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You’ve gone through the interviews and gotten the job offer. Generally, congratulations would be in order. But what happens if, after all is said and done, you decide that you don’t want to accept the job?
Knowing how to reject a job offer or promotion opportunity—gracefully and without burning bridges—can be a delicate matter. If this crucial turning point in the relationship between you and your prospective (or current) employer is bungled, it could damage your future career opportunities at that company.
Here are some best practices to help you navigate these tricky waters in your job search without going under:
Leave an Out
When it comes to new positions, the way that you close your interview process can pave the way for a graceful exit if needed. Keri Jensen, marketing director at search firm Whitman Partners, suggestsusing some key words when your potential new boss asks you at the close of the interview whether you’re interested in pursuing the position.
“Your response should be, ‘Yes! I will absolutely consider your most competitive offer,’” says Jensen. “The words ‘consider’ and ‘competitive’ are two key terms. The first gives you your out should the offer not come through with the desired package.
And the word competitive is that key word in negotiating that indicates there are alternative options and serves to drive your price (i.e. salary) higher.”
Do It Soon
If you’re going to reject a new job opportunity, time is of the essence. Dragging the process out longer than necessary wastes the time of hiring managers, recruiters, human resources, and others involved in the process. Therefore, Ray White, author of Connecting Happiness and Success, recommends taking yourself out of the running for any promotion or job offer as soon as you know it is not right for you. By withdrawing or declining early, an employer may be more likely to take you through the process in the future should a second chance arise.
“Many changes are made to organizations and other people’s potential positions before they actually make a job offer,” says White. “The hiring team will be selling their peers and bosses on your abilities and how you are a good solution. The further they get with their planning, the harder it will be for them to adjust to and emotionally accept you politely declining their offer. If they invest a lot of political capital in an offer you don’t accept, they may be less likely to risk that capital a second time.”
Share What’s Holding You Back
Katie Donovan, founder of Equal Pay Negotiations, believes it’s not so much about rejecting a job offer or promotion. It’s more about sharing the areas that are holding you back from accepting it. Donovan advises that candidates for promotions or new jobs in their company first express gratitude for the offer, and then explain what is holding them back from saying yes.
“Is it a promotion but no additional pay?” asks Donovan. “Is it that this will be your first time managing people and you would like to have additional help as you learn this skill, such as a coach or a class? Is it taking you away from your long-term goals? Opening up and making it a discussion is the best way to give management the opportunity to work with you or to say, ‘We can’t make this work but we’ll keep you in mind for another position.’”
Mention the Competition
If you are in a competitive job offer situation and decide to go with one company over another, it can help to reference this fact when you decline one of the positions. Letting the rejected employer know that your decision was linked to choosing another opportunity that fits better at this time may keep the door open to future possibilities.
“In this situation be professional and thank the company for the offer,” suggests Donovan. “Then say something like, ‘Although I seriously considered your job offer, I ended up going with another company because the offer included certain things (and be specific of at least one thing) that yours did not. I know I will keep following your company and hope someday our paths cross again.’”
As simple as it sounds, sometimes simply speaking genuinely and with clarity about what really matters to you can help avoid hard feelings when you turn down an offer. Career coach Daisy Swan shared that a 49-year-old client, whose background was as a senior executive in an engineering and design company, recently faced this situation when she accepted a position after months of discussion with several high profile organizations. Her acceptance of the post meant she needed to reject the other offers. To do so, Swan’s client focused on conveying why the position she chose best fit with her needs, while being gracious about it.
“She professionally, and kindly, explained that she had the good fortune to be offered a position that provided the flexibility, money, and projects that most fit with her interests and areas of growth she hopes to pursue, as well as meeting her personal needs of being able to work from home to minimize her commute,” said Swan. “Her other offers were appreciative of her time and consideration and were happy she was happy with what she selected. This is a great example of how rejecting an offer can be handled at any age.”
Know What You’re Doing
Before rejecting an internal promotion or outside job offer, be sure you understand the potential ramifications of your decision. It likely won’t be a problem to stay in your current position if you pass up a promotion within your company, since it’s a given that you’re performing well at it. But your future career progress in the organization may be hampered by a decision not to advance when it’s offered. “You will probably need to look elsewhere to move up the corporate ladder if you do pass on a promotion—or at least wait for a new person two levels above you since she or he is the one promoting,” says Donovan.
For external opportunities, if your job decline is handled delicately and with smart timing, you can likely salvage the possibility of a future connection with the organization you’ve currently passed up. “Definitely reapply to the company if you see something you want in the future,” says Donovan. “Turnover is so great that you should have a fair chance for the job—especially if you keep networking with the company at industry events and via social media to keep the door open.”