Help me say no to what’s likely to seem like a great offer
September 2, 2016 12:14 AM   Subscribe

In a few days’ time I’m going to be sitting down for lunch with my ex-boss, whom I know is going to offer me a new job. I left my old job for very good reasons that haven’t gone away, and whilst the new job sounds intriguing, I know it’d be a very bad idea for me to take it. Unfortunately I’m terrible at saying “no” to people. Help me deal with this like a grown-up!

Some back-story:

I worked for my former employer for eight months last year as a software engineer. The work was interesting and complex enough to keep me engaged. Their main product is starting to take off in the sector it’s aimed at, and they have enough professional services clients to fund product development without having to look for VC funding.

The reasons I left were due to the company culture rather than anything technical:

- There were not enough software engineers to cope with the amount of work that needed doing.
- The senior software engineer was (I’m not kidding) a coke fiend who became less and less reliable throughout my time there and was eventually fired not long before I left.
- Due to the under-resourcing, deadlines were frequently missed and emails would go around from the CTO to the tune of “I expect all weekend plans to be cancelled.”
- The CTO and CEO are friends, but they argued _all the time_. Sometimes frighteningly so -- the CTO punched a hole in a wall after a missed deadline.
- CTO likes to reinvent wheels a lot, so that things that could be done quicker by using existing open-source software take ages.

For all this, and also for reasons in my personal life, I left at the end of last summer. I took a contract role that pays ~30% more per month and is far, far more boring, and I’ve been reasonably happy in it (though I do miss the technical challenges).

The CTO is, outside work, a nice guy. He’s very charming, fiercely intelligent, and we get on well. We argue a lot about technical things, but it’s always good-natured -- the fact that I have a Master’s degree in my field lends me some weight, though the fact that he has a PhD in his is often cited as why he’s right and everyone else is wrong. We get on very well, and only once did he ever actually yell directly at me -- at which point I took him to once side and told him “if you ever yell at me like that again I’ll leave on the very same day.” He immediately apologised, blaming the stress caused by another one of his employees abruptly quitting due to his (the CTO) behaviour. (Said employee rejoined the company the same day, after the CTO begged).
e’s a micromanager and
Earlier this year, the CTO contacted me and asked me to do some freelance work. I wouldn’t have to come into the office, wouldn’t have to deal with the toxic internal environment, and was simply being asked to complete a project that had been left dangling when I resigned. I’ve been doing the freelance work for about six months (unsurprisingly the goalposts got moved a few times during that period) and although it’s been occasionally stressful it’s been nicely lucrative to have the additional income.

However, throughout that time, the CTO has made noises about “bringing [me] back into the fold.” He’s made it really clear that he wants me back, that he values my abilities and that he considers me, if not an equal, at least the next-best thing. So far I’ve managed to stall him because I was under contract with my current client, but he’s asked me to come to lunch next week so that we can “discuss the future properly, like men.” (Whatever that means; I presume it doesn’t involve grunting and urinating in corners). He’s made it clear that he wants to offer me a more managerial role, taking the day-to-day responsibility for engineering management away from him so that he can concentrate on being an ideas guy. Trouble is, I don’t actually believe that he’d relinquish it that easily. He’s not quite a micro-manager but he does question his engineers’ choices a lot after the fact, and can be quite unpleasant to people with whom he’s disagreed.

Here’s the thing. I’m very, very bad at saying “no” to people I know. Really, really bad. When I handed in my notice to the CTO last summer I spent most of the day in a horrible state of anxiety, to the point where I would have taken anti-anxiety meds had I had some available to me. The idea of going to lunch with him, hearing him out and then having to turn him down is really, really frightening me.

A lot of this is due to the fact that I was brought up with the idea that “letting someone down” was the worst thing that I could possibly do. I have a really strong sense of personal integrity -- learning that I’ve done the wrong thing by someone is a really hurtful thing to me and makes me question my worth (I was taught as a kid that my needs should always come second to others, and that it’s wrong to do something for purely selfish reasons). And yes, I'm working on that with a therapist.

I’ve thought of just asking him for a salary that pays more than my current contract role, which would likely require him to bump my pay up to nearly double what it was previously, which I know he’s likely to balk at. But the truth is that I fear that if I went in there and asked for what I regard as stupid money, he’d find a way to say “yes” to me.

At the same time, I don’t want to burn my bridges, because the freelance work that I’ve been doing has been, as I said, very lucrative. It’s allowed me to pursue my art in a way that I’ve not been able to before, and I’ve been really enjoying that (and considering doing less contract work and more art, with the freelance work filling in the gaps).

Technical challenges aside, there’s nothing at that place for me that I’d really enjoy, and plenty that I know would make me utterly miserable. I know that I have to turn down the offer, and do it graciously, but I feel like I’m leading the CTO on at this point by not just telling him, which is making me feel super anxious and kinda worthless.

So, mefites: I know that I need to put my big boy pants on and deal with this properly, but I don’t know how. Advice very much appreciated.
posted by six sided sock to Work & Money (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
e’s a micromanager and
Wow, copy-past fat fingers. Ignore that sentence-fragment fragment :)
posted by six sided sock at 12:19 AM on September 2, 2016

Keep it short and sweet. Don't give details that can be argued against point-by-point, Just say what you said in the question, 'I left that job for very good reasons that haven’t gone away, and whilst the new job sounds intriguing, I know it’d be a very bad idea for me to take it.' - that's more than enough. If they keep pushing then say, "Let me think about it.", and then email a polite refusal.
posted by oh pollo! at 12:28 AM on September 2, 2016

You don't have to meet him for lunch and in fact, I think you shouldn't. He's made it clear what the meeting is about, so save the both of you time (not to mention lunch money 😁).

If it's easier for you than a face to face rejection, write a polite email saying that all things considered, meeting him for lunch is not a good idea since you will not be considering going back to work for his company in future.
posted by Kwadeng at 12:49 AM on September 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Tell him you're happy in your current role and you respect him enough not to waste his time interviewing over lunch. If you don't go to lunch, you can't be talked around.
posted by Jubey at 12:49 AM on September 2, 2016 [7 favorites]

Saying no to a job is way easier than saying no to a person.
posted by bendy at 1:07 AM on September 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Eh, I think it's worth going to the lunch. It's always good to not burn personal relationships -- who knows, the CTO may start a company down the line. Plus, you don't know if or what he's offering you. Maybe he's going to a different company. Maybe he's offering you a completely different role. Maybe the CEO quit. Point is, I'd go to the lunch, see what he says, and if you know you can't say no just say "I'll think about it and will give you an answer in 24 hours." That's way easier than saying no on the spot because you are not giving him chances to change your mind -- you're just buying time.

Then you buy yourself time to write the rejection email - "I appreciate you reaching out and taking time to take me out to lunch. After reflection, this is not the right offer for me. But thank you for considering me, and I look forward to staying in touch."

Rejection is a muscle you need to exercise anyways, and avoiding people (and sounds like you like this guy) is not a great way to approach things.
posted by pando11 at 1:46 AM on September 2, 2016 [27 favorites]

OK. So say you want to go to the lunch, hear what he has to say, but not say yes or no to his face? That's cool. Here's how you do it. (on preview, per pando11, except I don't recommend offering a 24hr response)

Him: blah blah selling selling offer offer blah selling offer urgency
You: Thanks for the offer, I'll think about it.
Him: urgency blah blah selling urgency selling offer offer blah selling offer urgency
You: Thanks for the offer, I'll think about it.
Him: repeating himself.
You: repeating yourself: Thanks for the offer, I'll think about it.

Things not to say.

Have an (fake if need be) appointment lined up for shortly after lunch so you have an excuse to leave. Set an alarm on your phone. Then go for a walk or something and congratulate yourself on saying you will think about it. Envision yourself congratulating yourself for holding your own and not saying yes or maybe. Think of this as an exercise in asserting yourself while maintaining boundaries and friendships. Good luck, it's hard yet you will enjoy your success.

[Later when you feel good about it, send an email saying you have thought about it but decline, with thanks].
posted by Thella at 1:58 AM on September 2, 2016 [10 favorites]

"I’ve thought of just asking him for a salary that pays more than my current contract role, which would likely require him to bump my pay up to nearly double what it was previously, which I know he’s likely to balk at."
Never ever negotiate against yourself. You ask for this plus 20%. It sounds like you don't really want to work there, but you miss certain things and would do it if the money was especially good. Let him say no.

Also, when he says "talk about it like men," make sure to use the phrase "talk about it like adults," because fuck the patriarchy.
posted by history is a weapon at 2:43 AM on September 2, 2016 [7 favorites]

The idea of going to lunch with him, hearing him out and then having to turn him down is really, really frightening me.

You are not required to frighten yourself simply to please other people. Just send an email. LIE if you need to in order to not prevaricate. You are two professionals talking peer to peer; this is not your parent, you are not a child, and you do not have to appease him.

Hi Bob --

Just giving you a heads up that I've just taken on a new contract and will need to cancel our lunch as I'll be needed at at the new gig.

Since I don't want to waste your time with a reschedule, I just want to be clear that I'm really happy with my decision to freelance and will not be taking on another employee role at any company for at least the next few years.

Thanks for the lunch invitation,
Six Sided Sock

posted by DarlingBri at 3:59 AM on September 2, 2016 [6 favorites]

Write the email now, when you're sure about what you want, but keep it in Drafts; then at lunch, if you're having trouble saying No, you can ask for a little time to think about it. When you get home, pull the trigger on the email.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 4:10 AM on September 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

You don't have to turn him down. Go into the lunch with the determination that you will not give an answer that day. It's completely expected that a person's a few days to consider a job offer before accepting. Then you can follow up with an email saying how grateful you are that he thought of you but you've decided not to take the job (unless you decide to take it instead.)

Even if you are positive you don't want it, he's probably a good contact to maintain for future jobs/references/whatever.
posted by mulcahy at 5:57 AM on September 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

First of all, I suggest you adopt this rule, not only for this situation but for your life:

Never, never commit to an important decision in a first meeting. Just don't.

You have no idea how much time, trouble, and money this will save you in your lifetime, especially if you have any people-pleasing tendencies whatsoever. Persuasive people know how to create a sense of urgency and press you into a decision before you've had a chance to get your bearings. Give yourself enough time to get out of the persuasion field and think it over on your own, and you'll find that you're much happier with your decisions and the way you convey them. Phrases may that help: "That sounds interesting, tell me more." "Ok, I just want to make sure I have all the facts -- can you tell me more about [x]?" "Thank you so much for asking -- I'm honored. Let me think it over and get back to you in a couple of days."

So, about the lunch meeting: you're going to go in there feeling relaxed and un-pressured because you know that, for you, this is just an information-gathering meeting. You won't be saying "yes" or "no"or even "maybe" -- your job in this meeting is just to find out more about the situation, like a journalist doing an interview. Then you go home and give yourself at least 48 hours to consider it. Maybe you decide you don't have enough information to make the decision -- in which case, you ask for for more info (for instance, whether a higher salary would be possible) and (again) take some time on your own to consider it before making a choice. Maybe it turns out to be something you want to do -- in which case you say yes (which is the easy answer). Or, maybe, as you suspect, this is going to be something you want to pass on. In that case, you'll have enough time to consider the way you're going to deliver the no. I'd suggest something like the following:

Dear Ex-Boss,

It was great catching up the other day -- let's do it again some time soon!

I wanted to get back to you about the [job offer] we discussed. Thank you so much for thinking of me -- as I said, I'm honored! I've considered it carefully, and I think that for a variety of reasons, this particular role is not a good fit for me at this time. If that ever changes, I will definitely let you know -- and I hope you will keep me in mind for future opportunities! I've really appreciated and enjoyed the freelancing work you've tossed my way over the past six months, and I'd love to keep working with you in that capacity.

Thanks again,
six sided sock

Adjust this message however you see fit, but beware of one temptation: strongly resist the urge to over-explain or list a bunch of reasons why you're saying no. All that does is show that you feel the need to justify yourself, that your decision is somehow wrong or illegitimate -- which will be (correctly) interpreted as a sign of wavering by the other party. Often, that just gives them an opening to start badgering you and trying to convince you why your reasons are not valid -- and I doubt that you want to expose yourself to that. So, don't mention money unless you wish to negotiate about money. Just remember: you have the right to make this decision for yourself, for any reason or no reason at all. Nobody can take that right away from you, and anyone who tries to pressure you is letting you down, not the other way around.
posted by ourobouros at 7:21 AM on September 2, 2016 [6 favorites]

"Right now I'm making X at [contract job] (nearly twice what I was making working for you before) plus Y doing [side job for your company]. I don't want to waste your time having lunch, so I'll make it plain: the only way it would make sense for me financially would be if I was offered X PLUS Y PLUS oh say 25% of X+Y (so like triple what previous salary was) PLUS (just for fun) a whole perksplosion of perks and a fancy title."
If they DO say yes to all that, in my experience: the more they pay you, the better they treat you. And hell, if you hate it even then, quit. And you'll be quitting with [fancy title] and [salary requirement X+Y+Z] on your resume.
But yeah...fuck the fuck no to 'having lunch'. That just sets you up for being manipulated. YOU set the rules. Good luck.
posted by sexyrobot at 7:26 AM on September 2, 2016

I think that it might help if you reframe this part: "what’s likely to seem like a great offer". It's not a great offer, no matter how you look at it. Working at a company where the CTO punches holes in the wall and tries to coerce you into going back to work there is just never going to be a good thing, no matter how interesting the work is and how much they pay you. Remember that you don't owe them anything at all. There is a reason it’s called "show business", not "show friends".
posted by dawkins_7 at 7:48 AM on September 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Under what circumstances would you accept an offer? Seriously. What amount of money, work-at-home, contractually-limited overtime, whatever. When you consider this, factor in the CTO's bad behavior. Then, since you are probably being too nice, increase it by 20%. The draw for you is the technical challenge. Maybe tell the CTO that you don't intend to return to the office as an employee, but would consider more contracted time.

This is business. You are not letting down a person, you are negotiating a business contract. And they have let *you* down, and you deserve better.

I'd skip the lunch, negotiate by email.
posted by theora55 at 7:57 AM on September 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

It all sounds like a non-starter as long as the CTO is still there.
posted by rhizome at 8:54 AM on September 2, 2016

I 100% agree with theora55. Don't go to him with an offer that you think is a "stupid" amount of money based on your current salary but that you'd still want to say no to. Give him the number that would actually compensate you for all the things you don't like about the job, the account that you really would be happy to go back to all that for. Then it's up to him to say yes or no, and either way you win.
posted by solotoro at 9:25 AM on September 2, 2016

If you decide to go ahead and go in with a plan to say "I'll think about it", don't fall into the trap of telling him what you would want from the job because then if he gives it to you, you will feel obliged to take the job. Instead, just ask him what he had in mind and then say that you will think about it. If you feel really pushed, give him a totally ridiculous answer. When he protests that that's unreasonable, say "I thought so too but if you want an reasonable answer you have to give me time to think about it."

If you don't trust yourself not to give too much away, then that it is a sign that you really need to skip this lunch - and there is lots of good advice above on how to do that.
posted by metahawk at 9:21 PM on September 2, 2016

If you don't trust yourself to say no directly how about, "that's an interesting offer. I'm very happy where I am right now, but let's table this discussion and touch base again in a year." Then refuse to be drawn out about the reasons you want to stay in your current job. Just reiterate that you're satisfied where you are, but you'd be open to reconsidering with another year of experience under your belt. In that year he'll either give up and hire (and probably fire) someone else, or if he's still badgering you, you'll probably finally get so annoyed you'll just tell him no outright.
posted by MsMolly at 11:56 PM on September 2, 2016

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