Up-Front Rejection The Best Policy For Most Refusal Letters

March 01, 1999

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- New research suggests that businesses and others who write rejection letters are better off delivering the bad news up front rather than placing it lower in the letter. Also, a business should clearly spell out the reason for the refusal when it makes that business look good and, when possible, suggest an alternative or a compromise for the reader.

"The real goal is to make customers feel that they would do the same thing if they were in the business' shoes," said Kitty Locker, associate professor of English at Ohio State University. "In fact, giving a brief reason for the refusal makes people more likely to think the decision was fair."

Locker conducted two experiments in which college students were asked how they would react to specific rejection letters from graduate schools and credit card issuers. She found that rejection hurt the most when the students were surprised by it and when other options were limited.

The research appears in a recent issue of the Journal of Business and Technical Communications.

Locker's experiments tested three traditional principles of writing refusal letters: using a buffer -- a neutral or positive sentence that delays the negative information; placing the reason before the refusal; and ending the letter on a positive note as a way of reselling the business. She also looked at the role of gender and the situation surrounding the rejection.

This research refutes the generally accepted rules that say negative messages should begin with a buffer and also have a positive ending. "Buffers and positive endings may actually annoy many readers," Locker said.

She asked 886 college students to assess a letter in which they were denied credit at a furniture store. She gave 663 other college students letters refusing admission into graduate school. Each letter opened with either a buffer or direct refusal. Half the credit refusal letters ended with a resale pitch, encouraging the reader to buy the store's merchandise.

Half of the graduate school letter recipients were told that they had been admitted to three other schools. The other half were told that they had been rejected by five of the six schools they had applied to. Again, half of these letters began with a buffer; the other half began with a direct refusal of admission.

"In each experiment, the readers describing themselves as surprised by the rejections responded most negatively to the letters," Locker said. "The graduate school rejection experiment supports the theory that rejection hurts most when the reader has few other options and when the reader expects an acceptance."

Locker found that gender did not play a role in a reader's feelings about a negative message. The situation surrounding the letter, however, had a significant role in how a reader felt about the refusal.

In the credit refusal experiment, students who were somewhat or totally surprised by rejections were more likely to suggest that a friend shop at another store, were less likely to say they would shop at the store in the future, and were more likely to describe their response as "strong" when compared to students who were not surprised by the refusal. The students surprised by the graduate school rejection letters had similar responses.

"The best negative messages let the reader retain as much freedom as possible while surprising the reader as little as possible," Locker said.

She recommends the following guidelines for writing refusal letters:"Obviously, starting with the refusal doesn't make the reader happy," Locker said. "But people are pretty savvy and can usually see right through a buffer. The more specific the reason for refusal, the better."
Contact: Kitty Locker, (614) 292-6556; Locker.1@osu.edu
Written by Holly Wagner, (614) 292-8310; Wagner.235@osu.edu

Ohio State University

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