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Monday, July 5, 2010

can I back out of my new job if I get a better offer?

I have a feeling this one is going to generate disagreement. A reader writes:

I recently accepted an offer with an organization and started this past week. Four days into it, another potential employer I'd interviewed with once (at the same time I interviewed for my new job) has asked me to talk with them a second time. While I like the job I just started (and the employer), I would love the other position more - it feels more closely aligned with my interests and values, and it is 20 miles closer to home. Both jobs pay the same salary. Any advice as to how to handle such a situation?

There are very few cases where I'd advise even considering taking a different job right after starting a new one, because doing so can harm your employer, your reputation, and even other job-seekers.

Let's start with the damage to your own reputation: Anyone who hears about this isn't going to rely on your word in these sorts of matters again; you'll be known as someone who cuts and runs. And people have a way of popping up again at other companies you may want to work for. Imagine that you really want a job offer in the future, and one of the decision-makers is someone who used to work for this employer. "Joe took a job with Acme but left for a different offer a week into the job" are not words you want spoken about you when you're interviewing.

Now let's talk about other job-seekers. Some of your fellow job searchers really wanted that job, but didn't get it because you gave your word that you'd take it. And it's not as easy as the company now going back to them, because some of them have since moved on to other things. (This is the same reason that it frustrates me when someone accepts an interview for a job they have no intention of ever accepting; that's an interview slot that could have gone to someone genuinely excited about the job but who got a rejection letter instead.)

And now, most controversially, let's talk about the impact on your employer. After you made a commitment to them, they took you at your word. They invested time and money in preparing for you and training you. They've planned work around the assumption that you'll be there. And they've turned loose their other candidates. They'll probably need to start the hiring process all over again with those back-up candidates gone, which means losing more time and more money, plus the opportunity cost of having the position open far longer.

At a large company, maybe this is easily absorbed. But I can tell you from seeing it firsthand that at smaller organizations, it causes real harm, so I strongly recommend factoring in the size of the organization.

The reason I called this controversial is that that I know there are a lot of people out there who say, "The company wouldn't hesitate to cut you loose if they needed to, so you don't owe them anything." The thing is, though, this isn't really true. The reverse of your situation happens all the time: An employer hires someone for a job and then, a few days later, a resume comes in from someone who looks even better qualified for that position. They don't (usually) rescind the job offer and say "sorry, someone better came along." They (usually) say "damn, maybe next time" or "I wonder how else I could use this late-breaking applicant." (There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and I don't doubt that some employer out there has handled this badly. But the majority don't.)

That said, it's true that companies make decisions based on their own best interests, and so it's reasonable that you should make decisions based on yours. But getting a reputation as someone who doesn't keep commitments and who leaves a job after a week isn't exactly in your interests. (Just as it's not in an employer's interests to get a reputation as a company that terminates people in anything other than a thoughtful, fair, and compassionate manner.)

Now, with that lecture behind us, there are a very limited number of situations where you can make a better case for what you're considering:

* The other job is your dream job, an opportunity you may never get again, and the first job is just something to pay the bills.
* You realized very quickly at the new job that there is something profoundly wrong with it -- the boss or culture is a nightmare, the job description is totally different from what you were told you'd be doing, etc.
* Your financial situation changed unexpectedly (family health crisis, spouse lost his/her job, etc.) and the other job pays dramatically more.

In these cases, it's easier to defend breaking your commitment, as long as you (a) fully explain the reason to the first employer, (b) apologize profusely and demonstrate that you know what a terrible situation this puts them in, and (c) realize that you're almost definitely burning that bridge.

But it doesn't sound like your situation fits this category: You like the job you just accepted. You knew what the job was and that you were getting a long commute when you accepted it. You knew it was possible that some of the other companies you'd applied to could still contact you, but when you accept a job, you are saying "I am going to stop considering other jobs for a while now." It's hard to make an ethical argument for backing out at this point.

I'm bracing myself for wild disagreement in the comments, though, so bring it on...

29 comments:

GeekChic said...

I'm sure people will disagree but I agree and here's why:

I applied to the usual ton of places while looking for my current job. When I actually took my current job, I made a point of calling or emailing the places where the hiring process was still in process to say that I had taken a job, please withdraw my name from consideration and good luck in your search.

I was surprised at how many places replied (just about all of them) to say they appreciated my letting them know and wishing me luck with my new job. I hadn't heard from most of these places before as it was still early in the hiring process - so this obviously caught their attention.

It's been more than 5 years now and I get job offers from these other places on occasion - before the postings go public. It seems that they remember that I was considerate of my current employer.

Clare said...

I agree with your advice, too, because it's happened to me. The amount of stress it caused, with us rushing around to fill a post on a project, our clients breathing down our neck, and the risk of having to put back our starting date...

You're right to point out that it looks unprofessional and can seriously harm your chances of getting future opportunities. The person who put us in such a difficult position went on an unofficial blacklist.

As GeekChic says, being upfront with the companies you're talking with gains you long-term kudos and enhances your reputation as a serious professional.

GregJ said...

For the person asking the question it is one of ethical behavior. While the majority of companies over the past ten years have definitely moved in a “me” direction, the workforce has done the same thing. If the questioner had been working for the company for six months or more I would say do what is right for you and your family. While I have, in the distant past, believed that loyalty meant something, I now believe that one’s family always comes first, regardless of a company’s desires. For the most part, two-way loyalty has become a thing of the past.

I agree with Alison’s assessment in this case. It would be completely unethical if the questioner was to take another position after only such a short period with a new company. Whether or not the person’s reputation would be tarnished is up for debate. I have certainly been in a management position when this very scenario has played out. While my decision to hire a particular candidate was negated by them not showing up for work, for calling to say they have accepted another position after accepting my offer, or for leaving after a very short period of time my mindset at the time was positive.

I looked at this as a good thing, as I would not have spent time and energy into training and acclimating them to the company and/or clients.

In this case, if the questioner takes the second company’s offer, they will save their current company time, energy, and money. While I as the hiring manager would have to regroup, with the time being so short from the on-boarding I might have a chance at having one of by backup candidates still available and interested in joining my team.

In any event, I would not have someone on my team that would be looking to jump at the next opportunity.

Anonymous said...

This almost happened with me last year, but the later position never panned anyway.

However, I'm surprised no one picked up on this statement: "Four days into it, another potential employer I'd interviewed with once (at the same time I interviewed for my new job) has asked me to talk with them a second time. While I like the job I just started (and the employer), I would love the other position more..."

The second job offer hasn't been placed on the table, according to the OP's words. S/he may not ever get the offer so s/he is jumping the gun on this situation. I have been on second round interviews before to not get the job.

Sabrina said...

This isn't an offer yet, it's just a talk. And as someone who's been looking for a job for over 4 years, I do a lot of talking and very little offer accepting. I agree and disagree. I agree that if it's a good job and there's nothing majorly wrong with it, then you should probably stick with it. (Though there's nothing wrong with talking) However, in the vein of the company doing what's best for it, that's true. And I don't mean to say that the company is going to get a better applicant and offer it to that person. But your manager could suddenly decide that they don't like the perfume you wear or give you some major project and let you mess it up, blame you for the whole thing, and fire you on the spot. And if that does happen they're not going to stop and think how this is going to inconvenience you, how it's going to affect their reputation, or how it affects the other job seekers they turned down. To sum it up, while I wouldn't necessarily accept jobs willy-nilly like this, I wouldn't rule out the possibility of it either.

Anonymous said...

All of this is helpful. Anonymous is right - there's no second job offer yet; however, they've asked for references so that's a "buy signal" in my experience. The hardest thing is being in this situation... for so long there was nothing - no bites, no response to resumes, etc. Then good things happen.
Perhaps it's best to remove myself from consideration for now... and hope that a similar "dream job" comes again down the road.
I'll see if anyone else weighs in on this...

Anonymous said...

i'm glad you listed the exceptions! i started a job about 3 months ago, and i'm really looking to leave. all 3 of your exceptions are what has happened to me! i've been out of grad school over 10 years and i have never encountered a culture like this one. also very unsupportive of families. the founder/ED does not at all want what the job description said -- he just wants an asst. then, too, he totally reneged on reimbursing my moving expenses (which came to almost $5k). with that hit i just cannot afford to work here. plus i think that kind of duplicity is so against my values and ethics that i have very little trust in the employer/employee relationship.

on a related note, how do you suggest one evaluate an organization's culture during the interview process??

Anonymous said...

I think this is one of those things you can do just once in your life. So you'd better be sure that this is the best time to play your hand.

And I agree with the others--this is just a POTENTIAL job. Asking for references is a good indicator that a job offer is forthcoming, but you don't know that the offer will be a good one. Don't put the cart before the horse, wait until there is an offer in hand. THEN decide if this is the one time to cut and run.

thomast said...

I mostly agree with AAM, though I think the asker should focus on the cost/benefit to him/herself, and the potential negative reputation that this might carry, especially if you are in an industry/sector with a limited community. Also, in the current economy, the likelihood of the runner(s)-up being already employed is lessened, and so the position can probably be refilled with relative ease.

One big caveat though: if the current employer has you on a "probationary period," implying (or specifying) that they could/would terminate the relationship easily for some specific period of time without their usual progressive discipline or severance practices, then I firmly believe that such a probationary period is a two-way street, and you're free to go. I remember a job early in my career where the probationary period was explicitly introduced as a time "when either of us can sever the relationship easily." And another time, a new colleague at a restaurant job left for a better-paying gig, and the manager was grumpy that she hadn't given notice - I pointed out that she was in her probationary period, and had every right to leave without notice, which mollified the manager somewhat.

curiouscat said...

I don't see a problem with it. I have had candidates (that we offered but hadn't actually started yet) and new hires leave and seen other people think this is bad or unfair. I tell people to expect a higher level of turnover precisely because they were looking for jobs and the offers might not all come at the same time.

I do tend to take unconventional views. I like http://management.curiouscatblog.net/2008/05/25/paying-new-employees-to-quit/ Zappos paying new employees to quit more than the idea of intimidating employees to stay because it is unfair to leave.
The world isn't all perfectly fair, sometimes you lose for no good reason. It is annoying when a new hire leaves after you invest in getting them prepared to do their new job. But I don't see it any reason to worry about it a great deal or get upset at someone that decides to take a better opportunity.

Also if you do a great job of showing people how great it is to work at your place then they probably wouldn't leave. Focus on that, not being mad at them.

But yes, if you do this, some of the people at the company you leave will probably be mad.

Anonymous said...

AAM's advice is way off. My advice is to make sur you're comparing apples to apples first. That is look at benefit costs, retirement contributions, and the rest of your total compensation before deciding. Then, make it a point to meet your perspective team to make sure you're going to like them. If the other job is better then leave. And don't feel guilty if you leave. Unless this becomes a pattern it's highly unlikely your reputation will take a hit, except maybe at that one company. And if you're just truthful with them about why you're leaving they won't blame you for taking a better gig.

Charles said...

In the past I would have said that it is unethical to make a commitment and then walk away from it.

HOWEVER! Since I have been burnt by too many employers in the last few years (i.e., showing up for an interviewing only to be told that they just offered the job to another candidate because they "didn't want to get burnt." Taking a job that suddenly involves extensive travel when I was never told about any travel during the three interviews. Showing up for an interview where the interviewer makes remarks about my age, etc.) I say do whatever is best for yourself and your family.

No one will look out for you but you. Just be sure to do as AAM says - do it professionally.

P.S. GeekChic, I have actually called places to let them know that I am dropping out only to discover that they have already hired someone else! In over thirty years only one place has actually thanked me for letting them know.

De Minimis said...

I've been asked for references numerous times without getting an offer [hopefully it's not my references!]

I'd say only do it if it was a huge organization that does a "hiring class" method, that is, they hire a lot of people at the same time each year, to where one less person doesn't make that big of a difference. I don't think I would do it if I'm the only one they hired, no matter the size of the company. And understand I am usually one of those who says "Do what you gotta do" in a lot of these situations, but not this one.

Rebecca said...

Anon@9:40 re: evaluating company culture -- sorry in advance for the long post:

When it gets to the part of the interview where it's your turn to ask questions, I always ask:

"What's your favorite thing about working here?"

The answer can speak volumes. So can the way the answer is delivered -- red flags: thinking for more than a few seconds, giving a one-sentence answer, corporate-speak or similar BS, abrupt change in posture or facial expression or tone of voice.

Note also the differences in answers you get from different people. More than once, the hiring manager and/or the boss had enthusiastic and detailed answers, and the future coworkers not so much. The reverse has also occurred.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what the new potential employer would think, knowing the OP would jump ship so easily? Certainly might change their opinion of hiring him/her.

Anonymous said...

I vote for "look out for numero uno, because nobody else will" and just understand the ramifications if you do. Truth be told, there may not be any.

Quite frankly, I don't believe in employer loyalty, because employers only believe in it if it suits them. If they can sever the relationship with or without cause with no warning whatsoever, so can you. Just don't be stupid about it.

Anonymous said...

Jump ship if the other job is truly better. Just make sure you've considered all of the other stuff besides salary. Who cares if you burn one bridge? Just don't make it a habit. If it makes you feel better plenty of employers have pulled the rug out from under newly hired folks for crappy reasons.

Kim Stiens said...

I agree with AAM to the extent that you have to protect your reputation, but I think I'd be looser than she about one of the reasons this would be OK: It's your dream job. It may not actually be your dream job, but 20 miles closer to home, better work, and more pay? Sounds dreamy to me.

I assume your employment is at-will (since if you'd signed a contract I assume this wouldn't even be a question). People leave jobs all the time because they got a better offer. It's one of the best reasons to leave! I sucks that your better offer came so soon, but them's the breaks. You could leave it flexible, in terms of telling your current employers you got a better offer, and that if they meet it you'd love to stay, but it just doesn't make sense for you to be in a business relationship that is less beneficial to you.

That being said, I would make sure to stay at your new position at least a couple years. I don't think that your leaving would make your new employers like you less, given that they "won," so to speak.

Anonymous said...

Leave. We spend too much of our lives at work. 40 hours a week is a lot when you're only awake for 112 hours a week. And you could end up working there for 20 years. It only makes sense to work at the place which makes you the happiest.

Go. Don't look back. And don't worry about your reputation. You were only there for 4 whole days. No one's going to remember you anyway.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of the posts. Leave however do it in a professional manner. There is no sense in staying somewhere that you may not be happy at. You will always have that "what if" pondering in the back of your mind. Like others have stated, you were only there for 4 days. That is nothing.

I just left a job after 2 months. I don't have any regrets for the position wasn't truthfully explained to me and was misrepresented. Still, I gave it 100%. I found out that it wasn't the right fit for me. If I had known the real job (which was hidden from me), I wouldn't have accepted the position. Also, I like what Rebecca suggested, asking the question about what is the favorite thing about working at the company. I'm going to a job interview today and will ask that question. You are interviewing them just as much as they are interviewing you - it's a two way street. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

20 mile difference is a significant commute and really, if the situation were reversed and the company had to let someone go because they may have had a change in business plans or were not happy with the person's performance , they wouldn't think twice about terminating - after all it's a business decision right? Goes both ways

Jessica said...

Well this is happening to me right now actually, except for I'm not yet in so deep. I just got offered a job, a first job, for a small college. I haven't officially started yet but gave a verbal agreement that I would take the job only to have another interview pop up on me tomorrow, for a position at an elementary school. The elementary school is where I want to be because I want to be more of a media specialist that in academic librarianship, but like people have mentioned about writers situation, this second offer is not a sure thing, so I'm not sure how long to stall or dawdle. I don't want to lose what is a sure thing, but I don't want to miss out on the opportunity that will give me more of the professional experience I'm looking for. What to do? What to do?

Anonymous said...

Take the 2nd interview and ask all the right questions. If you get the right offer from the 'dream' job, professionally express your regrets to the current employer and take the job you'll love to get up each morning to do. You'll be happier, your family will be happier, and living with regrets will eat you up. Your reputation is what others 'think' you are... your character is who you really are.

Anonymous said...

you know what jessica, you need to go into this 2nd interview and just lay the cards on the table. This is where I am, but feel this is mre my style yada yada - would be willing with the write offer - signed. It's a business decision, don't forget that

Anonymous said...

I just went through this... After about 5 months of looking, I accepted a job at an NGO and 2 days into it got an offer from my dream company for the dream job. (When it rains it pours!)

I quit the NGO the next day-- I felt horrible and sick and hated doing it to them. And I very much considered the reputational impact. I wrote a letter to the president apologizing and giving my reasons. But I had also just been through a very difficult layoff. 15 years with my company and the thanks I get (after moving to Europe for them too) is a pink slip. I will never again feel any loyalty towards my company. I will always give 100+%, but never again a blinding loyalty. My needs and my family's needs come first. Period.

I have now been at my dream job for almost 3 months, and while the job itself is fantastic, I realize I am very underpaid for what they actually want me to do. And, I hate the office environment. (Total open space with just rows of desks-- I can reach my hands out on either side of me and touch my neighboring colleagues.) So, I'm looking again. It won't look great, but it's not like I have a history of jumping ship. The 2-day job isn't even on my resume, and frankly I think a 15-year stint shows that I am very capable of commitment. But a good lesson learned = the grass is not always greener.

I just need to get better at assessing the company culture so I get it right next time! I felt like I had done that this time, but I missed something somewhere.

It's a tough situation to be in, and sometimes we don't and can't have all the information to make the best decision. If it's well thought out, I respect the decision either way.

Anonymous said...

What about a situation I am currently facing. Been offered a position that was 3K less than what I had been led to believe, but met the staff and the culture appeared appealing.

Manager had said that he wasn't keen on hiring someone who was going to leave.

Having terrible second thoughts though and not being whole hearted about going to work there.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you can take a better offer and should. but it will also be held against you. Funniest thing I ever saw, the company gave an honorary plaque for an employee for an exemplary job. The guy was looking for another job and had already left for it without saying a word to the company. Dude never came back for anything, personal effects or the plaque for being a great employee.

Anonymous said...

Yet you can take a job work there a few weeks or a lifetime, get laid off no matter how long you have worked there or how committed you were, because that is what is best for the company and that is some how acceptable. When You do something that is best for you there are consequences.

Anonymous said...

I can understand both sides but- I have to go with the sentiment that your only duty is to yourself.

This is your LIFE. I've given loyalty and gone way above and beyond for a workplace. I was not rewarded for it like I thought I would be, and I wouldn't do it again.