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Sunday, September 20, 2009

being given only 4 hours to decide on a job offer

A reader writes:

Earlier this year, I was interviewing for IT internships, and got into the final stages for a large international document handling company. I was one of six people, out of over 3000 applicants. I did thoroughly well throughout the day, but a few days later found that I did not in fact get the job.

Cue several weeks later, a Friday lunchtime; I get a phone call from my contact there; their first choice had rejected the offer and they wanted to offer the position to me instead. I asked for a week to think it over, which I believed to be reasonable, considering that it would be affecting where I would be working for the next year. I was told that they needed an answer by the end of the working day - four hours away. I told them that I would call them back; I took some time, spoke to my placement advisor, and ended up reluctantly calling them and verbally accepting.

I called another potential employer (another multinational in another, more stable market) I had previously scheduled an interview with to let them know that I had accepted another job; they asked if I had signed anything yet, and I confirmed that I had not. They offered to move my interview forward as they were keen to see me. I decided to attend, if only for interviewing experience, and it also went very well.

That Friday, I decided that the second company was a far better fit for myself, and sent a professional email to the first one stating that I had felt pressured into giving a response due to the incredibly limited time constraints set for a response, and that I would have to politely turn down their kind offer. It took them 2 weeks to respond with a standard 'We are sorry to hear...' reply.

I am sure that it caused them a considerable amount of hassle, seeing as the first candidate had also declined, however I feel justified in my actions due to the pressure placed on me for an answer. It does worry me, however, that I have potentially soured my professional relationship with this company, and may cause issues should I decide to apply for any positions there in the future, post-graduation.

What is your opinion regarding this? What's done is done, but any advice on how to handle similar situations in the future would be appreciated!

(As a side note, I was only just beaten at the interview stage for the second company by another student, which was a shame, but it was a gamble I was willing to take. I was however offered positions at two other companies soon afterwards in the same week; one of which I accepted and thoroughly enjoy!)

I'm looking forward to your take on this matter, and thanks for running an excellent and incredibly useful blog!

Well, yeah, you've probably burned their bridges with them as far as future opportunities go. But at the same time, giving you four hours to make a decision was unreasonable of them, and if they're going to pressure people to give them an answer that fast, they're pretty much setting themselves up to have this happen.

You originally asked for a week, and a week can often be too long, especially for junior-level positions. (They have other candidates they need to get back to, candidates with timelines of their own, or they may need to know that they're going to need to re-advertise or whatever the case may be.) But a few days is completely reasonable, even standard.

Insisting that you give them an answer in four hours (especially when they must have known that you'd already mentally moved on from the job after being rejected earlier) is unfair. Ideally, you would have said to them, "I'm very interested, but I need at least a day or two to think this over, and I wouldn't feel right giving you an answer I hadn't had time to think about." It's hard to imagine why they would have been unable to do that, but let's say for the sake of argument that their next choice after you had a timeline of her own and was accepting another job at 6 p.m. that night, so they really did have no choice but to push for an immediate answer from you -- if that were the case, they owed you an explanation, at least. But I suspect that they had no such time constraints and just wanted to be able to wrap the whole thing up.

In any case, if you'd made that request and they'd refused you (with or without explaining why), at that point you would have had to decide whether or not you could make that kind of major commitment in such a short time. I preach all the time about why you shouldn't renege on your acceptance of a job offer, but in this case, with this kind of pressure, it's very hard to fault you for later backing out. Again, they kind of set themselves up for it.

(They've also demonstrated that they're not great at managing this kind of thing by the fact that they rejected you before their first choice accepted the offer. This is why you wait to send out rejections to second and third choices until you have a firm acceptance in hand from your first choice.)

So the upshot: Yes, you probably won't be well-received there in the future, but you can at least take some solace in knowing that the whole situation is at least partly of their own creation.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response: I'm glad to get some feedback from someone outside of the entire process! It is a shame that bridges have been burned (or at the very least, left mildly charred) in this case, but it won't stop me from applying in the future if any positions come up. The worst that can happen is that they say no, of course.

This has at least been good experience for me; I'm a pretty apt interviewee, and have been told in my new job that I'm doing very well so far, but handling these kinds of situations is somewhat new to me.

Whilst I do hope that I'm not put under such pressure in the application process again, but if they give me unreasonable time constraints for acceptance in the future, I will have to work on my ability to compromise for a more adequate time to make such decisions!

Anyhow, constructive comments from your readership are welcome, even if they don't entirely agree with my actions: I thrive on any input to improve myself, so have at it! :)

Charles said...

Given four hours to decide, especially since they "rejected" you in the first place, is a indication that they are not a good organization to work for.

With that kind of poor planning, what would working for them be like? (Why, on earth, do you think that you would ever want to work for them? They sound like complete idiots!)

I can just imagine that at five o'clock on a Friday they would suddenly ask you to work all weekend; or some other such nonsense. You really don't want to work for them; really you don't.

BTW, I do NOT believe that the first choice rejected the offer. I wouldn't be surprised if for some reason the first choice did not work out; either they fired him or he quit. Seriously, they gave you four hours to decide; yet they took several weeks to let the first choice decide? That's not believable to me.

So, I don't think you should be worried about burning this bridge - consider yourself lucky to have dodged a bullet and now have a better job/work environment.

P.S. I have never accepted any position under such pressure; I have always asked for, and been given, at least one night to "sleep it over." If they refuse; then they are not folks I want to work for anyway.

Anonymous said...

May I ask a question that might sound naivette but still I would like to know - why is it OK on the company's side to reject the candidate and then call them back yet turning down their job offer is considered to be burning bridges for ever?? Is it not a WAY TOO HARD LINE?? I'm sure, they all understand that the candidates are appyling to more than one company and why is it that coming back in a future and seeking working relationship with them again would be inappropriate in the company's eyes? It's not marriage, for goodness sake, it's just a working relationships and we all know of employees leaving and coming back.
So why can't a new candidate do the same, given they have all the expertise and skills that are required?
I just want to know what's the thinking behind this thing is.

Ask a Manager said...

Anonymous, it's actually two different things. In one case, a candidate is making a commitment to do something that they later break. In the other case, the employer is saying "we're NOT going to commit to you" and then later coming back and saying that they're willing to. The first case breaks a commitment, the second one doesn't. The second one also just extends an offer, which the candidate is free to turn down.

The issue is one of breaking commitments.

Anonymous said...

Charles: Actually, the first choice candidate wouldn't have started yet, as we were still halfway through the university year when interviews were happening. My guess is that he initially accepted, got a better offer from elsewhere, and pulled out several weeks down the line, leaving them in the lurch, which of course is a not a particularly professional move to make, assuming that they didn't pull this same move on him.

Although whatever position he put them into, I don't think that gave them the right to shift that pressure directly onto me in order to quickly fill the hole that was left behind; and as people have pointed out, it's caused them more problems than it solved, especially if their third and final candidate wasn't qualified/didn't want the position.

I think that the scary thing is that this is a huge company, who make literally billions every year, yet their HR department leaves a lot to be desired.

Anonymous said...

Well, actually AAM, I think you may have misunderstood Anon's question. The way I read it gives a parallel between the company and the candidate. I will ask again in a way that is more clear. Or, perhaps, I have a different question than the OP.

It seems to be a double standard that dear Company can call Jane Doe and say "Thank you for the application, we decline you," and then call back later and say "Just kidding, we'd love to offer you a position."

Yet, Jane Doe cannot say "Thank you dear Company for the job offer, but I decline" and later call and say she wants the job she was previously offered or at a later date apply for a new position with "no hard feelings."

This is not accepting an offer and then declining. The question is about rejecting an offer or a candidate and then wanting the offer back. It seems its a one way street. Your thoughts, please?

Ask a Manager said...

Oh, you're right, I think I did misread it.

I think the commenter's premise is wrong -- it's not considered burning bridges to turn down a job offer (assuming you haven't earlier accepted it).

But if you're asking about a candidate turning down an offer and then later wanting the offer back (assuming the job is even still available), I think the answer is that the dynamics are slightly different on each side. If I offer a candidate a job, she declines, and then later she calls back and says that she's interested after all, she hasn't burned any bridge. But I'm going to wonder why she had the change of heart -- does she really want the job or is she just desperate and going to leave in a few months when a different offer comes along? So I'm going to want to hear an explanation for her change of heart that makes sense -- and there are such explanations, so it's doable.

Now, if I decline a candidate and then later go back to them with a job offer, the explanation is a bit more obvious: The candidate wasn't the first choice but she's still someone we're interested in hiring. I end up having to reject fantastic candidates all the time, because there's only one position and many of them. And the candidate, of course, can say no, just like the employer can say no in the example above. Again, no bridges burned.

Now, you could say that that the candidate too should need a compelling explanation about our change of heart (and ask if we really want her or if we're just desperate). But a good employer won't offer a job to the wrong candidate out of desperation (not to say all employers are good employers), and it's commonly understood that employers are forced to reject great candidates because there are more of them than there are job openings. So perhaps it goes to basic convention -- the fact that it happens a lot gives people a basic comfort with it, whereas the first scenario is much less common.

Anyway, I'm not defending the logic of one over the other as much as I am just explaining what most hiring managers' thinking is on it.