“It’s not you, it’s me.” Invented by George Costanza? Um, no. It’s been around forever. Rejecting someone is difficult. Many people try to soften the blow. Others, not so much. But, rejection is almost as certain as death and taxes. We can pretty much guarantee that at some point in our lives we will be rejected. This holds true in our professional lives as well as our personal lives. Since this isn’t a blog for the lovelorn, let’s focus on professional rejection. Maybe a job you didn’t get. Or a promotion that went to someone else. How we handle professional rejection speaks volumes and has a lasting impact both on us and others with whom we interact. Acting rashly or blaming others can cause lasting harm. Acting calmly and in a professional manner can elevate us.
Several years ago, I was attending a relative’s graduation from a top university. When we met him later at his home, I noticed that there were dozens of letters taped to the walls. Upon closer inspection, I realized they were all rejection letters from hoped-for employers, posted by my relative and his housemates. I found this to be a very healthy response to rejection. The housemates were sharing their stories of rejection and using the turn-downs as motivators.
So, what should you do when you get a rejection or don’t achieve a promotion you think you deserve?
- Do a bit of soul searching. It’s just possible that the rejection or lack of promotion is warranted. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to “give it to you straight.” Be open to constructive criticism and the idea that there might be something you can do to improve your chances in the future.
- Don’t react rashly. Sit on your emotions for at least 24 hours, maybe longer. Storming into your boss’ office and taking him to task for not promoting you is not likely to make him change his mind.
- Come up with a plan. The plan will differ each time. Most often, it will be to file the rejection in the “their loss” category and move on. But, in certain circumstances, it might make sense to follow up and ask the rejecter for some honest feedback. In a totally non-defensive manner, indicate that you are still in job search/promotion mode and would appreciate any feedback the rejecter is willing to provide that might help you in your endeavors. You might not get a response, but you never know. By the way, don’t go into this activity with the hope that it might turn around the original rejection. That’s probably a one in a thousand shot, if that. Just try to get a concrete suggestion from the rejecter. Maybe the summary section of your resume turned them off. Maybe they found a typo.
While I never taped my rejection letters to the wall, I do remember one that motivated me, and I even remember the now-defunct law firm that sent it. The rejection letter simply read: “Dear Mr. Fleshner: An interview would serve no purpose.”
Give them credit for getting right to the point! I thought about writing back and saying, “you’re damn right it would serve no purpose, I’d never work for people like you!” Instead, I got out the legal directory, sent out dozens more letters, and fantasized about going up against lawyers at the firm in a big First Amendment case at the Supreme Court. And, while I never crossed paths with that firm again (nor did I ever argue a First Amendment case of any sort), my motivation served me well, as I got a job offer in short order.
There are all sorts of pithy one-liners to describe this set of events. Making lemonade out of lemons, etc. The bottom line is to find a way to turn what feels like a negative into a positive and keep moving forward toward your career goals.
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