How to politely decline a job offer after acceptance

Just in case you weren’t stressed enough as-is, here’s an emotional stock image to remind you. | Image: abovethelaw.com

I’m now 8 months into my first job and recently spoke with a friend when I was reminded of the stressful decisions I had to make last year, at the point of choosing the career path I wanted to pursue.

It was fall 2015, after my summer internship with Procter and Gamble (P&G) when I was offered a conversion to join the firm as a Finance Analyst after graduation. A penultimate year student then, I jumped for joy. And naturally jumped at the opportunity. That first internship with P&G validated all the good things I’ve heard about the firm — a vigorous culture of bottom-up empowerment and investment in your personal development, the promise of a steep learning curve and rewarding journey etc… I felt no hesitation when the contract was presented in front of me.

But fast forward a year later, I experimented with consulting internships and then became certain of my interest to pursue strategy consulting. At that point of time, I was reading A.G. Lafley’s “Playing to Win” (sorry to say, I didn’t think it was very enlightening) when I got curious and did a LinkedIn sampling of ~70 names which were quoted in the book as anecdotes of P&G’s success stories. It turned out that an overwhelming majority (>90%) of examples involved folks who were in the Marketing function, which validated my thoughts that a non-marketeer in P&G rarely has opportunities to shape its corporate strategy. Symbolically, that was also me putting on my consultant hat in hypothesis testing.

The reasons why I loved P&G did not change. But when it came to setting strategy and making impact, the Finance role in P&G simply wasn’t as well-positioned compared to consulting. In December 2016, I then made the decision of declining the P&G job offer I’ve accepted and signed more than a year back. A year back. Trust me when I say that I was terribly stressed out on trying to find the best ways to weasel myself out of the contract.

For those of you who are in that same situation now — seeking to rescind on an offer you’ve previously already accepted, here’s some advice for you based on my personal experiences. [As a disclaimer, I’m not encouraging folks to bite onto any job offers coming your way, and then renege on them when you get a better one.]

If you’re reading through other posts on this topic right now, you probably felt the same way I felt previously — pretty fucking anxious. You’ll be seeing phrases like “you’ve burnt the bridge”, “… then you shouldn’t have accepted it in the first place”, “your reputation will spread across the industry” or HR managers complaining “we’ve invested A LOT in the hiring process, and have turned down all other applicants for this position”.

But first, calm down. And here are a few reasons to be on the moral high-ground in doing so:

1. You’ve already made up your mind, and with good reasons…
Right? If you couldn’t confidently agree with this statement, first take some time to really examine what you’re looking for in a career. Make sure that this isn’t a decision you’re making purely because of a better salary package or vanity factors despite other alarm bells ringing off. Rationalising this out is a good way to help yourself gain clarity in decision-making anyway.

2. The hiring manager was pushy and gave you less than 2 weeks of notice to respond
If so, you’ve got some strong firepower to provide feedback and inform them that the short few days of notice pressured you into making a hasty, uninformed decision.

But if the part on the hiring manager isn’t true (don’t worry — I personally had ample time to consider the offer, and after *cough* more than a year of *cough* acceptance, I reneged less than a month before my start date), here are more reasons:

3. Most firms invest more (or at least equally) in training and development than the hiring process
The firm may have invested a lot into the hiring process, but they will certainly invest more into on-boarding, training and development for you after you’ve joined the firm. As the Chinese would say: 长痛不如短痛 — you might as well cut the losses short for the firm rather than have you perform sub-optimally in a role you wish you didn’t take up.

4. Firms highly value your “fit”
Be it “fit” in terms of culture / personality, or “fit” in terms of your professional objectives and the type of work you want to do, employers seek a good fit because it is important for their effectiveness. They are more invested in building the right culture than you are. If they know that things have changed and you may no longer be a good fit, chances are, they may prefer to give you their blessings should you choose to leave.

5. You own your career and your life
Lastly — harden up and consider the fact that we’re all likely insignificant in the grand scheme of things. The firm will move on even if you chose not to join it. For many of us, the world wouldn’t skip a beat if we passed away at this moment. #hardtruths. So take charge of your career and make the choices selfishly.

So, now that you’re (hopefully) more calm… How should you do this without “burning any bridges”?

1. Act quickly
If you are already feeling guilty about pulling out at the last minute, delaying this decision and your actions any longer would only cause more pain for your hiring manager.

2. Communicate respectfully and don’t be a coward about it
Send an email to your hiring manager and schedule a call or coffee with him / her to talk about it. No long text messages, GIFs or even self-recorded videos are going to cut it. For all the effort the firm has made into your recruitment, the least you could do is respectfully have a conversation and communicate your decision. It may be an awkward conversation, but it is absolutely necessary.

3. Have a solid reason why, and be honest (but tactful) about it
I wouldn’t judge a peer who prioritises job offers, even if solely based on remuneration. But it is a true test of character if you give a rationale of poor fit for your decision to leave, and then show a hint of re-consideration once the hiring manager counter-offers you with a better salary package.

4. Express gratitude and be genuine about it
Wrap your apologies up with a ribbon, send a thank-you note after, offer a box of chocolates — whatever you want to do. But a plain old “thank you, and I really appreciate this opportunity in any case” wouldn’t hurt.

Do you agree? Disagree? Feel free to share additional tips if you been through this experience as well!

Originally published on bolong.co, September 30, 2017.

I’m no writer but I help startups expand and scale in Asia