How to Decipher Messages from Companies While Interviewing

How to read between the lines during the job interview process. What those emails from hiring managers really mean.

From seeing the job posting on LinkedIn, to submitting a job application (with a cover letter!), to interview follow-ups with human resources, to finally receiving a job offer, the hiring process can be a mystifying experience.

Interviewing — be it an in-person interview, phone screen, or phone interview — can be a confusing process where you’re not really sure how well you actually did.

Sometimes you think something went really well and you vibed with the interviewer during your interview — but get the dreaded rejection email.

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Other times, the whole experience felt awkward but you moved on to the next stage. So how do you decipher the messages you’re getting from companies from the beginning of the interview process until the hiring decision, so you have a better idea of where you stand?

We interviewed two experts in job searching, Jovena Natal, tech recruiter and founder of Clutch Talent, and Annie Li, job search coach and talent recruiter at ACLER8, to get an idea of how to decipher messages from companies during the interview and recruiting process.

In this post, we’ll go through some code words for rejections, how to ask for feedback, red and green flags during the interview process, and how to break into a new field and stand out from the crowd as a beginner in tech.

Table of Contents

  1. How to read and respond to emails
  2. Red and green flags during the interview process
  3. A few other things to watch out for during the interview process

How to read and respond to emails

During the job interview process, emails and follow up emails are the main communication channel for job seekers and companies.

Yet emails are the hardest to decipher for interviewees, as they lack visible or aural cues like body language or tone, which can lead to job candidates reading too much (or too little) into an email, especially if it’s their first time applying to a tech job.

Below, we’re going to look at some code words that potential employers may use, how to respond to less positive responses, and how to effectively ask for feedback, with advice from Jovena and Annie.

Feedback doesn’t mean rejection

According to Jovena, when a recruiter says they’re “collecting feedback,” candidates often think there’s negative feedback coming. However, she says, “In reality, it means that you are under consideration. If you completely failed the interview, you would probably have had a quick rejection.”

For Jovena, feedback in this context can mean a lot of different things. She says, “It can be a simple thumbs up or thumbs down that they need to collect from each interviewer, or it can be that there is a detailed score card. Sometimes feedback helps with leveling or team assignment.”

Jovena adds that the names of various steps can be confusing in the interview process, and, often, steps will have names that don’t clearly align with an interview format.

She notes, “Most of our clients have a step they call a “tech screen.” This step can be a screening phone call where the candidate is asked about their technical knowledge or quizzed verbally.”

So what can you do about that? Jovena advises candidates, “Do not hesitate to ask what the format is so that you can prepare.”

Annie wants candidates to know that recruiters won’t reject a candidate unless it’s absolutely clear the person won’t be hired, so if you haven’t received a rejection email, you still have a chance.

That being said, she says, “If your interviews keep getting postponed, or if you don’t hear back after a while (2 weeks), or if you’ve finished your interviews but the recruiter tells you “we cannot make a decision until we finish all the other ongoing interviews, you’re probably not their favorite candidate.”

Another way to tell if you’re not the frontrunner, according to Annie, is If the recruiter says “we’re still at the start of our hiring process for this role, so we want to speak to a few different candidates before we make a decision,” because “If you are their favorite candidate, they will make sure to have you sign before you go for other companies.”

How to respond to less than glowing messages

For Annie, regardless of the content of a message, the best thing a candidate can do is to communicate promptly, clearly, and be friendly.

She says, “The recruiter is not the most important decision maker and a lot of things are out of our control. I always felt awful to be the bringer of bad news and reject candidates that I thought were great.”

If you’re friendly even in the face of unhappy news, you may end up ahead because the recruiter likes you.

Annie notes, “Fortunately, this job allowed me to meet so many wonderful people, and I’m still in touch with a lot of my former candidates, even became friends and helped some rejected candidates find their new jobs elsewhere.”

That being said, Annie recommends letting a hiring manager or someone in the leadership team know if you encounter recruiters who are extremely unprofessional.

How to ask for feedback

As a candidate, it’s normal to want post-interview feedback, particularly if it seemed like things were going well but you didn’t get the job. However, it’s not easy to get feedback.

There is a reason for that, according to Annie, who says, “Companies are usually told by their legal teams to never give specific written feedback to the candidates to avoid lawsuits, but they can still give verbal feedback.”

She strongly recommends asking your interviewers and recruiters for a feedback call and to make it easier by sharing your availability or calendar link in the same message.

She advises, “Not everyone will have the time but even just one or two calls could increase your chances in future interviews. You can also directly ask for verbal feedback at the end of each interview.”

What Annie says to keep in mind, however, is that if you were rejected at the application review stage, which means you haven’t been interviewed yet, you probably won’t receive much feedback due to the typical workload at this stage — a typical recruiter receives 50-500 applications for each position and works on up to 5-15 positions at the same time.

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Red and green flags during the interview process

Red flags

Lack of clear communication

For Annie, most red flags come from a lack of clear communication. She says that if the hiring team cannot share the names and titles of interviewers, as well as a clear interview agenda, it could mean that the hiring process is very unstructured.

She shares, “I’ve seen companies scramble for an interviewer panel last minute, and when candidates ask for an agenda, the recruiter couldn’t provide any, because the interviewer was brought in as the only person available to interview.”

She warns that a lack of clear communication could also mean that the company is withholding interview details on purpose because they wanted to put the candidate under more pressure and “test” the candidate.

She adds, “Some hiring teams might disagree, but people can always prepare for tasks at work, and candidates perform better if they were provided with an agenda beforehand, so why can’t they prepare more for interviews?”

Changes without communication

In Annie’s experience, another red flag is if the company adds or changes interview stages without clear explanations, because this could also be a sign of an unstructured interview process. She notes that it could also mean that an interviewer is sick or on holiday, so don’t hesitate to ask for reasons why there are changes.

Not sharing any information

Not sharing any information around compensation until the last interview is also a red flag for Annie.

She notes, “To me, it sounds like the company is not confident about the salary range they offer (probably because it’s too low) and doesn’t want to lose candidates early on. I’ve been a jobseeker myself and I know not everyone can afford to do this, but if you can, avoid interviewing with these companies.”

Annie acknowledged that different teams in the same company could also offer very different experiences.

She says,”I’ve seen well-known companies that have amazing product, design, and engineering teams but a highly dysfunctional recruiting team. If something seems off with the recruiters, make sure to check the team that you’re joining. You could still have a great time at the company as a software engineer.”

Green flags

Annie reiterates that if red flags come from a lack of communication, green flags are usually the opposite.

She explains, “If the recruiter is communicating every single change in the interview process promptly and clearly to you, they’re doing a good job. Since recruiters are typically the first level to pass in the hiring process, you can imagine the type of people they’ll be able to attract to this company.”

For Annie, other green flags include: following up with candidates after each interview stage, sending reminders for upcoming interviews, and potentially even giving tips and offering constructive feedback when asked.

She says, “A recruiter’s job is to make hires, so we’re motivated to help the candidates who are more likely to be hired. So if your recruiter has been doing all the above for you, you’re probably at the front of the race.”

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A few other things to watch out for during the interview process

Tips for breaking into a new field

One way to break into a new field is to be someone who is great to work with. After all, it’s much easier to catch flies with honey than vinegar.

According to Jovena, “Regardless of your level, being polite and friendly goes a long way. If the people you are communicating with enjoy hearing from you, that can only help you.”

Jovena advises prospective candidates to approach the communications with empathy for the people doing the screening, scheduling and candidate management.

She says, “Reread your emails to ensure that they are brief, clear and kind. This may seem obvious, but the delays, bumps, etc., often cause candidates to feel frustrated and take it out on emails to the recruiting or hiring team.”

Annie agrees, saying, “People forget that the interview process is just humans meeting other humans. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t say to someone face to face, and treat everyone you meet with honesty!”

One last piece of advice from Annie

Annie advises readers that if there are any non-negotiable needs from your side (relocating family, visa support, remote work, contract length or hours), please make sure to mention them in the first conversation with the recruiter.

She notes, “I understand that you want to increase your chances, but these are often things that the company cannot change overnight. If the company is not able to meet your needs, both sides might be wasting a few weeks’ time and hope.”

She adds, “If your new job will affect your family or partner in any way, make sure to keep them informed from the start too. I’ve seen parents who didn’t want their child to move to a different country, or family members who could not receive a visa, or partners who argued about the compensation package (once I was put on the phone with the candidate’s wife and had to negotiate the offer with her).”

One last piece of advice from Jovena

These are Jovena’s top three communication tips to make the interview process smoother.

1. Research

Jovena advises candidates to research the companies you’re interviewing with and be ready to express why you’re interested. Have good questions prepared for every step of the interview process. This shows you’re engaged and interested in the specific opportunity.

2. Align your timelines

Jovena also tells candidates to “try your best to align timelines across interviews, and update the teams if you’re getting ahead with other opportunities. If you’re at the final interview stage with a couple of companies and a third is scheduling their initial intro call, let them know that you might need to speed up.”

3. Be specific when scheduling

Finally, Jovena suggests being specific when scheduling.

She says, “‘Anytime Friday’ is fine if you literally mean that you’re holding open the entire day across all time zones the company works in. Better is to provide three times across at least two days that you will hold open until the interview is confirmed. If you’re in a different time zone, you can go the extra mile and provide times in the interviewer’s time zone.”

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Justina Hwang

Justina Hwang is Content Marketing Manager at Skillcrush, and has been covering tech education for over three years. She holds a PhD from Brown University. Justina spends her free time with her mildly needy (but very adorable) cat.