Business Etiquette: Declining a Prospective Job Offer

My colleague at Parker Lynch Legal, Sharon McLaughlin, recently wrote a great blog on a topic not often discussed:  how to politely decline a potential new job offer.  I thought it was such a great topic that I decided to post her blog this month as my guest author.  Below are Sharon's etiquette guidelines for those times when you consider a new job, but decide it's not the right move.

Interviewing is a lot like dating.  Regardless of whether the position is in-house or in a law firm, it can often be a lengthy courting process during which you go on several dates (interviews), you meet the parents (upper-level management), get to know each other and decide whether to commit to developing a long-term relationship.  This is a big investment of time, resources and, quite frankly, emotion for both the candidate and prospective employer.  So, what happens when you, as the candidate, get a job offer and want to decline?  Or, even worse, what if you’ve already accepted the offer and change your mind before your start date?  How do you break up with a prospective employer? 

How to Turn Down a Job Offer

As Neal Sedaka said, “breaking up is hard to do.”  And, I recognize that it’s even harder for those who are, by nature, non-confrontational.  Believe it or not, a non-confrontational attorney is not always an oxymoron!   

An easy fix for some may be to deliver the message via an email or through a third person (such as a recruiter, if you got the job through that recruiter).  However under these circumstances, a phone call directly from you as the candidate, the person with whom the prospective employer has invested their time and energy, is most appropriate and considerate.  It’s just professional etiquette and good manners.

What’s wrong with an email?  An email can be perceived as equivalent to that iconic episode of Sex and The City where Jack Berger delivered the blow to Carrie via a Post-it note that said, "I'm sorry. I can't. Don't hate me."  The legal community is small, no matter how big your city.  It’s important not to burn bridges or act in a way that may reflect poorly on you.  It can have long term consequences that you may not be able to foresee now.   

During the call, be respectful and professional in your delivery.  There is no need to go into a lengthy explanation about all the reasons that they’re not “the one.”  This is one of those situations where less is more and a minimal, polite explanation is recommended.  You can also say things that may soften the blow, such as:

  • “it was a difficult decision” (even if it wasn’t),
  • you “appreciate their time and consideration,”
  • you “think highly of their organization”
  • and/or you “hope to cross paths with them in the future” … and, trust me, it is inevitable that you will.  Regardless of the city, it’s a small world.

Let’s face it, no one likes rejection and thus you may not salvage all relationships.  However, as long as you do what you can do to be appropriate, considerate and professional, you are preserving your professional reputation by acting with integrity and treating the potential employer with dignity.


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