Every once in a lucky while, you’ll reach the end of the interview process with two candidates who would both make a great addition to your company. While you might have a hard time deciding between them, ultimately something will tip the scales in one candidate’s favor–perhaps one has more experience under their belt, or possesses hard-to-find skills. It can be tough to let that other candidate know that you’ve chosen someone else for the job–but the good news is, you don’t need to let them go entirely.
“It’s always beneficial” to nurture relationships with second-place candidates, says Gene Brady, director at SCN–Search Consulting Network. “‘Second-place’ candidates have many times been the one to receive the offer, for a wide variety of reasons–the first-place candidate withdraws . . . or the first-place candidate doesn’t pass the drug or background check. Also, the next assignment that comes in may fit the second-place candidate so nicely they become the first-place candidate for the role.”
But how exactly can you keep a second-place candidate interested if you don’t have an opportunity for them at the moment? Here are a few of the top tips.
Let them down gently
An interested candidate never wants to hear that they didn’t get the job, but if you message it correctly, you can leave them feeling good about themselves and open to future opportunities. It shouldn’t feel artificially cheery or phony, though–make sure you’re authentic in your response.
“If we think the person is a good fit, we make that known,” says Marc Prosser, cofounder of FitSmallBusiness.com. “Often, we, or our recruiter, will have a phone conversation with them that goes like this: ‘We had lots of great candidates who applied for the position. We think you would be a great addition to our company, however, [we] have chosen to offer the position to another candidate. Would you be open to hearing from us in the future?'”
You may even want to share specific feedback on why they weren’t selected for the role, says Paul Freed, cofounder of Herd Freed Hartz.
“Explain the decision to go with another candidate . . . Offer any interview feedback if needed, but also say it was a tough decision on the team, and you would love to hire both but just don’t have the budget right now, and that you’d [like] to stay close for future opportunities,” Freed says.
If you know a timeline of when that budget might come in, or when a role fitting their experience and skills may open, make sure to share that with them.
Establish ongoing communication
HR experts agree that the best way to keep a strong candidate interested in your company is to proactively engage with them.
“Emails where you check in are great for nurturing candidates. You can also call or text, asking how everything is going–maybe asking something about what you discussed during interviews (pursuit of a degree, certification, or other topics),” says hiring and onboarding consultant Jen Teague. “Everyone wants to be memorable for the right reasons, and these modes of contact are a great way to do that. You don’t have to become a buddy, just a reference or point of contact for the company. That way, you are fresh in the candidate’s mind, and he or she will be more likely to apply again in the future.”
Make sure that this outreach isn’t just a one-time thing, though, cautions HR consultant and author Joshua M. Evans.
“Follow up with them every few weeks. This is often overlooked because it is cumbersome, but following up with a potential candidate every few weeks can not only keep [them] interested, it can also build their appreciation for your organization,” Evans says.
Other creative ideas for staying in touch with a candidate include sending a monthly update, inviting them to a company open house or even sending them a small gift, Freed says. If you have the budget for it, you may even want to “consider adding this person for an advisory role or consultant for a special project.”
And of course, keep candidates in the loop regarding new opportunities.
Message, “email, or call the candidates periodically when new jobs are available, and encourage them to apply for jobs on a short list if they meet qualifications. When there’s news about an upcoming hiring phase, notify them and recommend applying if they are interested,” says Tes Akhtar, recruiting and HR development consultant for Potent Pages.
Be honest on timing
It’s understandable to want to keep a candidate on deck, but if you’re interacting with them for months on end and have no idea when a relevant position will open, you need to let them know.
“One important caveat is to NOT lead [candidates] on. Do not give them false hope as your backup plan,” Evans says. “Remember that if they were a good fit for your organization, then they would probably be a good fit for someone else’s. Don’t hold them back from progressing their careers because you want them waiting in the wings.”
For example, “If a position isn’t going to be open for three months, we tell the person up front and let them know we will periodically check in with them,” Freed says.
That being said, as long as you’re open about what the candidate can expect, there’s nothing wrong with engaging with them as long as they’re still interested.
“There are always future opportunities,” Freed adds. “We value relationships, and look to maintain the good ones. Many times we’ve presented people with multiple opportunities through the years, and then bam–one lines up well for them, they receive an offer, and it was our sustained relationship that kept the door wide open.”
So the next time you have to choose between two stellar candidates, don’t lament having to let one of them go–see it as a valuable opportunity to grow your talent pool.