Behind the Scenes: Rejection

As you advance in your career, the onus will be on you to call the shots.  Sometimes, that involves rejecting perfectly good applicants from a program they are overqualified for.  In these situations, it’s really important to remember how you felt in the past so that you can help them move forward in the future.

I have been actively involved in one of my company’s professional networks for over five years.  Last year, I took on a role in the leadership team in the professional development area.  My focus is on the formal mentorship program, which I have benefitted from personally.  I have spent the past year working to make the program stronger, and we are finally at our new season, which is all mine to lead.  I expected a couple longer days as applications were organized.  I expected a couple longer nights catching up on work as we were spending days meeting with the team to discuss potential mentors.  I expected a couple disappointments when our “ideal mentors” from the C-suite were too busy to take on the role.  I did not expect the hardest part would be rejecting perfectly good applicants from the program.

Can’t Everyone Get a Trophy?

I mean, mentor?  Unfortunately, no.  Through the program, we match qualified candidates with top executives in the firm – the COO, the CIO, the CFO, etc. and their direct reports.  Their time is extremely valuable, some are unable or unwilling to make time, and there are only so many of them.  We accept 10 candidates annually, and make a point to match them with mentors that fit their area of interest and their long term goals.  We have events throughout the year for all the mentors and mentees.

The truth is there are also some applicants who are not appropriate to put in front of the executive committee as representatives of our program.  We don’t accept people who are failing to meet expectations in their position or not presenting themselves professionally.  At the end of the day, every person selected is a representative of our program and of us as a leadership board.

We’ve All Faced Rejection

For my own part, I was rejected last year from a leadership program I had eagerly applied for.  I had thought my application would be one of the strongest, and so I was extremely disappointed when I was not accepted.  I felt like I had failed.  Even worse, I reached out to ask about my application, and I realized as soon as they started explaining that one of my five essays had been misinterpreted.  In focusing on my desire to delegate and mentor as needed to provide opportunities for others to learn, I had failed to talk about the hours spent coaching and leading to ensure the program would be successful after I stepped down.  A bit more editing and clarification (and another set of eyes) likely would have secured a spot.  Should have, would have, could have.

Whether it be a breakup in a relationship or friendship, a job offer not extended, a school or program you’re not accepted to, or any other situation where you’re passed over for someone else, it is all rejection.  There’s usually an initial sting, but with time the disappointment fades.  ​

Moving On: Finding Bigger and Better

After the initial shock, I usually start with a tub of ice cream.  Then I trudge over to the gym guiltily, having just eaten my feelings.  I admit it: I’m not perfect.  However, once that initial shock wears off, I make a point to reach out and ask what I can do to improve or if there is something I could have done.  Then I try to learn from it.

We all know “the steps.”  First, telling yourself it will get better and separating the “failure” from your personal identity.  Second, taking time to learn about how you can improve in the future.  Third, finding something outside of yourself to focus on, whether it be learning something new, traveling, working out, or spending time with friends or family.  It’s a process, though.  It involves time and patience.

Reflecting With Empathy

It’s important to remember these feelings and processes, because it’s what you are about to put someone through when you reject them.  This empathy allows you to be kind as you’re doing the needful, whether or not you think that kindness is deserved.  If someone is taking the time to apply for something, especially when it’s optional, then it’s likely important to them.  Each situation should be handled with care.

The hardest part about leadership is always the people.  You can’t let that fear of hurting someone stop you in your tracks.  It’s important to not procrastinate, since it’s far worse if the person hears it from someone else.  If someone isn’t the right fit, you as the leader have to tell them.

Writing the Rejection Letter

I made a point to send an email personally to each applicant and use their name.  


Thank you for applying for the upcoming Mentorship Program. Selection for the program is very competitive and we received many strong applications.  Inevitably, we are not able to match everyone, and unfortunately we were not able to find a match for you at this time. If you would like to receive feedback regarding your application, please contact me or another member of the professional development committee.

We encourage you to engage in other professional development events and opportunities throughout the year, including other group sponsored events.

We wish you all the best in your continued professional development and hope that you will apply for next year’s Mentorship Program.


The Professional Development Team

When applicants reached out to ask about their application, I made a point to tell them our exact criteria and speak to each application specifically, which is exactly what I would want to hear.  Hopefully my empathy is helping them grow personally and professionally.  It’s just as easy for them to be cold or become bitter toward any suggestions.​

My Own Personal Feelings

For my part, my own feelings are still raw and I’m still working through them.   This is the first time I’ve been the head of a program like this, and I had never sent notices like this before.  I still feel the sting of rejection even on the other side but multiplied by each one who couldn’t jump the very high bar that was set by our talented top candidates.  However, as a leader, it’s important to ultimately let my own feelings go.  The empathy helped me soothe those let down, but my strength in doing it is what will help make the program stronger in the long run.  We have an amazing group of candidates who are about to embark on the program this year, and it’s an exciting beginning to focus on instead.

Have you faced this type of situation yet?  How did you handle it?