Put rejection up-front

Study shows it's better that way

Nobody likes to receive a rejection letter, whether it pertains to a job, a query or a contract for goods and services. Similarly, in many cases, it may be equally difficult to deliver the bad news. However, for business people who want to avoid making a bad name for themselves, the old cliché remains true: “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”

Often, when issuing rejection letters, professionals try to spare the rejectee’s emotions while simultaneously attempting to maintain their credibility. Consequently, the approach that’s used-burying bad news deep within the letter-can do the exact opposite of both.

A recent study in the Journal of Business and Technical Communications shows businesses fare better when they offer rejection up-front, rather than placing it lower in the letter.

According to the research, readers who are surprised by the rejection respond the most negatively to the letters. The most effective approach is to give the refusal at the top of the letter, followed by a brief explanation for the refusal. Be sure to suggest an alternative or a compromise, when possible.

“The real goal is to make customers feel that they would do the same thing if they were in the business’ shoes,” says Kitty Locker, associate professor of English at Ohio State University.

Your rejection letter should follow these guidelines:

  • Refrain from the use of buffers. Buffers (neutral or positive sentences that delay negative information) never fully prepare the reader for the bad news they are about to receive. “Starting with the rejection doesn’t make the reader happy,” says Locker, “but most people are pretty savvy and can usually see right through a buffer.”
  • Offer an explanation. Include a reason for the refusal when it makes your organization look good. For example, “As the leader in the telecommunications industry, we are looking for someone with experience that can help us maintain our position going into the next century.” This is the best way to maintain your business’ respectability because it doesn’t make the reader feel that the rejection is personal.
  • Remember that positive endings aren’t necessary. Most businesses use this tactic as a way of maintaining a customer relationship. But there’s no need to end with things like “if we can be of assistance in another capacity” if you don’t really mean it. Similar to buffers, insincere positive endings are easily spotted, and may only serve to further upset the reader.
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