Career Path

An Offer You May Have to Refuse

One in four people say they’ve backed out after accepting a job offer. Here’s how those people navigate the juggle between their current role and their dream job.

Of all of the scenarios Mark had envisioned while searching for a job, declining an offer wasn’t one of them. And yet, after weeks of interviewing with several technology firms, he found himself at that exact crossroads—one company had made him an offer, but he still hadn’t heard back from his top choice, and he didn’t know how to proceed.

It’s a situation that happens “really frequently to people,” says Julie Jansen, career coach and author of I Don’t Know What I Want, But I Know It’s Not This. It’s proven even more common these last few years, when unemployment has been low and employers have had to scramble to fill open positions, all of which has put job seekers in the driver’s seat. In fact, one in four people admit to having backed out after accepting an offer in order to pursue a more preferable option, according to consulting firm Robert Half.

Everyone has to evaluate their own ability to withstand further financial or career blips.

But any interaction you have with an employer can come back to haunt you—if you back out of an offer, that could permanently damage your reputation. Likewise, telling a company that you’re waiting for another offer could also make you look bad. The solution is a delicate balancing act that involves delaying a decision for as long as possible while not burning bridges in the process. But when you do it right, that dream offer can come through without your having to throw away the sure thing until you have a contract in hand.

Delay, delay, delay.

The moment you receive the offer from the first company, try to find good reasons to drag the negotiations along in order to buy time. If you haven’t met all the people you would report to or work with, ask if you can, says Valerie Hayes, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. If you didn’t receive the information on all of the benefits, ask if you can get all the details of the health-care and retirement plans. Then let them know you need a week to review everything with your family.

Inform your dream company.

There’s a well-known secret in HR circles: if they really want a candidate, they can expedite the hiring process. If you receive that first offer and haven’t heard back yet from your top choice, it’s best to be transparent with them, Hayes says. You don’t have to do it as an ultimatum, demanding an answer within a week. Instead, let them know you want to be completely honest and would like to see the process through, but you have to let the other company know within the week. Often times, HR will speed up the process if they view you as a top candidate, Hayes says.

Assess how long you can afford to wait.

There’s a difference between looking for a job while out of work and looking for a job while you’re employed. You need to weigh your options and ask yourself how long you can reasonably afford to wait for a more preferable offer to come through. Jansen recalls an HR-executive client who hadn’t worked for over a year when a technology startup offered her a role. While she wanted to wait for another company, she accepted the job. Unfortunately, the startup role wasn’t a great fit, but it did help her get back on her feet. Everyone has to evaluate their own ability to withstand further financial or career blips. “It’s your stress, your pressure, your situation,” Jansen says.

Stay professional.

If that dream offer does come through, tell the original company you’re declining the position as soon as you’ve signed the contract. HR is very aware that they will sometimes lose out on a candidate they want. The best way to do this is to be straightforward, informing the company that you have another offer that more aligns with your career goals, title, and salary needs. That way, you’re thanking them for the opportunity and respectfully telling them why you can’t take it.

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