The Delicate Art of Declining a Job Offer

The Delicate Art of Declining a Job Offer

Declining a job offer can be anxiety producing. You might feel guilt or fear anticipating the prospective employer’s disappointment, frustration and—possibly—annoyance. Your refusal is the final chapter of the interviewing process with that prospective employer and you want your last impression to be as positive as your first obviously was with them. The legal marketplace is small, and it’s likely you’ll cross paths with members of the rejected organization again in the future.  So, you must handle the refusal of any offer very delicately.

To make the process easier, keep these tips in mind:

It’s your prerogative

Just because you interview for a position doesn’t mean you must accept it if offered, nor does it obligate the prospective employer to hire you. The interviewing process is a two-way street, with each party evaluating the other and your fit for the role and the organization. A prospective employer wouldn’t feel guilty if it didn’t select you as the top candidate. Likewise, it’s reasonable for you to decide the organization or job is not right for you—just as long as you didn’t mislead them during the interviewing process by indicating you definitely would accept the job if offered. To head off any misunderstandings, be transparent throughout the process about your compensation expectations, interest level, concerns, and whether you’re exploring other opportunities at the same time.

Don’t delay

Once you determine the offer isn’t for you, don’t delay to politely, but clearly, communicate your decision. Even if you’re considering other options but haven’t tied down the position you really want, don’t ask for a week to “think things over” or “consult with your significant other” to string out the process until completing the quest for your desired opportunity. That unfairly wastes the offering employer’s valuable time. They have a need to fill and probably have other candidates on hold, who also may be interviewing elsewhere, but would be delighted to receive the offer once you decline it. Take just enough time to formulate your response and then deliver it promptly, allowing the employer to move on.

Prepare

If you’re working with a legal search consultant, give her a call as soon as you’ve made your decision either way. First, it’s a courtesy since they made the introduction. Second, they can advise you and walk you through the process. Although the recruiter can deliver the offer refusal on your behalf, it is by far more honorable for you to deliver the news yourself. Remember, the legal market is small and memories of bad behavior can be long-lasting. Done well, an offer rejection can even pave the way for a future relationship of some sort down the line.

Be clear in your own mind why you are turning the offer down so you can provide an articulate and genuine message to the employer. Then create your message, write it down, and practice it out loud in the mirror, in the car, or with a friend—and then with your recruiter, if you are using one.

Deliver the message

Just as soon as you can after making your decision, email the person who gave you the offer to schedule time for a live call—usually the hiring partner, practice group leader, or recruiting manager. If you reach voicemail, leave a short message asking for a return call to discuss the offer. Don’t, at that point, mention anything about your decision.

While it’s okay to decline a job offer by email, a live phone call is better. Timeliness is more important than connecting by phone, however. So, if reaching someone by phone would take days, go ahead and send an email. Just add a note like, “I hoped to reach you by phone, but wasn’t able to connect and didn’t want to delay the process.”

Even if you delivered the message directly by phone, follow up with a letter or email addressed to the person who offered you the position. Any good lawyer wants to leave a paper trail. An offer rejection is like a mini version of a resignation letter and, as with any business communication, must be well written and without typos or grammatical errors.

Once your intent is received in writing and filed away, there’s no confusion as to whether you accepted or rejected the offer. It removes any potential for mixed signals about whether you’re holding out for a “sweetener” before accepting, such as a higher salary, benefits, title, etc. If you really want the job but unhappy with some of the terms of the offer, don’t use refusal as a ploy. Negotiate for what you want and, if you remain unhappy with the terms, then decline the offer. Do thank them, however, for trying to make it work.

Explain your decision

If the prospective employer probes into your thinking behind the rejection, give a succinct answer without delving into detail. It’s sufficient to say you’ve accepted a job offer elsewhere (no need to say where) or simply that this job offer isn’t the right fit for your career goals at this time. Be as honest as possible without being too critical. But, if you have constructive feedback about the interviewing process or something else about the offer, present it delicately. That information might help the organization make positive changes.

Express gratitude

Every offer rejection—whether verbal or written—must include a genuine expression of thanks and appreciation for the opportunity as well as for the employer’s time and dedication to your candidacy. Mention specific positives about the interviewing experience and the employer, if at all possible. Speaking well of their organization communicates that you truly had an interest in working there and they didn't waste their valuable time interviewing you.

Leave the door open

If you think you might be interested in working with the firm or the lawyers you met there at some point, say something like, “I’m really impressed by your team and hope to find a way to be a part of it in the future, even though the timing (or compensation, etc.) didn’t work out this time.” Add that you hope to keep in contact and, if possible, mention that you look forward to seeing them at an upcoming event or conference you both may attend.

For other interviewers you met during the process, consider calling or sending them a gracious email, as well. Let them know that you declined the offer but wanted to thank them for taking the time to get to know you. You can add that you really enjoyed your meetings and look forward to staying in touch.

Once the dust has settled a few weeks later, you can request to connect through LinkedIn with those with whom you want to maintain a more active relationship. Remember, however, to skip the generic message and personalize it, reminding the prospective contact who you are and—even better—something specific you discussed during the interviewing process.

Key points

When turning down a job offer, be prompt, grateful, polite, and professional.

Valerie Fontaine

Valerie A. Fontaine earned her JD from UC Hastings College of Law and her BA, Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude, from UCLA. She was on the Editorial Board of COMM/ENT, a Journal of Communications and Entertainment Law. Valerie practiced law with a prominent Los Angeles law firm and entered the legal search profession in 1981. Valerie is a member the Board of Directors of the National Association of Legal Search Consultants (NALSC) and serves on its Ethics Committee.
Valerie Fontaine

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