If you have ever gone through an application marathon - sending out application after application and running to interview after interview - you may have found yourself thinking: “If I ever get any offer at all, I’ll just take it.” It’s understandable because let’s face it: A job hunt has a whole array of unpleasantries in store, discussing your greatest weaknesses with people you have only known for 45 minutes, and nights spent wide awake worrying about the next credit card bill are just a few of those perks.
In those situations having more than one job offer to choose from seems like a distant and - let’s be honest - a very luxurious problem to have. Still, as hard as it is to imagine, the situation arises more often than not. Since there are certain peak seasons for job applications, the processes often overlap in time. You may not hear back from any employers for weeks, and then all of a sudden find yourself with three job offers at once. Still can’t see the problem?
Here is the thing: Especially in the beginning of your career, you do not want to burn any bridges. Even if you do not want to work for a company now does not mean that you will never deal with them again in the future, especially if you stay in the same industry. If you have ever broken up with someone or been broken up with, you know that rejection is a delicate thing to deal with on both ends of the stick. And even though no one has ever written a great romantic novel titled “Love in the Time of Employment Contracting”, there is no reason you can’t reject a job offer in a decent manner:
# Be honest
“It’s not you, it’s me” may be a cliché - but in work situations it has the advantage that it is most likely true. If you have found an employer who you feel supports your career goals better or offers better opportunities for your personal development than another employer, there is no shame in saying so when rejecting a job offer. Remember that companies are competing for talent just as much as you are competing for jobs, so you don’t have to be apologetic - giving them a short reason may actually be helpful for their HR work.
# Be friendly
Still, there is no need to be rude. Thank them for offering you the job and for taking the time to interview with you and highlight something that you found especially positive about this employer. Also, while you can be honest about your motives for refusing the job, you shouldn’t necessarily go into detail about everything you didn’t like about the presentation of the company or the character flaws that you may have found in your interviewer - that is not exactly professional.
# Be quick
It does not have to be a knee-jerk reaction of screaming “Nooo” into the receiver the minute human resources calls you. But once you have made up your mind about which job offer to accept, you should also be quick to let other HR departments off the hook. Especially when you have applied to different companies in the same industry, you want any employer to hear it from you and not through the grapevine (news travel fast through unofficial channels, even between competing companies). Also, if you have the chance to call someone directly to reject a job offer, do it. It is always more personal than dropping them an e-mail - but both calling or writing is better than not letting the employer know at all.
# Be brief
No one wants to hear or read a long story with a lot of twists and turns about how your decision came about - after all, life goes on. Any HR professional will be grateful for a reasonable, nice but short message and then turn around to continue the search for the next great candidate that they can offer the job. So do everyone a favor and be concise.
# Be helpful
You might even find a way to turn your refusal into someone else’s opportunity. If you have the feeling that the employer is open to it, you can always forward the name of a friend or acquaintance who you know would be interested and perfect for the job. Just make sure that the person you intend to put forward as a candidate knows about this beforehand to avoid embarrassing misunderstandings.
# At last…
...it’s time for the biggest rejection cliché of all: the “let’s be friends”-phrase. The beauty of it is that in an employment situation this is actually possible. There is a key scene in the hit TV series Mad Men where the charismatic creative director Donald Draper offers a new job to one of his younger colleagues. As she asks “What if I say no? You will never speak to me again”, he replies:
“No. I will spend the rest of my life trying to hire you.”
Now, that might be a tad overdramatic for real life situations, but you get the gist: Candidates rejecting a job is not only something that can be dealt with professionally, but something that can potentially make you an even more attractive hire in the future - because it says something about your personality if you manage to refuse a job gracefully and with everyone’s pride still intact.