An abrupt change of heart after saying yes to a job can have career repercussions years later—here’s how to navigate this delicate decision
It should be any job seeker’s dream: You’re looking for a job and three offers land in your lap. Or maybe you’re not even looking and a rival company tries to recruit you.
“Congratulations. You did everything right,” career coach Teri Coyne tells clients facing such situations.
Few feel like celebrating, however. “Instead, they’re like, ‘I am under so much stress right now,’ ” she says.
More job seekers are juggling multiple offers at once, creating sticky situations for all involved. How well candidates manage them can shape their long-term career satisfaction, and their professional reputations.
Many candidates hate having to negotiate or turn anyone down. When a construction manager recruited by Brian Binke’s firm failed to show up for his first day on the job, the recruiter called the man’s home and heard from someone claiming to be his uncle that he had died unexpectedly. Mr. Binke, CEO of Birmingham Group, a Berkley, Mich., executive-search firm, later learned the man was actually alive. He just didn’t want to face the managers he was abandoning.
“He ended up staying with his current employer, but he didn’t have the guts to say so,” Mr. Binke says. “It was a lot easier to pretend to die.”
More than one in four workers say they’ve backed out after accepting a new job, according to a recent survey of 2,800 employees by the staffing firm Robert Half. While job seekers of all ages might ghost or back out on employers, it’s most common among those with two to six years’ experience, says Paul McDonald, a senior executive director at the firm.
So many recruits at one accounting and consulting firm were ghosting or reneging on hiring managers that the firm asked Lindsey Pollak to train groups of college students at campus-recruiting events on how to politely decline a job offer.
“This is the generation that breaks up by text message, so in a professional context, to have to let someone down or give bad news was terrifying,” says Ms. Pollak, a consultant on multigenerational issues at work.
One manager who accepted a job with a Chicago company texted the COO the night before he was to start, saying his current employer had made a counteroffer too good to refuse, doubling his pay and awarding him stock and a better title, says Rona Borre, founder and CEO of Instant Alliance, a Chicago strategic-staffing firm that works with the company.
For the jilted employer, the news was a body blow. “Feelings get hurt. People at companies take this extremely personally,” Ms. Borre says. Word of such reversals can spread fast among employers and recruiters.
Negotiating with employers doesn’t come naturally to most candidates. Early in her career, Joy Altimare waited a couple of days before responding to an employer’s emails about a job offer. She didn’t reveal that she was expecting another one. “In my 20s, I didn’t know I could say that. I thought it was rude,” says Ms. Altimare, chief engagement and brand officer at EHE Health, a New York-based provider of employee health and lifestyle-management services. By the time she took the second offer, “I had kind of burned a bridge.”
She has since learned to be more transparent. During a more recent career transition, she responded to one employer’s offer with warmth and enthusiasm, saying she was excited and appreciated it. Then she added that she needed a bit more time because she was expecting another offer shortly and wanted to weigh them both.
“It was almost like throwing a grenade. I said it and I waited to see what happened,” Ms. Altimare says. To her relief, the managers responded warmly, saying they weren’t surprised, and negotiated a decision deadline that worked for them both. She received three offers and accepted the second one after comparing them all in detail, taking pains to thank the companies she turned down and explain how her reasons fit her long-term career plans.
Asking for a contact who can provide details of the offer can help you make a sound decision and buy a little more time, says Ms. Coyne, a senior executive coach in New York with GetFive, a career-services firm. If you believe another offer is imminent, consider moving things along by calling a potential boss to say, “No pressure, but I want to be honest with you. I have an offer on the table,” says Ms. Coyne, a former hiring manager at a law firm.
With offers in hand, make a checklist or spreadsheet of pros and cons of each. Many candidates err in focusing too heavily on salary. Pay is important, especially for those facing serious student-loan debt or family obligations. But other factors can have a major impact on well-being too, such as time with your children and exercise.
When Brenda Sanchez-Pineda, a former senior human-resources manager with Avon Products , considered competing offers from Estée Lauder and another company, she thought, “How great would that look on my résumé, to go from Avon to Estée Lauder?” But the Estée Lauder job was 90 minutes by bus from her Pennsylvania home.
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She took a position instead with a smaller company, a maker of natural ingredients where she could have a bigger impact. Also, her office in Mount Olive, N.J., is a pleasant drive of a little less than an hour from her home, and she enjoys the scenery en route. “My commute is a reflection time for me,” she says.
Trying to use multiple offers to start a bidding war can backfire. Julie Kantor, a New York City executive coach, says an employee at a company she works with asked her boss to match a higher-paying offer. The employee didn’t know she had been placed on a short list of candidates for layoffs. She was quickly shown the door.
“It’s like Russian roulette,” Ms. Kantor says. “Pull the trigger on the wrong employer and you may lose.”
What if you say yes to a position you like and your dream job lands in your lap three days later? You should avoid backing out of an agreement if possible. But if the dream job will allow you to have a bigger impact, thrive and work toward a mission you care about, you may owe it to yourself to accept. Be appreciative and empathetic when you deliver the news to the runner-up, and explain why your reasons are so compelling.
Then stick to your decision.