Everyone second-guesses a decision at some point. While some things like choosing a bad restaurant or getting stuck in traffic have very minor consequences on your life, other decisions, like choosing the wrong partner or the wrong job, can make your life miserable.
But is it unethical to back out of a job after you’ve signed an offer letter? Will it hurt your career or reputation? Do you have no choice but to just suck it up and take the job? Career expert Alison Green (aka Ask A Manager) helps an employee with cold feet figure out his next step.
Is it always a terrible thing to initially accept a job offer and then change your mind and back out? I have done some reading on this, and a lot of articles suggest it is unethical, will ruin your reputation, and essentially is a nasty thing to do. Yet I have been both an employer and an employee, and it seems to me that no one claims it’s “unethical” if the employer does the same thing.
Anyway, my situation is that I have a job and had a bit of a falling out with another manager. The company really needs me, so they don’t want me going anywhere, but the confrontation was pretty ugly and unacceptable to me, and it isn’t the first time, and nothing is ever done about it. So I started to look around and interviewing, and got an offer.
However, a few things happened since I accepted. First of all, I feel like the offer letter I got was a little pushy. It stated that I would have less than two weeks’ notice to give, and suggested that if I did not sign the offer and agree to the terms within a day, it would be rescinded. I am really bad at confrontation, so I just signed it, and I can help out with my current company on weekends, so the lack of two weeks is fine. But it has come to bother me that they acted that way about it.
Also, they have been contacting me to send me some reports that they want me to review before I start. I don’t mind that, although I think it is a little cheeky to assign me 200 pages of reading before I have even begun working for them. But I strongly dislike how they end emails with, “Let me know by the end of the day that you received this,” and if I don’t reply within a couple of hours, they begin to call my cell phone. I have another job at the moment and don’t work for them yet. This is during business hours. I think it is inappropriate.
On the whole, I just have a bad feeling about it, about their pushiness and the way they have handled this. I suppose they are just eager, but it does seem like they are crossing boundaries in some ways, and it doesn’t bode well for what working there will be like.
I think I made this decision emotionally, which I really regret and feel guilty about. I would live with the consequences had they not behaved this way in the last week, though I am not happy about this change. The more I consider my current situation too, the more I realize I am throwing away something I value. Granted, the problem that drove me to this is not insignificant, but the benefits of my current position outweigh the downsides in some ways. Further, there is a very good chance the company I currently work for is going to seriously struggle when I leave, whenever I leave, and they will have a difficult time replacing me. I am one of the founders of the company, and the clients are largely my connections, so it is pretty serious that I am going.
Anyway, I will start this job and do my time there, if I really must. But it already feels like “doing time,” and I don’t want to leave my current job. Can I change my mind? How do I tell them? I am supposed to start in less than a week.
Yes, you can change your mind.
It won’t be welcome news to them, obviously, but it’s better to back out now than to end up in a job you don’t want to be in and that you’re feeling queasy about.
But should you? Well, the stuff that’s setting off alarm bells for you might indeed be harbingers of worse to come once you’re working there. People shouldn’t be pushy with offer letters, they shouldn’t push currently employed candidates to leave their jobs with less than two weeks of notice (unless it’s for a rare good reason and they explain why), they shouldn’t give you 200 pages of reading before you start, and they definitely shouldn’t expect you to answer their emails within a few hours while you’re not yet working for them.
That said, it’s also possible that this stuff doesn’t indicate serious problems there. I’d want to know more about what you observed about them before the offer stage. Did you do due diligence, talk to multiple people there, talk to anyone in your network connected to them, ask good questions, and generally work to understand what they’re like and what you’d be signing up for? If you did and you felt comfortable, I wouldn’t necessarily throw all that out now.
I’d also want to know who it is who’s sending these “respond today” emails and calling your cell if they don’t get a fast answer. Is it your soon-to-be manager, or someone else? If it’s the person who will be managing you, that would worry me a lot–that’s the sign of an unreasonable manager who doesn’t respect boundaries. But if it’s people who will be coworkers, that would worry me less (and for all we know, they’re not clear on what arrangement you have with their company). But that’s something I’d ask the person who will be managing you about.
You could call her up and say something like this: “Between now and when I start, I’m going to be really busy wrapping things up with my old position. I’m not going to have time to read the materials you sent, and I probably won’t be able to respond to emails quickly. Jane and Fergus have sent me emails asking for immediate responses a few times, and called my cell phone when I haven’t responded immediately.” Then stop and listen to the response. Is she surprised that this is happening, understand that you don’t want that, and say she’ll put a stop to it? Or does she sound put out or irked that you’re pushing back?
All in all, though, if you’ve changed your mind and no longer want to take the job, you shouldn’t take it as penance. It’s true that it’s not good to back out of job offers, but no sane employer wants a new hire who doesn’t want to be there. It’ll be a pain in the ass for them, yes, but that’s far better for them than you leaving after four months or being miserable for several years, and it’s far, far better for you than serving time in a job you don’t want, if you have other options. (I’m assuming that you know that it is an option to stay at your old job; if you’re a founder, it probably is, although that wouldn’t always be true for everyone.)
Tell them as soon as possible, if indeed that’s your decision, and apologize profusely. Assume you’ve burned that bridge. (But also know that there can be things worse than a burnt bridge.)
And then resolve that in the future, you’ll pay attention to your doubts and not be pressured into accepting offers more quickly than you’re comfortable with–and forgive yourself for this one.
P.S. Also, for what it’s worth, it’s not true that no one claims it’s unethical for employers to pull job offers. People pretty much universally think that’s horrible, unless there’s the rare good reason for it.
This article originally appeared on Ask A Manager and is reprinted with permission.
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