How to do damage control after a job offer mistakenly made
April 12, 2017 10:05 AM   Subscribe

A colleague of mine referred an internship candidate to me and after looking at their resume I decided to interview them. The candidate did well and I told them that I would be in touch if we decided to move forward and offer them an internship. Applicant sent me and colleague separate thank you emails. Before I had a chance to even read said email, colleague responded to the one they received and extended a formal offer without telling me because they thought I'd said it was okay. I didn't. At all. Now what?

For a variety of reasons I really need to backtrack and rescind this formal offer made without my permission or knowledge. The candidate is in the running for an internship but I can't make them an actual offer until I hammer out some logistical and legal issues that came to light right after I interviewed them. To make things worse, the excitement of having been told that they were accepted has apparently caused this candidate to forget the bulk of the conversation we had where I explicitly said the internship was unpaid and that there would be no budging on that. Now the person is asking about pay and a stipend and all this stuff that is just not going to happen.

What do I do? The offer my colleague erroneously made was in writing. I have to talk to this candidate this afternoon to answer some of their questions. Colleague is aware they didn't do the right thing and is willing to be the first one to apologize and clarify. But what do we even say? I'm so frustrated that after seeing how extensively the candidate has forgotten a huge portion of our first conversation, I'm not really eager to offer them a spot after all. There is a chance that if I remind the candidate that we already discussed the topic of payment, I could also say that he should continue looking if an unpaid internship isn't going to be viable for him. But is that enough?
posted by Hermione Granger to Human Relations (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Make colleague apologize to candidate and then reiterate pay (none) and highlight that there are some legal issues that need to be clarified, so the acceptance is on hold. Remind candidate that the fact that no payment was available was discussed during interview and that if that's a barrier, candidate would be wise to continue looking for paid opportunities if their circumstances require it.

I hope your colleague understands the severity of their mess-up.
posted by quince at 10:14 AM on April 12 [11 favorites]

Well sounds like there are two separate issues

1. Is colleague actually allowed to hire interns? Like, I am unclear if the issue is they did this without your okay (not cool but that's an internal issue you work out with coworker) or if they did this without the actual authority to do this (totally against the rules)

So if it's the first, you and coworker need to work this out and maybe the intern gets hired as an outside edge case. If it's the latter your colleague can just tell the intern "I am sorry but I was not authorized to extend that offer. You are still in the running and Ms. Granger will let you know when we have made a decision"

2. Intern being bad at listening. This is just an opportunity to play "I am the grownup" and say (in either case, above) "As we discussed, this is an unpaid internship and there is no room for negotiation on this. I understand if this is a dealbreaker but that is what we can offer."

In either case a "come to jesus" conversation with coworker about chain of command needs to happen but should have no other bearing on what is going on with the intern.
posted by jessamyn at 10:15 AM on April 12 [24 favorites]

I think the first step is determining whether you can renege the offer without putting the organization at legal risk. If you have an HR department and/or legal team, that would be a great place to start.

If you can't really renege the offer without undue risk, then I would proceed, and just cross your fingers that the pay issue will deter the hiree. Otherwise, I think you're stuck with them, even though it sucks. Chalk it up to a lesson learned for the employee who extended the erroneous offer.
posted by delight at 10:25 AM on April 12 [7 favorites]

It would be tempting to reiterate unpaid nature of internship and hope the intern candidate balks, but that's obviously risky. I think as long as the "sorry, there was miscommunication and this is on hold" communication comes VERY soon, you're best to do that. I would not hire this person, even as an unpaid intern, just because a signal was missed.

Also, I would advise a little patience on the idea that the intern did not catch the terms. Job interviews are a bit like drinking from a fire hose for some candidates. At the time an offer is made, all these things need to be carefully walked through (and put in writing), to protect both sides. A lot of job candidates, even mature ones, seem to misunderstand stuff. I had a guy accept a job, with salary clearly stated, and THEN say, on the first day of the job "When can we talk about my salary?"
posted by randomkeystrike at 10:29 AM on April 12 [1 favorite]

Phone them, now, and let them know _not_ to stop pursuing jobs elsewhere. I'm not sure of the legal ramifications of all this, but if the candidate misses another opportunity because of your organization's mistake, that would be awful in a lot of ways.

Call them, if you have to leave a voice mail mention something that will prevent them from pursuing jobs elsewhere -- especially if they are in need of money or expecting a salary this summer -- and prepare to personally call any other organizations that were/are possible employers of this person to personally attest that this was your mistake, not the candidate's.

Not a lawyer, I'm just coming at this from the position of a person who paid their own way through college.
posted by amtho at 10:36 AM on April 12 [3 favorites]

...and even if the candidate would be OK with an unpaid internship, and this isn't about money _right now_, the experience is obviously valuable and also something they could miss out on elsewhere if they got the "offer" and then told all their other possible internship companies to consider other candidates.
posted by amtho at 10:38 AM on April 12

Agree with the moving swiftly and clarifying clearly that the offer is NOT extended yet.

Also, question: Was the colleague who referred this person referring them because of a personal connection to them, and that's why they so quickly extended the offer? If so, it might be good to have your 'professional' clarification that the job offer was made in error, and their 'personal' apology for jumping the gun?
posted by knownassociate at 10:40 AM on April 12 [2 favorites]

The way you do damage control in this kind of circumstance isn't something where you should worry about hurting feelings; the real damage that happens with these things happens because of time elapsing during which this person is relying on the information. It's going to hurt their feelings either way, which is a pity but is unavoidable. You can't do this in a way that isn't going to hurt feelings. You can do this in a way that is going to give them the best possible opportunity to do what they need to do to find other opportunities. Don't mess around with trying to be indirect about it. Tell them that this isn't an offer--it's not a no but it's not an offer yet--and do so as soon as you possibly can. Everything else is less urgent. You don't have to find a magic way to make them happy to hear the news; you just need to relay the news quickly.
posted by Sequence at 10:51 AM on April 12 [19 favorites]

Apologise for your colleague jumping the gun on the offer and let them know that they are still in the running but you're not in a position to make a formal offer to anyone just yet. Re-iterate that it is an unpaid position and there will be no salary or stipend available. Its up to them what they do with that information.

I wouldn't give too much weight to them forgetting that the position is unpaid. They may have been really nervous and the whole interview is a blur or they may have interviewed for a dozen internships and gotten confused.
posted by missmagenta at 10:53 AM on April 12 [1 favorite]

Yes, that intern may well now be kicking themselves for having mixed up Company Gryffindor and Company Ravenclaw's salary offers in the excitement of the moment but thinks it would be too weird to send a followup email saying "uh...never mind..." Cut the poor kid some slack on that. But let them know right away about the offer, because God forbid they turn another job down on that basis.
posted by praemunire at 10:59 AM on April 12 [2 favorites]

When you say "formal offer", that means a letter with a salary and benefits and stuff? If so, I don't see how they could be confused about salary. If not, it's not really a formal offer and all the colleague has to do is say they were confused.

In any case, the person doesn't sound like a good candidate if they're trying to wheedle pay out of a definitely unpaid position.
posted by ftm at 11:25 AM on April 12 [2 favorites]

Colleague does not do hiring. Colleague is not friends with candidate. They don't even know each other. Referral occurred due to shared school activity at university colleague attended. I will be doing the hiring. Our company is small and as I continue to develop our internship program I will ultimately become our HR department.

Colleague's exact words in writing were: "We would like to extend an invitation to you for an intern this summer. We would like to extend an invitation to you for an intern this summer. We understand its a few months away so feel free to get back to us whenever you are ready. I will be away myself until [date]. Until then you are welcome to connect with Hermione. She will be organizing the agenda for design interns over the summer."

100% agree that this is not the candidate's fault. Have been in this situation myself before and it sucks, so I do want to handle this carefully. Colleague is abroad right now so it looks like I will have to handle this on my own over the phone. Currently thinking of saying,

"Thanks for your follow up emails. You've asked good questions, ones that we covered already during our initial interview. To reiterate, you are in the running for an internship at our company. Said internship is unpaid, but we are open to coordinating school credit with your university, something you will need to take the initiative on prior to starting here should we move forward. No stipend will be offered at this time, but I understand your concerns about that and encourage you (as I did during our first call) to be prudent and look at other internships in your area in case having a paid internship is a priority."

Thanks for all your help on this. I am so, so stressed out.
posted by Hermione Granger at 11:46 AM on April 12 [1 favorite]

In some jurisdictions it is not legal to have unpaid interns. Are you sure entirely unpaid interns are legal where you are?

I agree your first stop is whatever HR or Legal Dept your organization has before you do anything else.
posted by jbenben at 11:47 AM on April 12 [1 favorite]

We're in California. We will meet the unpaid internship criteria outlined here.
posted by Hermione Granger at 11:51 AM on April 12 [1 favorite]

I think you need to be more clear, not "reitierate" but "retract." And apologize.
posted by maurreen at 11:53 AM on April 12 [28 favorites]

In terms of your update - your wording sounds not as kind as you might need to be in light of what your colleague wrote -- your colleague sounds like they have authority over you -- um -- politically and legally it's not clear what's going on here!!

Forget the awkwardness and try not to take this personally. In fact, internally stop caring about it as you sort it out. It's so weird, don't invest in whatever it is about.

Talk to some sort of supervisor or boss or head of whatever. Just present it factually and find out how these things are best handled by your organization. I can't imagine what's going on and therefore suggest you proceed very very carefully as you gather facts and get a plan together. Like, double check your plan before proceeding.

I think HR or Legal need to weigh in because your colleague was very specific and I don't want your next move to go wrong for you or your organization.
posted by jbenben at 11:56 AM on April 12

I think you need to be MUCH stronger in your wording to make it clear that there isn't an offer on the table (yet).
posted by radioamy at 12:03 PM on April 12 [30 favorites]

Why haven't you called this person yet? They may feel that it's their responsibility to let other potential employers know by the end of today. Please at least try to save that person some embarrassment and extra work...

Your wording is fine, just start with "We made a mistake and are NOT at a place to definitively offer you this position yet. The e-mail you received was incorrect.

Please DON'T stop interviewing with other companies. We are still looking at other candidates. I repeat, this is NOT a job offer, we are still in the process of selecting our intern."

Then follow up with written communication.

Please do it now. The longer you wait, the worse it is for both parties.

I am not a lawyer and am frequently clueless on lawyer-type stuff, but at least trying to take the other party's needs into consideration is a good thing.
posted by amtho at 12:06 PM on April 12 [5 favorites]

First: make 150% sure that this candidate does not fall into any legally protected category and that rescinding the offer will not in any way put the company at risk of a lawsuit.

Second: understand that, by extending and then rescinding an offer, you will probably be burning your bridges with this particular candidate. If you feel like you actually will want to hire this candidate and you're just standing on protocol -- then just suck it up and hire them. Don't expect that you can tell them yes, then tell them no, then be able to tell them yes again later.

Third: tell the candidate the following -- and do it asap. Don't try to sugar-coat it; you need to be very clear so that this person can make (or cancel) plans as needed.

I regret to inform you that the email you received yesterday was premature, and I must rescind the offer of a position. We are still in the process of interviewing and selecting interns and, while you are still in the running, we are unable to extend an offer to you until our process is complete. I deeply apologize for the miscommunication.

I also wanted to answer the questions you asked about pay. As we discussed at the interview, this is an unpaid internship, so no pay or stipend will be available.

Again, I sincerely apologize for the miscommunication. We will be completing the interview and selection process within [timeline] and [legitimate HR person] will let you know promptly about the outcome as soon as the decision is finalized. Please let me know if you have any questions in the meantime. And again, I apologize deeply for the miscommunication.

posted by ourobouros at 12:13 PM on April 12 [34 favorites]

It's a little thing but if you do wind up sending an email like you proposed l (and I agree with jbenben you should run it by someone higher up first), I think the sentence you wrote about good questions comes across as unnecessarily passive aggressive. Like praemunire, I think the candidate could've just gotten mixed up about which offer was which. I think maurreen is also correct that you need to say "retract" but something along those lines--you're reiterating what you said to the candidate, sure, but you're contradicting the most recent information they received.
posted by ferret branca at 12:14 PM on April 12 [2 favorites]

(Or just listen to ouroboros on wording; I should have previewed!)
posted by ferret branca at 12:16 PM on April 12

To clarify: colleague is not senior to me. Colleague and I are both directors of two separate departments. Candidate applied for internship in my department. Have not called this person yet because this is a potential legal issue and I need to get my approach straight before I say anything. (Am writing these replies you all in a terse way due to extreme stress. I will not be terse with candidate; thank you for the note about passive aggression too. Won't do that either.)

I am trying to get in touch with the only person who sort of qualifies as my manager for advice. I am going to hold off on talking to this candidate until my manager and I talk first.
posted by Hermione Granger at 12:23 PM on April 12 [1 favorite]

You need to clarify with the candidate that there was no offer made ASAP. As in, even if you have a call with them later this afternoon, try to call now or, barring that, send an email. Do this clearly and be apologetic. This seems like such a obvious thing that I'm shocked that you haven't done this yet. This is wholly separate from the issues with paid vs. unpaid internships. Clarify this immediately and talk about the other issues in a separate conversation (or a separate part of the same conversation). Something like, "I'm so sorry for the confusion, but we are not able to offer you an internship at this point. You are still very much in the running, but there was a miscommunication between [Colleague] and myself and we are not able to make you the offer at this time." THEN, you can go into discussion about the payment, but you need to suck it up and be straightforward with this candidate before you go any further in the conversation. Please don't obfuscate the point in the way you have in your reply to the thread.
posted by Betelgeuse at 12:28 PM on April 12 [1 favorite]

"Thanks for your follow up emails. You've asked good questions, ones that we covered already during our initial interview.

The first thing in this email needs to be an apology for the screw up and a very very clear outline that there is a retraction of the offer that your colleague made but that the candidate is still in the running. Your email does not do that.

Also I would not have any sort of "We said this in the interview" sort of talk. I know it's frustrating that they seemed to not get the "this is unpaid" aspect of this but there could be many reasons for that and it's graceful to just presume good faith and reiterate but not shame them for not remembering/hearing. "No stipend offered at this time" is fuzzy. "There is no stipend with this internship" is not.

It may be worth remembering that you hold nearly all the cards here, so moving forward being cool about this mess up (and then having some sort of appropriate discussion with your colleague who totally screwed this up) is the way to go here. Take some deep breaths and do the right thing but do it quickly.
posted by jessamyn at 12:43 PM on April 12 [16 favorites]

The above scripts and advice sound good to me. Agree this needs to be fast. There is such a power imbalance here and you are in the position to cause or perpetuate harm.

While waiting to talk with your manager, if you must do that first, can you contact the candidate advising them of an internal issue related to HR which results in you advising them not to announce the news and not to turn down other opportunities?

This isn't great wording. And I don't know the legal or professional implications. I'd be a little disturbed to get such an email and call. But the aim is to minimize damage of them losing other opportunities and/or broadcasting this fabulous new development. If you decide to hire, you can remain vague about what the wrinkles were. I'd include lots of apologies.
posted by ramenopres at 12:50 PM on April 12

> The first thing in this email needs to be an apology for the screw up and a very very clear outline that there is a retraction of the offer that your colleague made but that the candidate is still in the running. Your email does not do that.

This was my thought as well. Also, I appreciate you want to touch base with the sort-of-manager, but unless you are seriously concerned about legal issues that might result from not doing so, it's a far higher priority to contact the candidate pronto. I know you feel bad about it but you should put that on hold and concentrate on communicating quickly and clearly.
posted by languagehat at 12:50 PM on April 12

I would say something like, "We just need to clarify that (colleague) misspoke and you are still being considered for our internship, but we have not completed to selection process. So we would like to invite you for another interview/to continue this process/etc. but we don't expect to make a final decisions and extend formal offers until (date). Also, to respond your questions, we would also like to reiterate that this is an unpaid internship, as we discussed in our meeting on (date)" or something like that. If you don't want to select this person at all, then I think you approach it differently. But I think you should be clear it was a mistake, and then clarify what the next steps actually are.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:51 PM on April 12 [2 favorites]

Thank you all. I elected to go with a mix of Ouroborous's script and some of the other verbiage many of you advised. This was not something I ever thought I'd have to deal with but now that I have I'll be a lot more prepared to prevent it from happening again. The candidate in question is a really good kid. This is not his fault, and any frustration I had with him was 100% misplaced. Here's hoping any bridge we've been building with him isn't totally burned.
posted by Hermione Granger at 2:28 PM on April 12 [16 favorites]

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