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How to Reject Grant and Job Applicants with Compassion During This Time

A couple of weeks ago, it was my responsibility to deliver bad news to a couple dozen people. This is an already challenging time for many and I was very sensitive to how I was about to make them feel. You see, the Archivist-in-Residence (AiR) program, received 10 highly qualified joint applications and we could only pick one. (Joint meaning a new professional and host site applied as a team = 20+ people). This meant that not only were we rejecting grant applications, we were also rejecting job applicants.

Prepare Your Compassionate Rejection Ahead of Time

The AiR team is comprised of highly emotionally intelligent people and we decided a couple months ago (pre-COVID) that we wanted to offer support to the applicants who weren’t selected. This decision is in keeping with our mission which is to advocate for new professionals in the field and support the institutions who are working to build paid internships. When I sent out the bad news I was prepared with the support offer the team came up with. I began the email notice in the usual way: “Thank you for applying, unfortunately you were not selected, it was a highly competitive application pool that helps to prove just how important this program is…” and then I got real. “I know this is crappy news during an already challenging time.” I delivered our prepared offer to share a summary of application notes, and I offered an hour of my time to both the new professional and the host site to strategize on anything they wished–from networking to other grant opportunities.

My Experience with Rejecting Compassionately

All but two applicants have responded back asking for application notes and took me up on the offer of my time and knowledge. So far, I’ve had several email and phone conversations where I’ve pointed host sites to grants they would be an excellent fit for and offered advice on how to make an even stronger application. And for newer professionals I openly and honestly answered all of their questions from what skills to acquire, to how to job seek, to how to be professionally involved; and I connected them to peers and resources to help propel them forward. I’m so proud that each of these people who received discouraging news, bravely took me up on my offer and really used the opportunity to get the support they needed. After each conversation I’ve felt joy that I could be of help, and optimistic that my advice may make a real difference to them during this hard time.

What I Learned

This whole experience has taught me two things: 1. That you really can give the gift of time; and 2. You can reject an applicant compassionately by still offering them support.

Now It’s Your Turn

During this time of extreme hardship for many, I encourage granting agencies and hiring organizations to brainstorm how they can imbue compassion into the rejections that must inevitably be sent out. First, acknowledge that this is a very difficult time for many and make a statement of empathy. Next, think of what resources you can provide to unsuccessful applicants. What knowledge can you offer to support them? Can you give the gift of 30-60 minutes of your time? Or send an introduction email to help connect people? There are likely actions you can take and resources at your fingertips that can make a difference to the person you’re sharing them with. I realize many of you are dealing with much larger numbers than a couple dozen, so I encourage you to think strategically as to how you can scale your delivery of support. Perhaps a blog post, how to video, or place on your website can host supportive material. Or, perhaps there’s enough staff to offer a few appointment slots on a first come, first served basis. Or, you can solicit questions and deliver a Q&A. My point is, there are many ways you can offer support smartly without it requiring significant labor, and if ever there was a time for you to incorporate compassion into your rejection practices, now is the time.

Stock photographs by Burak Kostak, via Canva. Image downloaded for use April 2020, and was not purposefully altered. All other image and text owned by Rachael Cristine Consulting LLC.

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