saying ‘No’

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The job market is about to become mighty busy, for young people in particular.

I read an article yesterday about a receptionist position in Manchester which had attracted over a thousand applications in 24 hours.

There is evidence that young people are the group most likely to be impacted in terms of the job market.

And as if that’s not enough for young people to digest, they are also bombarded almost daily with reports and studies highlighting the impact that Coronavirus and the lockdown is having on their mental health, such as this one.

These are incredibly challenging times for everyone. But for this particular group it must be especially difficult.

That one case in Manchester may be exceptional in terms of the number of applicants but it is an unfortunate indicator of what’s around the corner. The job market is going to be more crowded than a pre-pandemic Circle Line tube station during a Monday morning rush hour.

So, in terms of recruitment, employers have the whip hand. They are in control. But they also have a crucial part to play in supporting this particular group, possibly without even being aware of the fact.BLOG 13 2

It never ceases to amaze me how many stories I come across about people applying for jobs only to hear absolutely nothing back. Some do receive automated, bog standard email acknowledgements, true, occasionally followed up by ‘thanks but no thanks’ standardized emails, but it’s now unicorn-rare to hear of people receiving personalized rejections. It seems this is one convention – much like the modern two-line confirmatory employer reference, which I have to say I positively loathe – which has all but died out.

Way back in the mists of time, after I’d completed my undergraduate degree, and after convincing myself that I deserved a summer off, I proceeded to spend a whole autumn and winter applying for jobs. My original goal was to find a career in journalism or publishing. As a youngster I wanted to play cricket for England, but it quickly became clear that I possessed such little cricketing ability that I had as much chance of that as Tyson Fury has of succeeding the Dalai Lama. So I decided upon a career in sport somewhere but had given up on that one too as there appeared to be no obvious way in. All routes seemed closed to a 21-year-old with a very average degree and no experience.

In the end, having offered to work for nothing for the likes of the Keighley News, the Yorkshire Post and Wisden Cricket Monthly (each of whom were ever so polite but could offer me nothing in return) just to get a couple of lines-worth of experience on the CV, I had reluctantly to broaden my horizons and start applying for other work. I had a few interviews – with Mars, Virgin and NatWest, I remember – but nothing came of them. By the following Spring I’d got nowhere. Continued rejection does nothing for your confidence.

It struck me even back then, some 35 years ago, that companies were disinclined to spend any time at all on those people they had chosen to reject. Fine, you might think, that sounds normal. And what obligations should they have anyway? But we’ve slipped a long way from even those standards. Nowadays you’re lucky to get any acknowledgement at all. And I for one think that is not only lazy but also downright rude. It’s a terrible way of presenting yourself. And in the 2020s I don’t think there’s any excuse for it.

In my own case things turned out OK. Eventually I decided I had nothing to lose and wrote to all of the then 17 county cricket clubs offering to do a whole summer’s work for nothing but board and a bit of pocket money. A dozen of them wrote back. Glamorgan actually rang me up and invited me for a chat. I still have the letters I received from the individuals in charge of Lancashire, Leicestershire, Middlesex, Northamptonshire and Worcestershire. They went on to be colleagues. I still see a few of them every year. They became friends.

I was lucky. I was given a leg up and a chance by a gentleman called Philip Carling, who was in charge at Glamorgan at the time, and after six months he offered me a full-time position. I came to appreciate that the world of county cricket was special in terms of the principles and values held by many of the people who worked in it. And I never forgot that. Whenever anyone applied for a position we were advertising at Glamorgan I would ask that every application be acknowledged and that everyone who was subsequently turned down was contacted personally, even if it was just a few lines or a quick call. Not much to ask. Certainly not back then. But not every business or industry operated in the same way. Nowadays hardly any seem to do.

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I’ve had all kinds of rejections professionally (and personally too, but we’ll let that one slide), initially because of a lack of experience, which was understandable – though I still wrestle with the contradiction that is not having experience on the one hand and not being able to find a position in which to develop that experience on the other. Hey ho. In more recent times, it’s being considered over-qualified. Again, I struggle with this: if I didn’t want the position I was applying for, I wouldn’t have applied for it. Twice, after leaving Glamorgan, I was told that I was ‘too well-qualified’ for jobs. What would you have me do? Give a degree back or something? It’s soul-destroying to work to improve yourself only to be told you’ve taken it a couple of qualifications too far. Should have stopped learning, son.

Sorry. I digress. The point is that the person on the receiving end of an application will naturally be set back by the rejection. If it’s the latest in a long line of applications, they will have gone from miserable to angry to depressed and quite likely all the way back again. But applying for a job is hardly the same as bidding for something on eBay or retweeting something in the hope of winning a competition on Twitter. It’s very personal. There are real feelings involved. And as we emerge from lockdown, with all the carnage, chaos and wholesale job losses it has caused for everyone, it just isn’t good enough for businesses to be ignoring the fact that there is a person at the other end of the job application process. In saying this I’m going beyond the ‘if you don’t hear back from us by such-and-such a date, assume you’ve been unsuccessful.’ That’s bad enough when the job market isn’t being flooded by people desperate for any kind of opportunity. It may be understandable but it’s lame and it’s upsetting. To receive nothing at all, well, I hope the people recruiting in such instances can sleep at night.

I read somewhere recently where someone was suggesting flipping that kind of knuckle-headed excuse for communication (or lack thereof) on its head. They painted a picture of an employer receiving an automated email response from a candidate they had just offered a job to after a lengthy recruitment process, which said ‘Many thanks for offering me the position of XXX. If you haven’t heard back from me in the next ten days, please assume that I’ve chosen to reject your offer.’ How would the employer be viewing them? Rude? Arrogant? Well, that’s what you’re doing. And that’s how you’re being perceived. These people are human beings.

Take time to study what people are telling you about themselves. The majority take great care over their CVs, however thin the experience section might be. There is always something there that you can be positive about. It’s too easy to say that you’ve been inundated, or that you are looking for something that stands out. At least recognize those who have clearly put an effort into their submission. If it’s a slapdash, rush-job, by all means automate away; but if someone has been diligent, thorough and expresses genuine interest, show some empathy in return. Still too much to ask?

I learned a valuable lesson about the humanity of the process in the mid-2000s. After we’d promoted our Cricket Secretary, Caryl Watkin (who doubled as my PA), to the role of Operations Director, we set about recruiting someone to come in to do her old job and run much of the cricket admin. I left the recruitment process to Caryl as she would be their immediate line manager, though I was happy to review CVs and shortlists. I duly did so and fed back my observations. When Caryl had done the interviewing, she told me she wanted to offer the job to a young lady called Sarah Bell (now Sarah Hamilton). ‘But wasn’t she the one who wrote the really long application letter?’ I asked. It had been. Caryl had seen something in Sarah, and as she went on from Glamorgan to work for the England and Wales Cricket Board, she was shown to be spot on in her assessment. What Caryl was doing was trying to read between the lines; to look at the personalities behind the CVs and the letters. Having re-read it, Sarah’s letter was perfectly reasonable and her arguments well set out (just very long, as we’ve joked about on many occasions since). She was only looking for someone to give her a chance. I’m glad we did. And it reminded me of the need to put myself in the applicant’s shoes just as Caryl had done.

All this was similar to what had happened with me 20 years earlier. All I had wanted was for someone to open a door for me. Just a crack. I was confident enough to think I could do the rest. My way was writing to all the counties offering to work for six months for nothing. Philip Carling saw someone who was passionate and just wanted a chance (not to mention spying some cheap labour, let’s be honest!), though he would have had little idea, back in April ‘86, that the scruffy, long-haired, Arsenal-tank-top-wearing Yorkshireman he had invited in for a chat would go on to work for Glamorgan for almost a quarter of a century, 14 of those years doing the job he was doing then. You just never know.

Back in the 1980s recruitment was of course very different, and it’s so loaded against the jobseekers in 2020 as to be almost cruel. But I really I don’t think there is a genuine excuse for employers not to be treating candidates with more respect these days. Some will say they are too busy. Rubbish. We live in an age of instant electronic communications, where an emailed reply will take you less than a couple of minutes to compose and send. And that’s for a personalized one. Surely there can’t be any excuse at all for a business not bothering to acknowledge someone’s application at all. And even a rejection can be worded so that it is more of an encouragement than a dismissal. Many larger firms also have HR departments or use recruitment agencies. There are people dedicated to these processes. Manners cost nothing. And just because convention suggests you perhaps don’t need to respond doesn’t mean it isn’t still the right thing to do.

A good rule of thumb is to imagine your own son or daughter at the other end of the recruitment process. How would you like them to be treated? I’m not advocating that everyone who applies for every position in every company should be sent a detailed personal letter or anything. Clearly that is as impractical as it is idealistic. But please don’t tell me that ‘being busy’ or ‘we’re swamped’ are justifiable excuses for not providing some kind of acknowledgement, reply and explanation. We live in an age where even the very barest of impersonal communications seems to be acceptable; worse, where no communication at all is commonplace. It’s shabby.

We live in incredibly challenging times and there will be many, many people really struggling, absolutely desperate for any sort of opportunity, especially the groups in society that are emerging from lockdown in the most vulnerable positions. Remember that. Behave with integrity. Be the business that people remember for doing things the right way. Don’t automate everything. Don’t ignore people completely. Let them down gently if you can. Give them feedback. If you see something in them, tell them, even if you can’t offer them a position on that occasion. Tell them where they can improve themselves. Help them to remain resilient. They’re going to need to be. It could be a long haul for many of them.

We should always find time to be kind.

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