The Best Way To Turn Down A Job Offer

Illustrations by Mallory Heyer.
We talk a lot about how to search for a new job, how to network, and how to kill it in an interview. But, what do you do if you’re offered a job you don’t really want? How do you turn it down and keep your professional reputation?

I’ve been making plans to move to L.A. from the New York area ever since my friend offered me a room last winter. But, I wasn’t sure what would happen in the next few months — I was getting traction with my freelance career, but it still wasn’t enough to pay the bills. So, I kept applying for New York-based opportunities, and eventually I started getting interviews. When I met with editors about part-time and contract positions, I was very open about my hopes to leave NYC; I was more reticent to disclose that detail when interviewing for full-time jobs with benefits. But, if I found the perfect job, maybe I’d be convinced to stay.

“The challenge is always timing,” says Leah Lattimore, senior director of the NYU Wasserman Career Center. She points out that interviewing processes can overlap — you can be in final rounds with one job and be starting the interview process for another at the same time. If both opportunities seem like viable options, it makes sense to see where each one goes. The key, as with most tricky professional situations, is to be respectful and grateful for being considered for the position when first offered. “If it’s something you need to think about, ask for some time to consider, and ask for a deadline for your decision,” recommends Lattimore. 
Sit down and consider the pros and cons: Does the job work in terms of location and salary? Do you feel comfortable moving, if that would be necessary? Are the benefits right for you? And so on. One problem Lattimore sees cropping up is when someone accepts an offer immediately without thinking and has to renege later. “That can be a little bit tricky, because your professional reputation is at stake,” she points out. “That job offer would’ve taken time, energy, and funding.”

If you haven’t accepted the job yet, but you know you’re not taking the offer, tell the prospective employer immediately. “I always encourage students to call,” says Lattimore, as it’s more courteous than just sending an email. 
Illustrations by Mallory Heyer.
In terms of a script, she says to keep it short and sweet. “People make a mistake where they go into a lot of personal detail...Keep it broad strokes, like you’ve decided to ‘go in a different direction,'...or, 'Unfortunately I won’t be able to accept this role.'” She recommends not bringing up disappointment in salary or benefits. However, if you’ve already accepted, but need to rescind, be prepared to go into more detail. “The employer might be upset with you, and you might not have a relationship with that company in the future,” Lattimore acknowledges. 

In any case, remember to be especially polite and considerate when turning down an offer you’ve already accepted. And, if you’re rejecting one offer for another one, cover your bases: “Make sure you have that job, with a written offer in hand, already accepted,” says Lattimore firmly. You don’t want to get stuck in a position where the job falls through and you’re stuck with nothing. Think of it as the opposite rule of relationships: Have a set option in place before turning down all other offers.

To avoid putting yourself in this position, Lattimore suggests knowing exactly what you want when it comes to a job. “Our students have multiple offers at the same time, and it’s [about] figuring out what’s best for you. We always encourage students to make a list of what they value, what they’re interested in,” she adds. Whether it’s an easy commute or top-notch benefits, it’s imperative to know what you personally appreciate the most when it comes to a job. (Also kind of like dating!) Knowing your non-negotiables will help make the decision-making easier for you, and will give you more conviction as well. And yes, you should always try to mull over the decision. “Most importantly, be thoughtful,” Lattimore says. “Don’t feel rushed.” 

Finally, even if you haven’t gotten a job offer, it’s always good to inform prospective employers that you’re no longer interested in the job you’ve been applying for. “It is a nice courtesy to remove yourself from the process,” Lattimore explains. You can simply send an email that says, “If I’m still an option, I really appreciate that, but I’m moving on.”

Turning down jobs might seem like a good thing, but it can be a stressful conversation, and — like all pieces of the job search — it's best handled with honesty and integrity.  

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