From the December 2002 issue of Entrepreneur

Another week, another hiring decision. For growing companies, finding the perfect person for a job is just another thing to check off the to-do list. If one resume doesn't look good, keep rifling through the stack. You have plenty to choose from, and you only have to call the best people. The rest should get the hint when the phone doesn't ring.

But for unemployed job seekers on the other side of the fence, applying to your company is a serious endeavor. Ignore them, and you could be encouraging some desperate job seekers to become what Carole Martin, an interview coach in Danville, California, and the interview expert for Monster.com, calls "Tasmanian devils": overly aggressive job "stalkers" who hound you with calls and e-mails, or stop by the office hoping for some face time to find out where they stand.

These applicants don't know when to quit, says Martin. "They're thinking 'If I call just one more time, they'll take my call.'" Add to this a cultural message that tells applicants to be aggressive and persistent with employers, and you can end up becoming the hunted if you don't know how to handle the situation.

Hello, Goodbye
In this fragile hiring climate, some applicants are mistaking professional courtesy and friendliness-in the form of "We'll call you"-as a sign you like them, says Martin.

It's crucial for you to give firm messages instead of mixed signals. If a candidate is not in your top 10 percent and won't be interviewed, say so. If you won't be hiring this person but want to keep the resume on file for future openings, let the applicant know. "You have to close the door," Martin says.

Of course, doing it is the hard part. Brian Barth, CEO of SideStep, a 21-employee online travel search company in the Silicon Valley with annual sales topping $3.5 million, hears a few times a week from aggressive job hunters and recruiters who contact him directly rather than going to the company's Web site, which lists job openings, accepts resumes, and generates an automated e-mail response letting applicants know their applications have been received. "We prefer that people send their resumes to our e-mail address," says Barth, 36. "Some people don't want to follow the process."

Barth forwards the unsolicited messages to his HR person, who screens up to 25 new resumes every day. With such volume, getting back to people who won't be interviewed is impossible for one person to do, Barth says. But if a rejected applicant follows up after a job has been filled, the company tries to offer closure. "When you're clear with people, you don't have a problem," he says.

Take some simple steps today to make the rejection process easier for everyone involved. Start by minimizing the things you don't need to do. A lot of small employers interview every person who applies, a mistake because it only encourages applicants while making it harder to get back to all of them. Instead, select the top 10 percent of the resumes for phone screenings and narrow this field even further for in-person interviews.

Also, limit "mercy interviews"-interviewing friends of friends-which can easily lead to unreasonable expectations. If you feel obligated to speak with someone who doesn't seem right for the job, set it up as an informational interview where you answer basic questions about your company and your industry, but make it clear that it's not a hiring situation, says Patrick J. Lennahan, principal consultant of P.J. Lennahan & Associates, a career consulting firm in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. That way, you fulfill an obligation without leading the person on. "Don't build up people's hopes if there's no opportunity there," he says.

If you're deluged with applications, consider bringing in an extra person for a few hours a week during a hiring phase to send out rejections and arrange interviews. Also think about setting up separate voice mail and e-mail boxes for applicants so their inquiries are easier to track. While a stock e-mail reply isn't as nice as a letter or a phone call, it's a cheap and easy way of letting applicants know they didn't make the cut.

Good Impressions
Of course, a form letter rejection won't be enough for the occasional applicant. What should you do with someone who calls wanting to know why they were rejected? In many cases, employers aren't getting back to people they've rejected because they're worried about potential legal liabilities. Take the time to resolve the issue, but keep the conversation away from specific information that can get you into trouble, such as a personality fit. "Say 'We found someone with more skills and experience,'" says Martin.

Furthermore, letting applicants know where they stand is a good public relations move on your part. The people you come in contact with during your hiring efforts are more than just job seekers; they're also potential consumers who will run and tell their friends how your company treated them. Besides, it's a small world out there, and the applicant you ignore today could someday end up working for your main competitor or biggest client tomorrow.

"Whatever interaction you have with [applicants] is going to bespeak your reputation," Lennahan says. "You've got to make a good impression."