This article was written by Amy Gallo.
The hiring manager calls with great news: the job is yours. Phew, the hard part is over, right? Maybe not. Determining whether to take a job offer can — and should — be a difficult decision. In a bad economy or if you’re eager to get out of your current job, it can be tempting to accept any offer. But before you take on job, you need to evaluate the situation carefully.
What the Experts Say
“Over the last 40 years we’ve transitioned from an economy where you work for 30 years and retire with a gold watch to something that is much more transactional,” says Boris Groysberg, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and author of Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance. People switch jobs on average every three to four years, says Groysberg, which means that being able to evaluate a job offer is a critical skill for today’s professional. And yet, most people do it poorly. “People spend more time thinking about their investments or even where to go on holiday,” says John Lees, a UK-based career strategist and author of How to Get a Job You’ll Love.
Certainly, determining whether to accept a job is an individual decision. Danny Ertel, a founding partner at Vantage Partners, LLC, a negotiation consulting firm in Boston, and co-author of The Point of the Deal: How to Negotiate When Yes is Not Enough says, “How you evaluate an offer will be different if you are looking for a job in a fulfillment center in ecommerce or if you are a midcareer executive who lost her job in a merger.” Regardless of where you are in your career, there are principles you can follow to ensure you make the right decision.
Shape the offer along the way
When the hiring manager or recruiter calls you with the offer, it shouldn’t be the first time you discuss specifics. “I would encourage people to have a conversation about their aspirations for the job way before the point of offer,” says Ertel. Be honest when responding to interview questions such as, “What are you looking for in your next role?” This increases the likelihood that the offer includes things on your wish list. Deciding whether or not to take a job usually isn’t a simple yes or no choice, so prepare for the offer conversation as a negotiation. Rarely should you accept something at face value, even in a depressed economy. “If you don’t ask for anything you’re missing an opportunity,” says Lees.
Do more in-depth research
You can find out a lot about a company before you send in your resume, but once you have the offer in hand, it’s time to do more extensive research. Groysberg writes in his article, “Five Ways to Bungle a Job Change” that one of biggest mistakes that people make is not finding out enough about their potential employer. Dig around for as much information as you can about the organization, the culture, and your future co-workers. “There is a lot more information out there than there used to be,” says Ertel. Find company employees on LinkedIn and see what they say about their job on Twitter, Facebook, or other media. You also want to find out what you can about the organization’s future prospects. When the economy is underperforming, you have to consider whether the company will still be around in a few years. “Nowadays with industries changing and very successful companies failing, if you don’t scrutinize the company, you’re making a big mistake,” says Groysberg.”
Be realistic about your prospects
Unfortunately, most job searches do not follow an orderly process that lets you compare several offers at once. More likely, you’ll receive your first offer when you are still interviewing with or have just sent your resume to other employers. “You can’t compare to fantastical, theoretical possibilities. You need to be realistic about what is likely to come down the line,” says Lees. Look at the applications you have under way and reasonably assess which are likely to get to offer. Groysberg suggests you compare the offer in hand against a wish list of what you really want in any job. “Sometimes good enough will have to do. Let go of the idea that there might be something perfect out there,” says Lees. He finds that most people want to cross off a majority of things on their lists. However, in some cases, you may settle for fewer things if the position offers something else: a stronger resume, new skills, or access to an organization you’d like to work at in the long-term.
What if you really need the job?
In a tough job market, it’s easy to overvalue an offer. Lees says you need to be wary of “rose-tinted spectacles” you might wear if you are unemployed or have been searching for a long time. Instead of talking yourself into something, explore other alternatives like accepting the job for a short-term period, say six to nine months, while you look elsewhere. If that’s not possible and you really need the job, know the risks. Groysberg believes people underestimate the transaction costs of switching jobs: what it does to your family, your client relationships, and the impact it has on your network and future prospects. “You need to think about what kind of an investment an employer is making in you and how disruptive it will be if you leave,” says Ertel. Lees advises that many future employers and search consultants will look down on quick job switches.
If you decide to say no
Saying no to a job offer can be complicated. You’ve sent in your resume, shown up for a series of interviews, and the employer likely assumes you want the job. “The last thing you want is for the company to think you played them,” says Groysberg. Don’t’ string them along. If you realize during the interview process that there is a high chance you won’t accept an offer, let the hiring manager know so she can focus on more viable candidates, and you can get on with your search. It can be tempting to prove to yourself and others that you can get the job but it’s a waste of time to do it for your ego. However, it’s okay to continue in a process when you are unsure. Express your concerns and desires along the way. This will not only keep an open dialogue but could possibly shape the eventual offer.
If you do say no, remember that a lot goes into generating an offer. People have invested time and may have even gone to bat for you. Never imply that the job or the salary was to blame. Instead focus on what’s not a good fit. This will keep the door open for the future. “You’d like to walk away in such a way that if their needs change tomorrow, you can walk back in,” says Ertel. Remember that everyone you met in the interview process is now a potential contact in your network. “Never be so adversarial that you can’t have a relationship with the organization,” says Lees.
Principles to Remember
- Find out as much as you can about the organization, its future prospects and what it’s like to work there
- Shape the offer along the way by expressing your expectations and desires about the job
- Be reasonable about what other offers might come in
- Take a job you don’t want unless you absolutely have to
- Overvalue an offer just because you feel desperate
- Imply that the job offer is not good enough when declining it
Case Study #1: Be honest about your requirements
When Heather Goodman* became a mom to twins two years ago she decided not to return to her full-time job. Instead, she did freelance work for several universities and other public sector organizations, not expecting to entertain job offers any time soon. However, she came across a position she felt compelled to apply for with an organization she was freelancing with. She enjoyed the work immensely and counted Jill, the Director of the office, among her mentors. Jill explained that it was a full-time job but Heather asked if there was any flexibility. “She advised me to go through the process,” Heather says. If and when they got to the point of offer, they could figure out the possibilities.
Within a week of Heather’s interview, Jill called to give her an informal offer, explaining that HR would send formal paperwork soon. “I made the request at that time to take the position on at 80%,” Heather says. It was a formality since Jill already knew that’s what she wanted. “I thought I had a strong negotiating position,” Heather says given that she was the top candidate for the job and she had already shown she could do the work. Jill agreed to talk with HR, but the department maintained that it was a 100% position and it would start in 5 weeks.
The job was exactly what Heather wanted: it was in the right field, it came with great promotional and development opportunities, and Heather already enjoyed the working environment. Still, she wasn’t ready to go full time. “I had five or six days where I put a lot of thought into it,” she says. She reached out to mentors and colleagues to get input. “It was the first job offer I had in a long time where everything looked so perfect,” she says. But she felt she couldn’t take it, that it wasn’t right for her family. “Instead of thinking of it as turning down that job, I thought of it as taking the job of being mom to my girls,” she says. She called Jill to share her decision. In addition, she wrote thank you notes to everyone she interviewed with explaining her reason for not taking the position and asking that they consider her for future positions. Heather doesn’t regret her decision at all. In fact, Jill has shared her plans to build the office and Heather’s hopeful she’ll have an opportunity to entertain another offer in the future when her requirements for a position change.
Case Study #2: Turn down the offer that just isn’t right
Isabel Soto*, an employment professional based in New York City, has turned down two job offers in the past year. In 2006, she had started her own consulting practice but by 2008, most of her larger clients had been forced to drop her because of the economy. In 2011, she was stringing together irregular assignments and knew she needed a steady job. The first job she considered was Director of HR for a company in Utah. After the initial interviews, she felt the job would be a great fit except for the location. Still, she flew out west to meet with the hiring manager, a senior executive at the company, who had been filling the role. “It was one of the most candid interviews I’ve been on,” she says. The hiring manager explained that Isabel was the top candidate for the job but that before she continued with the process, she should better understand the firm’s culture. She directed Isabel to several YouTube videos of the company’s CEO, who regularly appeared in front of the company in costume as part of morale building exercises and expected his senior leaders to do the same. “Even though I was desperate for a job, I knew I couldn’t do that,” Isabel says. She called the recruiter to turn down the job and was honest about her reasons for doing so. She explained that based on what she had seen in the videos she didn’t feel there was a cultural fit.
A few months later she interviewed for another job: a director of employee relations role at a local university. After several interviews, the hiring manager told her the job was hers if she wanted it. Again, she wasn’t sure. The job had many positives: it was a low stress environment, it offered great benefits, and the university was an employee friendly place. But the job was relatively junior despite the title and Isabel worried it wasn’t going to be challenging enough. “Again, I thought ‘Am I crazy? If I don’t take this job, is the right thing going to come along?'” she says. But still she turned it down. “It would be great to have a paycheck and great benefits but I would definitely have trouble sleeping at night. There were too many factors that caused me to question it,” she says.
In both cases, she was upfront with the hiring manager and the recruiter about why she wasn’t taking each of the jobs. “In the past it felt like dating, I was worried about hurting people’s feelings,” she says. However, they appreciated her candor and thanked her for the honest input. She says it was hard to turn down the jobs and a risk for her financially but she felt she had to. “When I was younger, I didn’t think to ask the right questions or do the research.” In the mean time, she’s secured more consulting work than she’d anticipated and is continuing to search. “At the time, I thought I was being stupid for turning down any job, but now I’m glad I did,” she says.
*Not their real names
Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review. Follow her on Twitter at@amyegallo.This article was originally seen on HBR.