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The divisive problem with employers who are obsessed with 'thank you' letters post-interview

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
It can be tricky for a job applicant to know whether a thank you note will be appreciated. Photo: Getty

Writing a thank you note is something many Brits are told to do from a young age, for example after receiving a birthday present from a relative. For most of us, it’s something we increasingly let slide as we grow older and busier.

Across the pond, though, sending a letter of thanks is commonplace when it comes to work — specifically after attending a job interview. There’s a wealth of research and reporting that detail how to send a professional thank you note, as well as why we should do it.

One study, published in the journal Psychological Science by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Chicago, found that people commonly underestimate the value of expressing gratitude — and overestimate whether the gesture will be judged harshly.

Yet while being grateful is usually a good thing, there are some problems with expecting job applicants to send letters to a potential employer.

In a professional context, it can be tricky for an applicant to know whether a note will be appreciated — or whether it’s too much. It can also be difficult to know exactly what to say without sounding pushy.

How the letter is received tends to depend on what the company is like, what the interviewer prefers, and the job itself. Considering most people’s inboxes are close to bursting, getting yet another unsolicited email risks being seen as irritating, pushy, or needy.

Moreover, expecting a potential candidate to write a letter of thanks can seem like a petty demand — particularly if said candidate has worked hard to gain the qualifications and skills necessary for the job, and is a good fit for the hiring company.

Last week, Business Insider’s executive managing editor Jessica Liebman faced criticism after she wrote about a rule she put in place when she first started hiring — not to hire a candidate unless they send a thank you email. Her argument? That a thank you email signals that the person wants the job.

Surely, though, spending time on a detailed application and going through a rigorous interview is proof enough that someone wants a job. In addition, a job interview should be a two-way street that benefits both parties. The employer wants to hire the right person, and the candidate wants the job.

During an interview, the employer can learn more about the individual in front of them, and the applicant has the opportunity to find out if the company is right for them.

A thank you note can be an appreciated courtesy, but it’s not crucial when it comes to finding talented, enthusiastic, and personable employees who will help push a business forward.

Whether a thank you note will be appreciated or not also depends on different work cultures. It’s less common in the UK for employers to receive a note of thanks after a job interview. In some regions, it can be seen as rude to contact an employer before a response.

Thank you letters also risk being seen as ableist, particularly if the candidate struggles with a physical or mental health condition. For an individual with depression, for example, it can be extremely challenging to even apply for a job and attend an interview — no matter how qualified they are for the role. Being expected to write a follow-up note — and potentially being penalised for not doing so — could be seen as discriminatory.

Likewise, having arbitrary rules around thank you notes risks employers only hiring people who think and act the way they do -— which ultimately decreases diversity among a company’s workforce. Younger generations may have missed out on the “etiquette” of thank you notes, but it certainly doesn’t make them any less qualified for a job.

Sending an email thanking an employer for their time can be a good thing — depending on the company, the job, and if you’re fairly certain that doing so will be viewed in a positive way. In fact, an Accountemps survey of HR managers found that 80% say thank you notes are helpful when reviewing candidates.

It’s also fine to follow up with an employer if you’ve not heard from them for a few weeks — if you interviewed, you should feel entitled to a response. But it’s important for employers to view letters as an additional benefit, rather than a requirement — and not to penalise those who don’t send them.