Can you and should you back out of a job offer?
If you’ve accepted a job offer, what should you do if other opportunities then present themselves?
I’m a firm believer in keeping your job options open until the day that you actually start work. Things can fall through at the last minute, and few things are more difficult than resuming the search after you thought it was over. But what happens if your post-offer job search bears fruit? Do you walk away from the offer you already have? Or, if you’ve already started at the new job, do you walk away from it almost immediately to engage with the other company?
Those questions don’t have easy answers, unless you inject “it depends,” – that all-purpose response to tough questions – into the equation.
First, let’s consider what it depends on. What factors should go into your decision-making? How can you handle these fraught situations with as much grace, and as little pain, as possible?
You need a clear-headed and practical approach in the face of an emotion-laden moment, a moment that is not psychologically easy by its very nature. Here you are with an embarrassment of riches: one job that’s a done deal and another in the offing.
Others might envy that position.
Having that one job in hand, though, is not an unalloyed good when another option comes rolling in, because walking away from a job you haven’t even started is complicated.
You may feel guilty about turning your back on the people who hired you. You may feel like you’re betraying their trust. You may fear that you’ll damage your reputation. You may also fear damage to your self-esteem as someone who values commitment and loyalty. It all adds up to more than enough emotion to handle, a situation that always calls for a pause and a deep breath. Emotion is not the best foundation for good decision-making. You need a cool and rational approach to whatever decision you make.
So: What cool and rational criteria can drive good decision-making in these kinds of situations?
There are several criteria that are worth a look.
Real offers are in writing, promises are not.
Don’t trade a firm, written offer for a promise, no matter how good that promise sounds. In the world of hiring, there’s no substitute for an offer that’s in writing and that includes as many specifics as possible. There are countless applicants who’ve submitted ideal-seeming resumes and who have participated in flawless interviews without getting hired in the end. Remember that there can be people in the chain-of-hiring-command whom you’ve never even heard of, let alone met.
There are staff members with hiring veto power who you never would have suspected of having that power. There is no viable substitute for an offer that is firm and written. Think long and hard before walking away from a firm commitment if you’re walking toward vague promises that may never come to pass – even promises from very reliable people you’re inclined to trust.
Are the offers truly comparable?
If you do have two real, dependable offers, look closely at what’s being offered. Don’t stop at salary comparisons; benefits in different forms can make all the difference. Some benefits, like insurance and 401(k) contributions, can certainly be compared on a dollar basis, but don’t forget that not all benefits have explicit prices attached. Don’t forget things like vacation time and personal leave, don’t forget to compare various kinds of flexibility, like options to work from home, and don’t forget things like commuting distance that, while not explicitly parts of the job description, are very much the things that have profound effects on quality of life, even if all other things are equal.
Which job would you dream about more?
Turning your back on the job you’ve been offered is not an easy thing. It can be worth it, though, if one of your options is much closer to your dream job than the other. This is a purely qualitative judgment, though it might involve some of the concrete differences already noted, but it’s a very real issue. Only you can define your dream job, but you’ll know it when you see it, and the closer one of your options is to that dream (and the farther away the other options might be) the more worthwhile it becomes to make a dramatic move away from the bird in hand.
What about a worst-case scenario that might also be a best-case scenario?
What happens when you’ve accepted a firm, written offer and have continued the job search even after you sensed that you’d be hired – a strategy I consistently recommend given the uncertainties of the search – and, lo and behold, you get another firm, written offer from a second company? In other words, you’re blessed with an offer from Company Two when you’ve already accepted one from Company One. What then?
In almost every iteration of this scenario, reneging on that first acceptance is the wrong thing to do. As a purely practical matter, it’s a mistake to back out if the new offer is no more than an incremental improvement over the first offer. Then, there’s no reason to walk away. You accepted that first offer in good faith after giving it plenty of thought, and you’re aware of the energy and expense that your would-be employer expended in the hiring process. Maybe you don’t feel the same reluctance to walk out on a company as you would to walk out on a person, but the costs to that organization don’t decrease just because it’s impersonal.
And the same holds true for the cost to your reputation. Reneging on a promise isn’t something you want to be known for.
All that being said, there is one, and only one, scenario in which you might consider going back on your word: when the new offer gets you your absolute dream job. I’m talking about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the one that leaves you in no doubt about its power to advance your professional aspirations, the one you really have dreamed of, and the one, by the way, that promises at least the same concrete benefits as the existing offer. If all that is true, go for it. For anything less, keep your word, stick to your plan, and do your very best at the job you’d already agreed to do.
Burning Bridges and the Consequences
If you do walk away, you can’t expect Company One to be happy when you announce your big surprise. If its unhappiness is extreme, there’s nothing to prevent that company from taking you to court in an effort to enforce the contract it thought it had.
That’s a consequence you should be aware of, though a lawsuit isn’t all that likely in reality, because even winning in court is not an unmixed blessing. Far from it. Would the company even want to win the suit and force you to take the job? Would it expect you to be a happy, productive new hire in that case? And would it want to be known as the company that sues the people it hires? That’s not a good look.
So, whatever the strictly legal merits, even a winning suit may amount to a bad business decision, and, to make the decision even less appealing, the winning itself is hardly guaranteed. If the company hopes to hold you to your promise, courts are reluctant to force a person to work when and where she doesn’t want to.
Perhaps, though, the company might try to avoid the “forced labor” problem with a different approach, one that seeks compensation for its hiring costs. That might be a better approach, but it wouldn’t make those purely business considerations go away.
Before getting too carried away with legal theorizing, all this talk of lawsuits shouldn’t push you into acting out of fear. It does, however, underscore the seriousness of a decision that’s the very definition of a choice not to be made lightly. And even if all those business reasons make a company reluctant to sue, that’s not the end of the story. For one thing, don’t expect the company’s business reasons to make it keep things quiet. Don’t be surprised if word gets out, and do be prepared to explain yourself down the road. People will hear, and they – especially future employers – will want to know what happened.
And, of course, regardless of law or ethics, know that you’ve undoubtedly left some badly burned bridges behind you. Choosing to walk away from an offer you’ve accepted is an extreme measure. It should be saved for that moment when it’s extremely obvious that the new offer is far superior.
Will walking away hurt your career?
Regardless of the stage at which you walk away, this can be a complicated question to answer, as it raises some “sub-questions” of its own:
How likely is it that people in your industry will get wind of your decision?
Will it be seen as evidence of your disloyalty, unreliability, or even instability?
How will you explain the decision to future employers if it becomes known?
This question sometimes gets answered with a reminder of the heartlessness of employers. A well-meaning friend might tell you, “They wouldn’t hesitate to fire you in a heartbeat, so why should you show them more loyalty than they’ll show you?”
Cynical though that approach may be, there’s some truth to it, and it’s a hard truth to argue with in our age of increasingly at-will employment that leaves people feeling like they’re at the mercy of employers’ whims. But – and this is a big “but” – you and the company offering you the job are very different animals. Companies that become known as bad employers can suffer from that reputation when it comes to recruiting and morale, but they’re just as likely to be able to pass off their behavior as rational business decision-making.
For an individual in the job marketplace, however, the situation is obviously more personal. Potential damage to your reputation is something that can’t always be undone, but the risk of damage is not enough reason to start work in a position when you have another offer for something that would suit you much better. And a rational decision to give up one job offer– especially for a once-in-a-lifetime chance at your dream job, for example – is not something that a future employer will necessarily condemn.
If you have good reasons for making the choice you make, whether those reasons are money, the nature of the company or the kind of work you’d be doing, future employers will understand. And the ones who don’t understand are probably not the ones you want to work for.
Note, though, that employers will be less understanding if you make a habit of jumping ship. Turning down an offer once you’ve accepted it is a big step, and not one to take lightly or often. It is, however, something that reasonable employers understand as a very occasional necessity.
They know it happens. Your job is to be ready to explain why it happened to you.
What about (re)negotiating?
Let’s say that you have accepted one offer and another is in the works, and that the only material difference between the two is a difference that can be measured in dollars and cents. As you’ve seen, it’s not a good option to try to walk away from that accepted offer in favor of something that may never come to pass. Here, though, you’re feeling under-compensated, and you wish you’d held out for more from Company One. After all, there’s a second company talking about better pay.
Can you reopen negotiations with Company One? Can you use Company Two’s promises as a bit of negotiating leverage?
The answer to both questions is “No.” First, Company Two is throwing numbers around without any actual commitment to those numbers. There’s no real leverage to be had. Second, you risk poisoning your relationship with Company One, the only organization that’s given you an actual job offer. Your acceptance of that offer is a binding contract. Both parties expect to adhere to its terms. Both parties expect the other party to adhere, as well.
Reopening negotiations is opening the proverbial can of worms. Better to keep your promise, remembering that Company Two is really only offering a non-binding piece of pie in the sky. And better to get to work, focused on improving your situation once you’re at your brand new desk.