And, typically, it’s not a big deal to move on from your company if the perfect opportunity comes up, especially if you’ve been in your current position for more than a year or two.
But what if that perfect job offer comes in before you even start your current job? What do you do if you’ve already confirmed you’ll start at another company—and then in waltzes “The One?”
Can you decline a job offer that you’ve already accepted?
This is a tough question, and unfortunately, there really isn’t a clear-cut answer. Sure, you can legally renege on a job offer—at-will employment means you can technically leave at the drop of a hat—but there’s much more to consider before you turn down one company for another.
Here are a few things to think about if you have a new offer—plus one smart way to make sure you’re never in the “should I or shouldn’t I?” situation ever again.
The Rule of Thumb
Consider this: The hiring process is long and hard, and once you’ve interviewed, been offered a job, and accepted, your future bosses are likely breathing a sigh of relief, high-fiving, and sending rejection letters to all of the other candidates.
So you can imagine how they’ll feel when they have to start the process all over again.
While you may think that you’ll never have to see these people again, the fact is that recruiters move around from company to company, so you have no idea how far your reputation will spread. The repercussions are impossible to measure, and while you may get lucky, you also might be irreversibly damaging your professional reputation. Not a risk you want to take.
In other words, in most situations it’s generally unwise to renege on a job offer. And before you say, “But my dream company…!” remember that, ideally, your dream job will continue to exist for many years. The recruiter you worked with will likely be understanding if you explain that you love the company and hope to maintain the relationship for future opportunities, but that you’ve already made a commitment to another. Showing integrity during this process leaves a good impression—and will put you in a good place to apply again a few years down the road.
But What if It’s Unavoidable?
Of course, there are always extenuating circumstances that go beyond having another offer—maybe you have a parent who lives across the country and suddenly falls ill or your spouse has just been transferred to another state.
In cases like these, communication and honesty are key in going back to your new employer and explaining why you won’t be able to join the team after all. Life happens, and most people will see this is beyond your control, especially if your reasoning is genuine and not a ploy to accept a more tempting offer. You’ll need to make it very clear that it is not for lack of excitement about the job or company that is making you have second thoughts—it’s the unavoidable situation you find yourself in.
Preferably, you should have this conversation in person or at least over the phone. And, it never hurts to follow up that conversation with a gracious thank-you note to the office thanking them for the opportunity to work together.
How to Never Renege Again
Besides reneging or not reneging, there’s the oft-underutilized third option: pushing for more time to make a decision about a position you’re not sure about.
Here’s the thing: If you’ve been offered a job but have another, more enticing job opportunity in the works, do not accept it. Sure, it’s understandable to not want to give up the safety net of having a job offer, but it’ll put you in a much less awkward position down the line if you negotiate for more time.
A good way to approach this is to first thank the employer for the opportunity when you receive the verbal offer. Rather than accepting the offer, explain that having the opportunity to speak with a few more people in the company to learn about the culture or projects would be really helpful in making your decision. This will naturally take a bit more time than simply making a decision, so this is a reasonable time to suggest a deadline that is more favorable to your timeline. Most companies will appreciate that you are interested in doing the due diligence to make sure you are a good fit—and you can still maintain a safety net without setting yourself up to burn bridges as you await the job offer from your dream company.
No matter how you choose to handle this delicate situation, remember to remain true to your values and continue to cultivate a trustworthy professional reputation within your network. In the long run, you’ll position yourself well for whatever the future brings.
Lily Zhang serves as a Manager of Graduate Student Professional Development at the MIT Media Lab where she works with a range of students from AI experts to interaction designers. When she’s not indulging in a new book or video game, she’s thinking about, talking about, or writing about careers. Follow her musings on Twitter @lzhng.More from this Author