What To Do When a Job Candidate Gets Cold Feet

Posted by Alex Bowes on 8/27/20 9:00 AM
Alex Bowes
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Have you ever been waist-deep in the hiring process with your dream hire, only to have them second guess the opportunity and decide to stay where they are?

I was recruiting a senior position with a highly respected company, right here in the Twin Cities. One of the most promising candidates on my short list was, by any definition, a text book “passive candidate.” He liked where he was. He was making good money. He was a stellar performer in an enviable job, with an iconic, thriving brand. He wasn’t looking. But he was willing to hear more about the opportunity I was presenting him with. Everything clicked. Within days, he’d sailed through the first interview, and a second interview was in the works. The hiring manager and I were ecstatic. 

I thought the candidate was, too, until he sent me a short note, asking me to cancel his second interview. 

He’d thought about it, he explained. He was happy where he was. His note was polite and gracious, but he was stepping away from the process.  

This can happen shortly after the candidate begins to realize that they have a really good shot at landing that bigger, better job. Suddenly, the entire process shifts from the theoretical to the very real possibility of a major life change. The stakes seem higher, it’s nerve wracking, and sometimes it prompts a candidate to retreat. 

I’ve learned a few lessons about what to do (and what not to do) at these pivotal moments. Here are the 3 simple but highly effective steps I follow when a candidate gets cold feet. 


1. Don’t let your disappointment overrule your commitment, or your judgment.

What do I mean by that? Simple: if you’re really committed to knowing your candidates, caring about their goals, and earning long-term professional relationships with them, don’t bail on them when they get skittish. Notes like these are usually a sign that the candidate needs support. So take a few breaths and a few minutes and ask yourself how you can best serve that candidate. (Yes, the employer is your paying client – but your reputation and your broader professional network are the foundation of your entire career.) 


2. Learn to recognize the signs of cold feet, vs an actual rejection of the job.

Often, candidates who are already successful in their current job will experience at least one moment of doubt at some point in the process. No matter how tempting a better job might be, leaving the place where you’ve been successful to venture into unknown territory can feel risky. Understandably, your candidate might have moments of thinking it’s better to play it safe, hunker down, and stick with what’s familiar. 

But a decision made in haste, out of fear, can lead to a lost opportunity. What happens next – not just in the candidate’s hiring process, but in their career – depends greatly on the skills of the recruiter. As a recruiter who cares about matching great candidates with great opportunities, I believe it’s my job to help that candidate weigh the pros and cons and make the most informed decision possible before backing away.

3. Respond with the 3 R’s: Respect, Reality Check, and Re-Focus.

Below, I’ve included an example of how I respond.

As you read it, note that I follow 3 steps:

1. I do not express surprise, disappointment, or anything negative. Instead, I showed my genuine Respect for the candidate’s point of view and decisions. 

2. I offer up a Reality Check (i.e. even though the idea of leaving a good job is scary, that’s not happening yet. This is still the information gathering phase, not decision-making time.) 

3. I help Re-focus the candidate’s attention on what he stands to gain from simply moving forward (i.e. more information on the position and its benefits so he could make the most informed decisions for himself and his family, an opportunity to solidify a new professional relationship with an employer he respected).  

Here's a Sample Response:


Hi John,

Thanks for your note. Before I cancel the meeting, I hope you won’t mind if I share my two cents, as I’ve been doing this a long time. I know deciding to make the move to a new role with a new company can be a bit overwhelming. Instead of focusing on a final decision that doesn’t need to be made right now, I hope it might be helpful to focus on how much you can still gain from this process.  As you know, the very best time to have conversations with other employers is while you’re gainfully employed. It allows you to test the waters while you’re under no pressure. (You don’t need a job and would only consider making a move for a greater opportunity for growth.)

Continuing the conversation in a second interview gives you the chance to:

  • Spend 60-90 minutes with bright, interesting people in your field, who are interested in getting to know you better.
  • Gain a deeper understanding of how the company and the team operates and how that compares to where you are now.
  • Build on the great first impression you made on Jane, who thinks you could be a great potential fit.

Best case scenario is that you find out the opportunity XYZ is awesome for you and you’re genuinely excited to make a move. Worst case scenario, you keep your current job while building out your professional network. Ultimately, if you decide the next conversation isn’t worth your time, I will completely respect that. However, in my years of recruiting top technical talent in town, I have yet to have a candidate leave an interview saying, “wow, that was a waste of time.”

Here’s what I have had happen: over the years, talented people who pulled out of the interview process early have circled back with me a few months later – when they’re feeling unchallenged or undervalued or worse, when they’ve been laid off – to ask if there’s a chance to re-interview with the employer they had initially impressed. The dynamics of the situation usually lead to the answer being “no, not at the moment.” And that is a bummer for everyone involved. 

If any of resonates for you, I hope you’ll keep your options open and gain everything you can from the experience. I’m happy to hop on the phone if you’d like to chat about it. 




By following these three steps, I've been able to help countless candidates step away from the fears, stay the course, and do what's best for them. I hope you'll try it and let me know how this approach -- or your own approach -- works for you.

At SkyWater Search Partners, it’s our mission to ensure that our clients and candidates benefit from our expertise, support, and the entire experience hiring experience. If you’d like to know more about how we can help you, please reach out. We would love to talk!


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