Thank You Note Controversy: Lessons Learned

thank you note image

thank you note imageLast week, Jessica Liebman (managing editor of Insider, Inc) wrote a controversial article on Business Insider declaring that the number one mistake an employment candidate makes during the selection process is failing to send a thank you note after the interview. She even went so far as to say, “As a hiring manager, you should always expect a thank-you email, and you should never make an offer to someone who neglected to send one.” She backed this claim by highlighting the hundreds of people she has hired over the last 10 years. Unsurprisingly, readers responded strongly to her arbitrary standard for employment. I say “unsurprisingly” because she wrote this exact same message in 2012 and received overwhelmingly negative feedback then, as well.

While Liebman believes the thank you note is the litmus test for identifying “a good egg,” it’s clear that critical thinking and the ability to accept feedback are not standards for employment as a managing editor at Insider, Inc. While Liebman’s original article received harsh criticism, many dismissed the article as click-bait intended to stir up a debate. Mission accomplished. However, after seven years of reflection, she stands by her frivolous selection process and re-ignited the conversation. This brazen decision goes far past being tone deaf and truly reflects an inability to consider objective facts and data that conflict with the author’s irresponsible beliefs. Aside from the concerning lack of intellectual curiosity and behavioral flexibility, her steadfastness reflects a potential problem for Insider Inc as a whole. Imagine the hypocrisy of this same leader demanding employees accept performance feedback and expecting behavioral change as a result. Executive leaders define the culture of an organization through their behaviors and that includes tolerance of poor judgment, closed-mindedness, and arrogance.

Sadly, Liebman is one of many misdirected hiring managers who establish arbitrary methods for selecting employees. To be fair, Liebman likely lacks an education in Business Psychology, Human Resources, or Employment Law. However, that does not alleviate her responsibility for providing a fair, reasonable selection process for candidates. Hiring managers shoulder as much responsibility for removing bias from the process as HR does. Liebman’s rules for employment may be subtle, but they reflect institutionalized bias that systematically gives an advantage to candidates of a particular social class.

Writing a thank you note is a socially-learned behavior. Owning a box of thank you cards is an experience that many cultures, minorities, and low-income households may not have experienced. While Nicholas Carlson (Global Editor-in-Chief at Insider) has taken to Twitter to defend Liebman’s thank you note philosophy by promoting their employee diversity stats (30%), it begs the question how many qualified and highly talented candidates were screened out by the “good egg test.” Note: to date Insider Inc has not provided details on the breakdown of where diversity exists within their organization (i.e. minimum-wage/entry level vs. leadership).

While Liebman focuses on what a thank you note tells her about a candidate, it’s equally important to identify what Insider Inc’s selection process tells candidates about the way they view/value their employees. A quick search for Interview Reviews for Insider Inc on Glassdoor shows it’s common for the company to require 3-4 hour work sample tests from candidates, deliver cold one-sided interviews, and then (shockingly) fail to follow up with any feedback after the interview. Liebman asserts that you can make “them take a test or complete an exercise….but…you never really know how it’s going to work until they come on board.” In essence, she dismisses the value of a validated selection assessment or the predictive nature of a work sample, and instead explains that a thank you note “signals that the person wants the job.” Apparently, the key indicator of wanting a job isn’t the time investment involved with doing 4 hours of unpaid creative work for a work sample. It’s all about that thank you note.

I advocate that candidates employ a “good egg test” of their own. If a hiring manager fails to value your time while recruiting you, they will fail to value your time as an employee. If a hiring manager establishes a thank you note is an indication of good manners, then the candidate should expect a prompt thank you note as well. When a hiring manager fails to send a thank you note, candidates should consider who is doing a favor for whom. The employee-employer relationship is a two-way exchange. Candidates provide skills. Employers provide compensation. That exchange should be equally valuable to both parties (i.e. not a charitable favor), and therefore one side should never be held to a higher level of expected gratitude.

Finally, if it wasn’t clear already, a thank you note offers no reliable or predictive conclusions regarding a candidate’s eagerness, manners, or resourcefulness let alone their ability to do the job. As if the thank you note test wasn’t irresponsible enough, Liebman ups the ante by forcing many candidates to hunt for her email address instead of providing her contact information like a decent human being. Additionally, if you thought you were in the clear by sending a hand-written note, think again. On the thank you notes point system, a hand-written note apparently gives negative points because it’s “ancient.”

Accepting a management position within an organization often comes with many unexpected responsibilities. Universally, managers play a role in selecting the individuals on their team whether they’ve been trained in fair employment/hiring practices or not. If HR fails to provide adequate training, take ownership of your role and seek out best practices from experts. Remember that you are not doing a candidate a favor. You’re looking for mutually beneficial relationship and should represent your organization with all the eagerness and good manners you expect of the candidate. Finally, be conscientious of the fact that your actions reflect the values and culture of the organization, and intentionally/unintentionally introducing bias through a subjective barrier to entry can/will rise to the level of an embarrassing/costly EEOC claim against your organization.

As a former recruiter myself, I’m inclined to share the following list of reasons why terrible hiring managers have rejected a candidate as a reminder of what NOT to do during the selection process. You cannot identify if a candidate is qualified for a role based on: their cover letter, customization of the resume, school attended, interview attire, shoe shine, strength of perfume, on-time arrival for one interview, body weight, resume paper weight, gender, race, age, or thank you note.