Is reneging *always* unacceptable?
February 10, 2015 11:28 AM   Subscribe

So I know the wisdom: don't renege on a job acceptance. That said, I'm considering it. Am I making a huge mistake?

I'm a student who will be graduating in May with a BA and an MA (with a set of in-demand skills; the job market is good for recent graduates compared to most fields). I know I was interested in strategy/management consulting (thanks for the help several years ago, mefi) and also in government-focused work, so I applied to a number of firms including a few public-sector focused firms and to the public sector division of one larger firm. I only applied to entry-level positions. I received and chose an offer from the large firm (call it place A). That was in October or so. I gave a verbal commitment at that point.

I felt pretty good about the job, although I wasn't crazy about certain parts such as moving cities and the fact that I didn't really feel like I "clicked" with the other people who got entry level offers (without going too far into detail, our reasons for being there and being interested in the work felt very different). I also know that a lot of my job particulars will be very tied to the project I'm on so it's hard to imagine exactly what the work will be like (and how travel-focused, difficult, menial, etc. my responsibilities will be). I'm fine with that but it makes it harder to imagine myself there.

I knew by taking it I was trading the security of knowing I had a job almost a full year ahead of time (I won't be starting until September/October) for later missed opportunities. I'm pretty risk-averse so I thought I was comfortable with that. Since then, of course, I have seen great positions advertised and have been sad but okay to not even try, since I have something already. Recently, though, an old internship (call it place B) approached me about an open position (one that is distinctly above entry-level and would probably allow me to focus more exclusively on the skills I've built recently). I LOVED this internship. The people were great, the work was exactly what I like to do, the work-life balance was fantastic, and I always looked forward to Mondays. This is probably my dream post-college job, even though I'd be giving up some of the money, exposure, and planned professional development opportunities of a large consulting firm. It's also in the city where I would prefer to live. I haven't officially interviewed with place B yet but we've had a serious conversation and I know there are no other candidates they like on the table at this point. I wouldn't consider reneging until/unless my role was 1000% confirmed with B.

I have a great relationship with the people at place B, and I know I could tell them I'm not interested in pursuing this opportunity without hampering that. I also know that reneging would destroy my relationship with place A. That said, when I think about the office I want to be sitting in a year from now, it's almost definitely B. I don't know how shortsighted that approach is for a recent grad.

While I've thought it through and am okay ending my relationship with place A (though of course I wouldn't choose to if it weren't necessary), I don't think I'd renege if that meant also destroying any potential relationship with all competitors (it's just an industry that I'm not prepared to rule out for the future). I know Washington DC is a small town, although I also know that this is probably fairly unremarkable for an unknown entry-level consultant to do.

So, mefi, because I am young and bad at (or at least inexperienced at) making career decisions: am I crazy to consider place B? Just how bad is it to renege on place A? What is likely to be the impact with competitors? What would you do?
posted by R a c h e l to Work & Money (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Unless your position is in a world/sphere so small that you'll be seeing these people day in and day out, don't sweat it.

Have you had any type of regular contact with company A ? Do you have an offer letter or anything else in hand ? Because I only see "verbal commitment".

In this case, you've been made an unsolicited offer that you can't refuse. Phrase it as such, be polite etc, sorry to change directions, opportunity you desire, etc. You won't be the first to have done this.
posted by k5.user at 11:33 AM on February 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

If A really wanted you, they would have made a binding written commitment and insisted on one from you as well. I think it's fine to move on.
posted by grouse at 11:36 AM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

You have no obligations to an employer, much less one you don't even work for yet. And you are an entry-level fresh-grad hire, not (sorry) super-hot property. You don't have a "relationship", and they knew when they offered you the job that it was probably at best 50/50 you'd actually start, because that's how life works.

Never ever ever ever make a job decision out of obligation or an imagined loyalty that they do not and will never have to you. You are only as valuable as the money you can make a company, and you are out as soon as that value drops below your cost. Take the job you want.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:36 AM on February 10, 2015 [33 favorites]

Don't worry about it. Place A goes through this every year. They probably have a lot of people who want your offer.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:39 AM on February 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

I also know that reneging would destroy my relationship with place A.

Really? That sounds like a place that you don't want to work for. I can't imagine any career (and especially not Washington DC consulting) where someone declining a job offer 4 months out would cause any consternation on the part of the employer. I would be surprised if anyone even remembers you a year from now, nonetheless blacklisting you.

That said, when I think about the office I want to be sitting in a year from now, it's almost definitely B. I don't know how shortsighted that approach is for a recent grad.

This is exactly what recent grads should be doing. Employers make offers well in advance in order to ensure they get the best talent. The corresponding responsibility on their part is to ensure they retain that best talent. If they aren't making it worth your while to stay on, then that's just part of the risk they take by making offers in advance of graduation.

What would you do?

Exactly what you're thinking of doing, exactly using the wording k5.user suggests. This isn't even "just business" - it's you finding an offer you're more excited about. You will not be the first person or the only person to do this. If you get any reaction from Job A other than a genuine "sorry to lose you and good luck", then you've just received a giant signal that Job A is not somewhere you want to work.
posted by saeculorum at 11:40 AM on February 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

What would you do?

I would take job A, but only because I place an enormous value on keeping my word, to the point of taking it to extremes. It's an important part of my sense of self. As far as the pragmatic, bridge-burning aspects of your question, I think the benefits of taking job B greatly outweigh the limited, probably nonexistent, damage you'll do your career by reneging on job A.
posted by bac at 11:40 AM on February 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

As far as the commitment, I told my recruiter yes over the phone and got an email confirming that from them.Seems like that's as good as any other sort of contract. Since then, I've gotten a bit of "join our networking group for those who will be joining us" stuff but not much else.

The things that made me worry are when people write articles like this and this - even for new grads, there's a pretty strong consensus about the fact that it's a pretty bad thing to do.

Sorry, threadsit over. Will sit back now.
posted by R a c h e l at 11:42 AM on February 10, 2015

Company A spent what? 5-6 hours TOPS getting you to accept a job with them. I wouldn't sweat it that much. Did they offer you moving expenses? Housing assistance? No? Fuck em. If your conscience is still bothering you, send a fruit basket and a nice note.
posted by sexyrobot at 11:42 AM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

Actually, I'd very seriously consider place B. You certainly have lots of notice to give place A, and I'm sure it was competitive, so there are still others who will be able to step into your place there.

Sure place B is the known commodity, but you can't step in the same stream twice. What if you get there and it's not as good as you remember. Interning somewhere and actually working there are two different things.

That said, which position offers the best long term opportunities? Is there room to grow and move up in Place B? How are the folks from Place A doing ten years after their initial start dates?

I'm the first one to say that if you don't want to move to a different city, don't want to be a road warrior, don't want to focus solely on billable hours, then don't be a consultant.

Also, if you're a bad ass in your field, even if you burned them on this (and really, it would be a mild burn, like a sunburn) it won't haunt you forever. You can always get hired based on reputation.

So explore place b and think very seriously about what you want. If you choose not to to move forward with place A, let them know ASAP.

Dear Recruiter at Place A,

Thank you very much for the opportunity work for Place A in an entry-level position. Things have changed since we've spoken and I'm afraid that I will be unable to accept your offer of employment. I appreciate the time and effort associated with a candidate search and I hope that I can keep the door open for future opportunities. Thank you again for your consideration.


posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:42 AM on February 10, 2015 [8 favorites]

Speaking as a 20+ year hiring manager - great employees quit, promising applicants skip out on interviews, and new hires accept other positions. All the time. Company A will be disappointed to lose you, but they won't be shocked or devastated. It's business, it happens.

Also, if I understood you correctly, the job at Company A doesn't start until next fall? You're giving them plenty of time to refill that open position. Your conscience is clear.

Unless "burning bridges" at Company A will hurt your professional future, accept the job you want.
posted by falldownpaul at 11:46 AM on February 10, 2015 [9 favorites]

As far as the commitment, I told my recruiter yes over the phone and got an email confirming that from them.Seems like that's as good as any other sort of contract.

Setting aside whether it really is as good as any other sort of contract, employment contracts don't force you to work for a company. If you give them six months of notice, you're costing them virtually nothing to replace you, and you're giving someone a chance to take that job who wants the job as their top choice.

This won't burn a bridge with Company A. They'll shrug and maaaybe put a note in a file somewhere saying "Rachel was offered a position in September 2014 and declined it in February 2015." And if you reapply after a few years, maaaybe someone will see that note and think, "Okay, no big deal." They won't spread around town "Rachel is totally unreliable and will leave you in the lurch. Don't hire her, and don't trust her if she's working for someone else and you have to talk to her."
posted by Etrigan at 11:51 AM on February 10, 2015 [5 favorites]

Sometimes you have to do what makes you happy and not worry about the proper career move. Let them know that your situation has changed since you accepted and unfortunately you now need to withdraw your interest.

That being said, if you may not get the other job at Place B, I would really get a different offer in-hand before withdrawing from Place A. It sounds like you'd rather take the job at Place A than have none at all, right? It also sounds like there is a lot of time between now and when you are supposed to start at Place A, so I would use it to get an offer you're happy about.

Place A won't care at this point. They will probably care a lot more if it's the day you're supposed to start or something, but you have a lot of time to make this work, it sounds like.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:51 AM on February 10, 2015

(And those articles you posted sound like they were written by the Koch bros. to keep the oppressed masses in their place. Hun, the world doesn't work like that unless you ALLOW the world to treat you like property with no agency of your own. Seriously. Fuck that noise.)
posted by sexyrobot at 11:51 AM on February 10, 2015 [10 favorites]

Go to job B where you'll be happy. It's nice that you're so concerned, but this is a nonissue.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 11:52 AM on February 10, 2015

As far as the commitment, I told my recruiter yes over the phone and got an email confirming that from them.Seems like that's as good as any other sort of contract.

You are not employed by contract. You are employed by mutual agreement at will. No company offers new graduates contracts. C-level employees get contracts, everyone else is at will.

The things that made me worry are when people write articles like this and this

Both of those articles suggest not reneging on a job offer that starts immediately. Although I disagree with even that advice, you are considering job offers that start in 8 months. That gives Job A more than enough time to find a replacement. If you renege on a job offer that starts 2 weeks from now on a project that starts 2 weeks from now, you may do some tangible damage to a company's schedule. That's not the case here.
posted by saeculorum at 11:54 AM on February 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I agree with everything above and also wanted to share a strategy that might mitigate any bridge burning with Company A. Call the person at Company A who you know well enough to have this kind of conversation with and tell them that an unexpected opportunity came up for you and you want to talk to them about it. Don't tell them *everything* you're thinking--you treat it a little bit like an interview question where on the surface you're telling them actual facts about the opportunity you're contemplating, but the subtext is "I'm a serious person who thinks Company A is great and I value a job offer here, and I want you to know I'm being very thoughtful about this." Obviously wait until you have the offer in hand from Company B.

If you don't know anyone there well enough to do this, chances are you're not burning any bridges--as people have pointed out, this type of thing happens all the time. If you do have relationships that would allow you to have this conversation, you will probably preserve your relationship by having the conversation. And if Company A freaks out and you've burned your bridges, that was going to happen anyway and it wasn't a place you ever wanted to work.

Maybe that's a strategy that can help you here and maybe it's not--it really depends on your own set of circumstances, but generally people and employers value honesty when it comes to potential employees weighing whether they're going to be a good fit or not.

Just be sure to have this conversation after you have locked up a job at Place B.
posted by MoonOrb at 11:58 AM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Go for Company B.

That said, If you don't have it in writing, you don't have it. Which means, don't tell Company A you're out until you get a legally binding offer letter from Company B.

Also, take a moment to be thankful that these jobs are available to you. Most of us struggle to get just one job offer. You're in good shape.
posted by Citrus at 12:05 PM on February 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

The things that made me worry are when people write articles like this and this - even for new grads, there's a pretty strong consensus about the fact that it's a pretty bad thing to do.

Those articles boil down to: "If students regularly renege on job offers, it makes my job harder."

That's fair enough but it isn't the whole story for you. You weigh the pros and cons and do what's best for you.

Unfortunately there's probably a 50/50 chance that you look back in 10 years and realize you made a mistake. Early career decisions are hard and a lot ends up being luck.
posted by mullacc at 12:07 PM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Unless Company A is BCG, Bain, or McKinsey go for Company B. Sounds like you'll enjoy yourself a lot more there. If Company A is one of the three I listed, you should think long and hard about backing out. Starting at any of those three companies will open up a lot of future opportunities that would be hard to get without the name brand experience.
posted by Arbac at 12:11 PM on February 10, 2015 [9 favorites]

Explore your options with B. Heck, go out and apply for C and D and E and F while you're at it. I'm in a midlevel position with a pretty swank company, and we routinely have people not show up for their first day - and that's with a signed offer letter in hand! But that's what at-will means - at any point, either party can walk away.

I get what you're saying about reputation, but let me share a story. My boss tried to hire a guy in the area for a very specific skillset. The guy had great credentials, interviewed well, got a very nice offer from my boss, accepted, then called the night before to let my boss know that he'd gotten a better offer. My boss was upset, but not at the guy - just at the fact that he lost out on having the guy on his team. That guy did finally end up at our company, and the only mention has been that my boss told him, "Hey, if you're ever looking again, I'd still be glad to have you on my team."

Seriously, do not limit yourself based on a verbal offer. What happens if Company A goes back on their end of the bargain? I've seen it happen plenty. As Ruthless Bunny always advises, you should always have multiple irons in the fire.
posted by RogueTech at 12:16 PM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Allow yourself to be courted by B, and if you get a formal offer, tell A you got another offer that you've decided to accept. You are not A's chattel.

One way to think about this is that if you're a desirable enough candidate for A, they'll either up their offer or wait for you to come around when your job with B washes out, because it won't be in A's best interests not to hire you simply based on some previous grudge. But if they hire some number of junior people every year assuming that they're going to lose some (for any reason), it will neither be a shock nor an impediment to your career if you leave before you've ever started. Truly desirable candidates are always desirable if the work for which they were desirable still exists, and at a big enough firm you can bet it does.
posted by fedward at 12:22 PM on February 10, 2015

As always, Ruthless Bunny has great advice and a great script. Listen to her :)

I'd also say --- from past questions, you're technical/a quant, and a woman who's got some imposter syndrome happening, and is probably in a majority-male field: is that right? If so, the research says your first job, and especially your first supervisor, is really important for your future success. Women in majority-male jobs face a ton of unconscious bias, and you will be much better-positioned for success if your first employer is a place that clearly recognizes your value, and where you feel happy and engaged. Sounds like that is more B than A. Think about which opportunity positions you better for your future, but if B feels right, it probably is.

I'm also not sure you actually have a binding offer. Unless you have paper that commits to a start date and a salary, I am not sure that you do. I say that because I think it is okay for you to bail out of A regardless, given all the time they will have to replace you, but it may lessen your feelings of guilt if what you've got is more in the nature of a handshake agreement, rather than being a detailed, signed contract.
posted by Susan PG at 12:25 PM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure if you'll burn bridges at A. But I think it's really far-fetched to think that you will burn bridges at A's competitors C, D, and E. You're giving plenty of notice and being respectful about this, so it's not like you're giving them a great story to tell with all of their competitor buddies at the bar. C, D and E aren't going to know who you are down the line, unless your career success at B or elsewhere makes you known to them.
posted by J. Wilson at 12:27 PM on February 10, 2015

You are overly self-absorbed if you think that company A cares that much.

They did not spend that much time and money recruiting you. You can be replaced. They do not want you if you do not want them. They have better things to do than try to ruin your life over some perceived slight.

Go to company B
posted by Flood at 12:27 PM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Without going into details, I reneged on an offer 9 months ago for something better and I've not regretted a single second of it, not once ever. I made the right choice for myself in the long term. This is business, not a tea party, and all the other players in this game know that.

As long as you can renege in a professional way, do so as soon as you're nailed down with Place B. They have months to replace you, and if you are SURE you will be happier at Place B, then go make yourself happy. The opportunity to do so does not present itself so often that you should blithely let it pass you by.
posted by Medieval Maven at 12:41 PM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

When I was at a management consulting firm, I interviewed & we gave an offer to a promising candidate. She accepted.

She backed out when a competitor made her a sweeter deal. We were disappointed but we didn't blame her at all. I'd make her an offer again.
posted by pointystick at 12:51 PM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Sorry, but if you went through a recruiter, you don't have a relationship with place A yet. The recruiter is the one with the relationship. You will have to explain yourself to the recruiter though.

DC can be small but if there's anything everyone in DC understands it's being competitive and climbing the influence ladder. If place A finds out they lost you because you got a way better offer, chances are they will only want you more later.
posted by zennie at 1:11 PM on February 10, 2015

Arbac's comment is seriously an extremely important one for you to digest: Unless Company A is BCG, Bain, or McKinsey go for Company B. Please heed this advice.

Susan PG also has a spot-on answer here, too.

In short: you'll be well on your way to becoming a huge success if you take these two comments to heart. Congratulations on your offers.
posted by hush at 1:48 PM on February 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

You say that you have an MA, but not an MBA, right? Because those articles you linked to seem pretty specifically to apply to business schools, and assume a very structured hiring process, where reneging will cause problems for the school. It doesn't sound like that applies here.
posted by Ragged Richard at 1:56 PM on February 10, 2015

If you start at B in May, you still have time to see if it works out before telling A your decision and that would still give A plenty of notice to find someone else.

I had a coworker who quit a few days before Christmas because she found a job more aligned in her field. She gave two day's notice. It sucked for me the most since I had to cover the slack for the month where we didn't hire any one.

She recently wrote me an email saying how the new job wasn't working out. I was still bummed for her. Good people will understand when you get better offers.
posted by "friend" of a TSA Agent at 10:31 PM on February 10, 2015

I reneged on my Company A when I graduated, in a completely different field several years ago. Company A barely seemed to notice. I have never regretted it in the tiniest bit.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 12:36 AM on February 11, 2015

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