How to Decline an Offer (But Leave the Door Open)

You baited your job-searching hook and now you have a bite—a job offer. Or maybe a headhunter called you out of the blue offering you what’s considered an outstanding position. Congratulations seem to be in order.

Decline an Offer

But you’re not opening champagne yet. Problem is, things have changed in your personal life or in your job search. Perhaps the company is a great fit, the actual job not so much. Here’s how to decline a job offer and keep the door open for the future at that company.

When turning down a job, you know yourself, your skills, values and preferences, says Joanne Korman Goldman, an executive, career and life coach and founder/owner of JKG Coaching. Based on that self-awareness, you may not see yourself in the proposed role.

Soul-Draining Job

Red flags of a soul-draining position include:

  • The position requires a long commute, relocation or extensive travel.
  • The responsibilities of the job don’t excite you.
  • You can’t see yourself making an impact.
  • You’re unqualified for the role.
  • It’s a dead-end job.
  • The hours required don’t provide work/life balance.
  • You don’t want to work for the person you’d be reporting to.
  • You don’t feel like you’re a cultural fit with the particular group or department.

Good Job, Bad Timing

On the other hand, the job could be perfect, but the professional or personal timing is off, Goldman says. Examples include:

  • You’ve decided to take a job with another company—but who knows, it might not work out.
  • You’re in school and realize it’s too much to balance a new job while pursuing the degree.
  • You want to travel or volunteer abroad before taking a job.
  • You’re in the middle of a divorce with limited energy and emotional capacity to start something new
  • You’re dealing with medical or psychological health issues and need time to heal.
  • A family member, such as a child or aging parent, needs your full attention.

Hate to Walk Away

But ouch, it hurts to walk away from a great company and/or perfect job. The song going through your head is Seals & Crofts’ “We May Never Pass This Way Again.”

Before assuming you have only two choices: take the job as-is or decline the offer, consider whether there’s a compromise in the job description or situation that you could negotiate, such as working from home one day a week to limit a long commute, or postpone the start date for several months until a personal situation clears, Goldman says.

Although the position offered may not be right for you or the timing may be off, the company could otherwise be a fit, Goldman says. That means future opportunities could be a match. The prospective employer already has given the green light to hire you. If you see yourself working there, just not for the job on the table, why not leave the door open for the future?

Be Polite and Professional

No matter the outcome, Goldman says, take these steps to leave the door open—or at least cracked, show good manners and professionalism:

*Be gracious. Thank whoever extended the offer to you.

*Be respectful of their time. Contact them as soon as you realize you want to decline their offer.

* Be sincere, professional and genuine about why you want to pass on the particular job. If employers sense your authenticity they’ll see it as a sign of maturity, making it worth their while to keep you in mind for future jobs.

Be Proactive

*Describe the type of role you’re looking for so they’ll know for next time.

*Be enthusiastic. Provide concrete reasons why you want to work there and, more importantly, the objectives you would help them reach in the right role.

*Be proactive. Find roles on their website, job posting or other source that would be a better fit and express interest. Make sure you’ve mapped your qualifications to your preferred role or area of interest prior to having a discussion. Make it easy for the hiring manager to understand your desire.

*If you haven’t had the interview yet, suggest an exploratory rather than a specific job interview.  Discovery meetings with prospective employers explore your skills, interests and experiences while clarifying roles, departments and functions within the organization. This is a great way to land the right job in a company that values a collaborative approach to hiring.

Your success will largely depend on whether you’ve created a mutually respectful relationship with the hiring manager and the willingness of both parties to collaborate on a common goal.

How This Works in Real Life

This worked out well for one of Goldman’s clients. “She received an offer from her dream company, but the position didn’t excite her at all,” Goldman says. “She’s a big picture, strategic professional, and the role was too detailed and in the weeds for her. Because she knew her strengths and had the foresight to realize she wouldn’t perform well in the job offered, she graciously and courageously declined the offer. She expressed genuine interest in the company, essentially saying yes to the company, but no to the job.”

The client described the type of role she excelled in and the benefit she would provide in that role. “The hiring manager was so impressed with her self-awareness, professional acumen and clear value to his organization that he expressed continued interest,” Goldman says. “Over the next few months my client stayed in touch, dropping the hiring manager a note now and then with strategic insights about the organization or industry, and updating him on new wins in her current role.  A few months later, my client interviewed and received a job offer for a higher-level position than the original one.”

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