Applying for jobs is a lot like dating: It’s a draining, often-embarrassing process that requires a lot of effort for minimal return that stretches your small talk muscles to the max. Read the situation wrong and you will find yourself locked in a horrendously unpleasant situation that you can’t escape without upending your life, so instead you try to make it work by pretending that certain important things (sex, paid time off) were actually never something you cared about.
If you are perpetually single, it can be tempting to jump into a relationship with the first person who laughs at the pun in your Tinder bio; if you’re unemployed, any job offer starts to look like the beginnings of a beautiful long term relationship. Despite how desperate you are for a steady work, experts say it’s OK — and often, encouraged — to turn down a job offer until the right thing comes along. Just like the decision to make things official with your internet date, the trick is to know the warning signs, and to know how to reject it politely so your name isn’t forever passed around as an unhireable, undateable mess.
You don’t owe anyone anything
It feels good to be courted, to be wanted, to be paraded around on a tour of a workplace and feel like you’re being wooed into the proverbial cubicle sack. But just like in dating, or with anyone who tries to flirt with you on Twitter, ever, remember: You don’t owe anyone anything.
Jodi Glickman, CEO and founder of professional development firm Great on the Job, said young people particularly fall into this trap of feeling obligated to take a job offer after going through a rigorous application and screening process.
“It’s amazing to me always the sense of loyalty you feel right away from a job offer, but it is a courting system, it’s a dating game,” she said. “You are evaluating the employer as much as they are evaluating you.”
The goal is to get into the driver’s seat—being offered the job—and then make the decision. It’s always OK to say no, she said.
“It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it doesn’t mean you presented yourself under false pretenses,” she said. “You have every right to work really hard to get them to love you and get that offer and then decide whether or not that’s where you want to be.”
Warning signs to watch for
Keep your eyes and ears peeled throughout the interview process and read the job offer carefully for warning signs that should set off red alarms in your brain that this probably isn’t the job for you. Consider these the “sleeps on a mattress on the floor” of job offer red flags.
Look for discrepancies between the job you were applying for and the one you were offered. If the salary or benefit packages don’t match what you expected, or their description of company culture seems out of sync with what you observed with your own eyes, you should consider rejecting the offer, said Dr. Michael McCutcheon, a life coach and psychologist with Wanderlust Careers.
“This is a major warning sign that you [may be] entering a bait-and-switch relationship,” he said. A common one he cited is when a company promotes a “fun” office culture but your visit to the office reveals a zombie-filled cubicle wasteland where the fun is limited to flavored coffee creams. “It’s probably better to nip it in the bud and hold out for some places that gives you exactly what they promised they would.”
“If no respect, you must reject”
Being constantly ghosted, stood up or jerked around is not something you should ever tolerate in dating. The same goes for job offers. If your interviews keep getting rescheduled or company reps miss scheduled appointments or calls, take the hint, McCutcheon said. Similarly, if the company changes its job offer or can’t handle your reasonable conditions for employment—like necessary time off to deal with a sick family member—you’re not going to start out on the right foot.
“If no respect, you must reject,” he said. “Just like in the dating world, if you don’t feel respected during the courting process, then it’s very unlikely to change once you’re fully committed to someone.”
It’s short on specifics
McCutcheon recently had a client land what was labelled an office manager job at a media company. The client ended up having to set up an entire HR department, with no HR experience whatsoever. That’s bad for the client in that current gig — who had to whip up a whole HR department out of thin air — and for future jobs, who would see only the “office manager” title without realising there was a lot more that went into it.
Glickman recently struck language from a friend’s job contract that listed his duties “without limit,” basically meaning the company could ask any and everything of him.
“The more specific the better,” she said. “If they don’t have an exact role or title or they’re not able to give a job description, that can be a red flag.”
You can’t talk to anyone
If the company doesn’t let you speak with other employees or your potential peers, alarm bells should be going off like crazy, McCutcheon said.
“They’re trying to control the narrative,” he said.
He recommends waiting until the second interview before asking to speak to other employees, and saying something like “this offer is really exciting, thank you! Before I officially sign on, I was hoping to chat informally with a few members of the team. Might you have anyone in mind who’d be up for it?”
Think about it in the dating sense: If someone wants to date you seriously but doesn’t want you to meet family or friends, it’s not a good idea to overlook this because perhaps they are hiding something.
If the employees you do talk to are anything less than super enthusiastic, something is probably off too. The exact questions you ask your potential coworkers are less important than the general vibe they give off, he said. He recommends open ended questions, such as: “How would you describe your over all experience here?” “If you could change anything about the company culture what would it be?” “What are some favourite and least favourite things about working here?”
“If they groan or roll their eyes, or if they seem generally unenthused, do not sweep this under the rug, he said, adding that you should trust your gut. “They are trying to communicate their unhappiness to you..
Politely rejecting the offer
So the job isn’t for you after all — there are plenty of fish in the C-suite, etc. The key to a polite rejection, Glickman said, is to first be super gracious, and acknowledge the extending of the offer (a.k.a. no ghosting). You should never lie about your reasons, but you don’t always have to give too many specifics about why you’re passing. It’s OK to say you decided to go for a different kind of job or move to a different industry; but if your reasons are more personal (say, the office always seems to smell like microwaved fish), just keep it generic. Sign off with a note wishing them good luck finding the right candidate or saying that you’ll stay in touch for future positions, if you’d like to leave that door open.
Glickman advises to be quick with your response or transparent if you need additional time. If you are entertaining other jobs, you can tell the company you are anticipating other offers and you’d like to be able to make a decision once you have full info from everyone. Generally a week is a good timeline for giving a response, she said. “You want something to end on a high note so they don’t think you’re a jerk,” she said.
It might feel awkward to turn it down, but it’s better than being trapped in a job you’re going to hate in a few months.
“They’re not putting your interests before that of the organisation,” she said. “Therefore, you have no responsibility to put the organisation before the best interests of yourself.”