The Email Unsent: Please Don't Hire [Candidate]



Some time ago I had a bizarre interview over Zoom. The candidate arrived late to our remote interview and said they had to work a few minutes. I waited patiently until the candidate was ready.

During the remainder of the interview the candidate was distracted and occasionally paused so that they could work and respond to work messages. I can't confirm they were working because we were not screen sharing, but that is besides the point. I couldn't get through the whole interview because the candidate was constantly elsewhere, looking at a different screen, typing on a different computer. They did ok in the questions I was able to ask, but I gave the candidate a Strong No for being inconsiderate and unprofessional. If the candidate was too busy for work they should have rescheduled. That would have been the simple, professional solution to an extremely busy day or work emergency.

When the interview panel convened I described my experience. Others had similar experiences but not as bad as mine. The candidate had been distracted and late but was especially distracted in my interview. Much to my surprise my boss, HR manager, and peer started defending the candidate.

The candidate is extremely busy with work - we all know what that is like.

They are really stressed out with work. It was difficult for us to schedule the interview with them.

We really need this position and the candidate has the ideal qualifications.

Not those exact words, but the meaning was the same. My team was desperate to hire this person. They were willing to overlook their behavior in my interview.

I was shocked and disoriented. Did my boss hear me? Did they hear how unprofessionally this person had acted? Did they hear my "Strong No"? Surely they must have misheard me. I wanted to follow up immediately but I waited until the end of the meeting to make my plea.

I strongly recommend not hiring this person. The candidate should respect our time just like we respect theirs. They should have rescheduled instead of working during my interview.

We spent a few more minutes discussing my concerns but nothing changed. My Boss chose to extend an offer.

After the meeting I was exasperated. I felt like I was disrespected by the candidate. I felt like my evaluation was not considered by my team. If the candidate had acted that way while interviewing with my boss then my boss would have stopped the interview process immediately.

I wondered if I didn't communicate well enough during the interview panel. Did I do a poor job of describing my interview? Did I fail to support my evaluation? I decided I would write an email to clarify the candidate's behavior and support my evaluation.

For about an hour I ignored my coding tasks and started writing why we should hard-pass. I tried to balance my tone while writing. I wanted to be sincere but not dramatic. I tried to argue objectively. If my boss would not listen to me then surely they would listen to reason! I rewrote each sentence multiple times, hunting for the precise wording.

Soon I had writers block. I could not write this email without sounding angry. I had reasons to pass on the candidate but my strong emotions were detracting from my argument. I pulled myself away from the screen. Maybe I should try again tomorrow? I stopped searching for the reasons on the screen. I leaned back, looked upwards, and took a breath. Maybe if I relaxed I could make my point without sounding inflamed.

I started sifting through my thoughts. I made an odd connection between my situation and the 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bartering, depression and acceptance. I wasn't grieving but it seemed to me that I was in the anger phase transitioning to the bartering phase. I had nothing to barter with but I felt like I was trying to reason away the candidate. Next I would sulk and despair because the decision had already been made. Finally I would accept that some decisions were not mine to make. If you include my initial shock as denial then I would be going through the same fated stages as someone grieving, except my problem was much smaller and my progress much faster.

I felt silly for being so sensitive. My team was making a mistake but people must make mistakes to learn from them. I would suffer but they would suffer more and learn from it. They were hiring someone they would work closely with, not I. They would struggle to collaborate with a person who was always elsewhere. Who knows? Perhaps the candidate would find some work-life balance at MediaAlpha and collaborate wonderfully.

No! Those were defeatist thoughts. My team will make mistakes but I decided I must not stay quiet. Defeatist silence would also be a mistake. I've made that mistake a few times. Hiring is the most important task we undertake. We should prefer to pass on candidates instead of assuming they will act better at MediaAlpha. That was how we judged every other candidate. That was how we must judge this candidate.

I was aware I was moving backwards from bartering towards anger. I reasoned with myself. This wasn't personal. Having a personal opinion on why we shouldn't hire this person would be silly. I shouldn't take the candidate's behavior personally. I shouldn't take my boss's decision personally. Though I was angry, my opinion would be strictly professional.

Then lightning.

This was personal and I shouldn't deny it. That was the point. I am a person and their actions offended me. I shouldn't stifle my emotions. I should understand why I felt this way. Why was I offended?

The answers were clear. I was flooded with understanding. I was offended because I had been in the candidate's situation and acted differently. Maybe a harder position! At the end of my first software job I was tasked with extreme overtime, but I managed to interview and behave professionally. That was why I was angry. I felt slighted because the standards applied to me were higher than the standards applied to the candidate. If I had acted that way in my interviews I wouldn't have been hired.

With insight and renewed energy I spent another hour redrafting the email. The new version used my personal anecdote to justify rejecting the candidate. I was inspired by a passage from the novel DeathWing, in which a squad of space marines must argue a difficult decision of loyalty. Instead of strong words, they use the old ways and argue by accounting a relevant experience.

By long tradition, he must be the first to speak. A gathering of warriors was not an argument in the formal sense, where words were used as weapons to count coup on the enemy. It was a pooling of experience, a telling of stories. Words must not have sharp edges on which to snag anger. He chose his carefully.

The purpose of sharing your experience is that the experience stands on its own, away from you. You leave the experience up for interpretation by the listener. You have your experiences, they have theirs, and from those seeds wisdom grows.

Unlike the protagonist in that story I had to communicate more directly, but I would let my story do most of the arguing. I drafted the email, reviewed it, took a lunch break, then reviewed it again. Staring at the email I started to feel like my story was overkill. My story was too dramatic. It read like fiction. But it was real! It really happened to me! I really did work 16 hours a day! And weekends! And I was denied PTO to visit my grandmother when her cancer went out of remission! AHHHHHH!

At the peak of my anger I reached another moment of clarity. I archived the email and deleted it. I never sent it.

My boss was incredibly busy, hardworking, and had already made their decision. Perhaps I was still raw from the SpeedTax experience, even after a decade. The email was personal, I was certain, but was it also professional? In time I would know if I was doing the right thing. I would be patient and remember the moment I didn't send the email. I couldn't know everything. I decided I must not overreact.

Thankfully the candidate didn't accept the offer. At first the candidate was unresponsive to the offer. After two weeks the candidate rejected the offer due to a family emergency. I don't care if the candidate was being honest. I was grateful my company had probably dodged a bad hire. I was relieved.

Below is a draft of the email. Had I written it today I would have made some improvements and fixes. Instead, I have left the email largely unedited. It is important to remember how I felt at that moment. I felt disoriented, exasperated, panicked and betrayed. Those emotions were overreactions to a common situation of being overruled. I felt them largely because of my traumatic experience at SpeedTax. By not sending that email I reached the acceptance stage and found my wisdom.

Posting it online doesn't feel the same as sending it. I'm not trying to shame anyone. I still feel my boss's decision was a mistake, but that isn't the point. I hope that anyone who reads this article will understand. I aim to share my experience. We carry our traumas with us, but they must not govern our reactions.

You can't help feeling what you feel. You are human. But sometimes you don't send the email.

The Email

Dear [Boss] and [HR Manager],

Some number of years ago I was tasked with rewriting the entire SpeedTax webapp front end within a month. SpeedTax was in the final stages of short-selling to Wolters Kluwer so that investors could exit an unprofitable venture. The SpeedTax webapp had originally been coded by a consulting company which had not been fully paid. The consulting company was going to sue unless the webapp no longer used their code upon sale. Pretty sensational. Even more sensational once we found out it was a SpeedTax employee who notified the consulting company of the sale!

That month remains as the hardest month of work in my life. I worked every day, often 16 hours a day, but always more than 12 hours. Lunch was always quick. I don’t remember eating breakfast or dinner. I don’t remember much of anything… except my interview with GaiKai.

At the beginning of that month I decided that Wolters Kluwer would not be a good fit for me. I didn’t have time to search for a job. I figured I would leave some time after the sale and take a break while I searched. A friend at GaiKai serendipitously reached out to me and connected me with their recruiter.

We scheduled an interview for some weekday. I told my boss that I was going to interview at GaiKai sometime in the afternoon then return for work. I then drove to GaiKai and arrived early so that I could find parking, locate the GaiKai office, and meet with the recruiter. I met with 3 technical interviewers, the last of which was the CIO. Afterwards I returned to SpeedTax, worked late in the evening, printed out and signed the offer letter from GaiKai and resumed working. I worked extra late that night to make up for missed work. Four weeks later the SpeedTax front end was rewritten and the sale was finalized. As per my letter of resignation I left the following day.

During the hardest month of work in my life I was able to schedule time for an interview, physically arrive for the interview ahead of time and negotiate the limited PTO with my panicked employer. Finding a new job was very important to me hence I made time for the interview despite tremendous work pressure. Even though I was very stressed from work, I never once mentioned the situation at SpeedTax during the GaiKai interview. Why should GaiKai care? The GaiKai engineers and CIO were in the middle of a very stressful product launch and under severe pressure and time constraints. We were in similar situations.

I feel we should pass on [Candidate] because [Candidate] has already failed some minimum requirements. It is probable that [Candidate] is overworked and stressed out. I feel for [Candidate] but they will probably have to work hard at MediaAlpha too. I want to work with Senior Engineers who can professionally deal with scheduling constraints and their own stress levels. [Candidate] does not seem able to do either. [Candidate] did not have to physically arrive anywhere. [Candidate] is working from home and doesn't actually have to ask their employer for PTO if they feel their employer would reject the request. If [Candidate] is overworked, wants a new job, and is interested in MediaAlpha then they should rationally prioritize our interview. More over we are busy people and [Candidate] should respect our time as they respect their own.

- Randy

© Randy Pensinger