Turning Down a Job Offer
This post was originally published in the Harvard Business Review.
You would have thought a friend or colleague crazy last year if they had asked for advice on how to turn down a job offer as everyone around you held on to their jobs for dear life. But as the economy slowly recovers, people are once again beginning to embrace something many considered long gone: choice.
If you are lucky enough to be in a position to choose between two offers or luckier still to have the ability to simply turn down a job that isn’t quite right, your good fortune also brings with it a certain level of responsibility — that of declining the offer graciously and skillfully without burning bridges or creating ill-will.
As with any carefully crafted message, you need to think in advance about how to communicate your decision in a way that makes you look good and leaves your rejected employer with their ego in tact. The best way to do this is to include the following three key points in your conversation:
- A Gracious Thank You
- A Well-Thought Out Rationale
- Forward Momentum
The very first thing you must start with when turning down a job offer is a heartfelt thank you to the person who extended the offer. Make sure to communicate that you are appreciative of the offer and state that you respect both the organization and the other person — don’t make it seem as though the position was beneath you or that you didn’t give the offer serious thought and consideration.
Next comes your rationale for turning down the job. This is the most difficult aspect of the conversation but also the most important. There are myriad reasons a job won’t be a perfect fit and many of them are perfectly plausible and valid. Others may be harder to justify or voice (it’s hard to decline on the grounds of the hiring manager being a jerk or the fact that you can’t bear to leave the West Coast).
Even if your rationale strays from the politically correct or socially acceptable, 99% of the time you can communicate even the most delicate of reasons in a professional and tactful way. Here is some helpful language around five common reasons you might turn down an offer:
External Factors: Geography, family, timing. It’s always easier to blame a decision on someone or something else: if issues beyond your control prevent you from accepting a position, be honest: “Unfortunately, I can’t make the move because of family obligations.” Or, “As much as I am interested in the position, I’ve decided it’s not the right time to uproot my family and move across the country.”
Money: It’s absolutely okay to turn down a position that doesn’t pay well (enough). You are allowed to say: “I wish I could make it work, however I need to be at a higher compensation level. I’m sure you understand.”
Lack of Skills/Qualifications: If you don’t have the requisite skill-set to knock the ball out of the park or you suspect you’re being set up to fail, then the best way to bow out is to state this: “After much consideration, I’ve decided I can’t realistically exceed expectations and I’d never want to join an organization where I won’t be able to under promise and over deliver.”
People Issues: You can’t tell someone you don’t like them or their colleagues, but you can use “cultural fit” as a catchall when your personality doesn’t jive with a team or organization. For instance, “I respect the work you all do but I just don’t think it’s the right fit for me personally. I’m going to continue looking for something more face-paced/more entrepreneurial/ with a flatter organizational structure, etc.
Dead End: If a job is appealing today but won’t move you in the right direction towards your ultimate career goals, you are entitled to say so. People will generally respect your long-term career goals. “As much as I’d love to join the team, I really need to get some fundraising experience so that I can transition into a development role in the next few years. Truthfully, the program manager position just isn’t going to do that for me.”
Once you’ve given a thoughtful reason for why you’ve turned down the position, thank your counterparty again and offer to stay in touch or wish them luck with the hiring process. You can acknowledge that you’d like to be kept abreast of new opportunities or revisit the situation if your external factors happen to change. It’s not crazy to think that the employer you dismiss today may be appealing to you down the road, so keep the relationship positive and the door open.