There are many articles on how to recruit and hire talented candidates, but few that are focused on how to politely, yet emphatically, reject unqualified candidates who just won’t take no for an answer. Just ask Ray Costello, ex-CIO of jewelry manufacturer Donald Bruce & Company, based in Chicago. Costello could easily fill a book relating “weird but true” candidate rejection scenarios.

While getting a candidate’s interest is “half the battle, as you’ve sold the job,” a bigger battle looms when a candidate just won’t accept rejection, despite the fact that you’ve told her or him directly or have sent a “thanks for applying, but…” letter, said Costello.

“Suddenly, you’re inundated with phone calls, letters, e-mails, and surprise appearances, even though you sent a clear message that they’re not being considered for the position,” he explained, recalling several incidents in which nonhired candidates tested his patience.

A gym dandy
As his first example of the lengths to which overzealous candidates will go, Costello related an incident in which a relentless job seeker followed him into a gym shower. It occurred about eight years ago when Costello, then director of IT for a large Midwest retail chain, was seeking an operations manager to run the data center. The talent pool was pretty thin, but plenty of C-grade candidates were applying, he recalled.

Costello interviewed a candidate who submitted a great resume that turned out to be extremely misleading (the candidate was actually a salesman in a luggage store). After the brief interview, during which Costello made it clear that the job was not the candidate’s for the taking, Costello headed to his gym for a lunchtime workout.

“I was taking a shower and the guy next to me says, ‘How’d I do on the job interview?’ It was the lathered-up luggage salesman, and he proceeded to enlighten me about his computer experience,” related Costello, noting that it’s “hard to explain how bizarre it was conducting a formal interview with a person and then find yourself standing naked with him in the shower.” Right then and there, Costello reiterated how running a cash register was not relevant computer experience, and there was no way the candidate could be considered for the job.

“The next day, I had to listen to him while we soaked in the whirlpool and then he showed up next to me the next day when I was riding the stationary bike. He didn’t stop being my lunchtime workout buddy until I told him I filled the position. I think he thought he would grow on me over time,” said Costello.

Candidate tenacity driven by economic crunch
Costello’s experience with aggressive candidates is becoming more common than ever these days as the job hunter population grows—spurred by a tough economy and longer unemployment periods, according to Bob LoPresto, president of the technology practice at Palo Alto, CA, executive search firm Rusher, Loscavio, and Lo Presto.

What should tech leaders do when slightly off-the-wall candidates refuse to accept rejection? The first tactic is to be tough and firm and present the rejection with irrefutable language, explained LoPresto. Make sure the candidate gets a formal rejection letter, and that HR is copied.

Costello knows the routine only too well, but also knows that even the strongest letter might not get the message across these days.

“With the scarcity of jobs, we find that we are dealing with more aggressive job hunters, many of whom refuse to take no for an answer,” he said, recalling how one candidate’s mother pulled out all the stops to get her son a job. This time, Costello was hiring programmers and had just concluded a long day of interviews when the switchboard operator called and said he had a visitor in the reception area—someone named Mrs. Howard.

In the lobby, he was immediately bear-hugged by a woman who introduced herself as Kyle Howard’s mother—Kyle being a 30-year-old programmer who had been interviewed earlier in the week.

“She brought me a bag of food and a craft plaque that she made with little painted marshmallows which spelled out ‘I love my job,’” related Costello, “and was there to thank me for hiring Kyle.”

The element of surprise caught the tech leader off guard, and he responded by indicating that Kyle was a strong candidate, but interviews were ongoing.

“She told me that Kyle was out in the car and she could bring him in for me to see him again,” said Costello, adding that “this sweet little mother turned into a high-pressure appliance saleswoman and she battered me until I couldn’t take it anymore.”

Kyle’s mom tried to follow Costello up the stairs, and “would have followed me into the men’s room if she had the chance.” As soon as the tech leader got back to his office, he asked his administrative assistant to type up a thanks-but-no-thanks letter for Kyle Howard and send it out immediately.

“I debated whether to send it to Kyle or to his mother,” he noted.

A few days later, he got a call from Mrs. Howard.

“She angrily scolded me for not hiring her son. The marshmallow plaque that said ‘I love my job’ did hang in my office for over five years. Thank you, Mrs. Howard, and I’m sorry about your son,” said Costello.