Robin Naughton, PhD

Job Rejections

Today’s job application process is badly designed, convoluted, and a test of sanity.  It is designed not to hire, but rather to check boxes and create negative experiences.  Going through the process, it is easy to notice that the systems and the humans don’t work well with each other.  The human-computer interaction is missing the user research necessary to make it useful and easy to use.

When thinking about job rejections, it is necessary to think about applications both as applying one’s self and applying to organizations.  In both cases, a decision occurs at a moment in time and space and can be visualized on a number line.

Number line

The zero bisects the line into positive on the right and negative on the left.  All things being stable, zero represents the current situation, neutral.  Life is what it is.  Applications generally begin at zero, the neutral zone.  The moment one decides to apply oneself or to an organization, one’s current situation has not yet changed. Submitting an application means that there is potential for change, positive or negative. Success can mean a positive change, a move to the right of the number line.  Lack of success does not necessarily mean negative change, a move to the left on the number line.  Many times, it means to remain at zero and start again.  Of course, there are times when to be unsuccessful will create a negative impact that changes one’s perspective on the current situation, but not always.  The truth is that one feels bad about being rejected, but many times, one may still be at zero rather than on the negative side.  Thus, rejections linger around zero and if it is an especially bad rejection, it gets a bit negative, but not so negative that it is far from zero.


Throughout life, people have learned to deal with the pain of rejection.  Sometimes, the negative experience can take on a larger role, creating more pain than necessary.  In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman suggests that negative experiences have a stronger impact than positive experiences.  Negative lingers longer and people are prepared to endure more pain to have a less negative experience.  For example, Kahneman describes an experiment where one hand endured pain in cold water for 60 seconds followed by a warm towel, and then the other hand endured pain in cold water for 60 seconds followed by a slow warming of the water for another 30 seconds (it was still painful).  Participants were asked which they would like to repeat and the majority (80%) would repeat the experiment that lasted 90 seconds because it ended with less pain than the experiment that last only 60 seconds with a lot of pain.  People were willing to endure an additional 30 seconds of unnecessary pain.


Job rejection is a form of pain that is endured much longer than necessary because there are occasional pleasantries.  The remembering self forgets the prolonged pain of the experiencing self and only remembers the nice letter that made the rejection less painful.  Unfortunately, there are not enough nice job rejection letters.

Job Rejections Taxonomy

Rejections can come from an automated system or directly from humans. In some cases, one can believe that a human actually pressed a button to activate the automation, but more and more one is convinced that humans are sometimes not involved at all.  The job application process creates a system, and systems, human and/or computer, have taxonomies.  Here’s a brief taxonomy of job rejections.

There are four types of job rejections and within each there are representations of system and human responses.

  • Black Hole – applications goes in but nothing comes out, unless there is some automatic debris.
  • Clogged – applications goes in but the response process is so slow you’re convinced that you need to get your own plunger.
  • Time Wasters – applications goes in, human communication, multiple interviews, and even references, but it is a drawn out process lasting months.
  • Respect, Maybe… – applications goes in, human communication, interviews, and possible continued human communication.

Some responses to the types of job rejections:

Job Rejections Responses


Job rejections come in many flavors and styles, but more and more they are coming from automated systems that are convinced non-humans are applying to jobs.  Yes, a human may have crafted the boilerplate words that appear, but those words are all the same regardless of person, job, interaction, human communication, or what occurred throughout the application process.  At the beginning of the process it is an expectation but once there is human contact, the expectation changes to reflect the possibility of human communication.  Meeting people in an interview is a sign that they exist, and if the rejections came with a similar sign (that the humans you met are not androids), there might be a pleasant end to the experience.