“Can an employer take back a job offer, even after I accepted it? Do I have any recourse?”

Question: Hi. After several rounds of interviews, I was officially offered a full-time job by a Silicon Valley corporation. They gave me a few days to consider the offer, and sign and return it. I did so.

A few days later, I received a call from the job recruiter I was dealing with who told me that, due to unforeseen circumstances – not explained – the employer was rescinding the job offer. They didn’t give me a reason, or even send a letter or email; just the telephone call.

Can an employer do that? Can an employer back off from an official, written job offer, even after it was accepted? Do I have a right to ask HR to give me a written reason for the withdrawal of the offer? Can I take legal action? Thanks.

         San Jose, California

Answer: Muhammad, with one exception, there really isn’t anything you can do.

The answers to your questions come from what we lawyers call “common law contract law.” Basically, that means the many decisions handed down by courts over hundreds of years on matters such as yours that arise every single day, in every single city, in every single state. It’s sort of “common sense put into law by judges.” While “common law contract law” does differ a bit from state to state, it doesn’t differ very much.

The law sees your situation this way: even though there has been an “offer” and an “acceptance” of that offer, it really has not done anyone any harm for either the employer or the employee to back out now, before they have started to work together. It may have caused hurt feelings, but not much more. If, though, (a) the offer of employment was made in bad faith, and the employer never really meant to hire you, and (b) if you left another job to take this one, then you would have an enforceable legal right to sue the employer for your damages. Without (a) bad faith, and (b) your reliance on the offer in leaving another job, the law says, “No harm.”

The one exception to this analysis is this: if you believe that the offer was withdrawn for an “illegal reason,” that is, because of (a) your age, (b) your gender, (c) your nationality, (d) your religion, (e) in some places, your sexual orientation, and if you had some kind of evidence that was the reason, then you have every right to sue for illegal discrimination under California and federal anti-discrimination laws. Alternatively, you could file a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (usually called the “EEOC”), or with California’s anti-discrimination agency.

You are free to ask or demand a reason for what happened from the company’s HR department, but bear in mind that (a) they are just as free not to answer you, (b) it’s hard to believe they would tell you they discriminated against you, even if they did, and (c) it might harm your chances of getting another job with that same company, or through that same recruiter, in the future. Think of it: if, for example, expected funding for your position did not come through, this same employer might hire you next week if funding does come through. Why spoil that possibility?

My own suggestion to you is that you put the matter behind you, and move forward. You might ask the recruiter “Is there anything about me, my qualifications, or my presentation that you think I might improve?” Think positive; there really is no worthwhile alternative.

Hope this helps. And I hope you find a great job soon. Thanks for writing in. If you like our blog, please tell your friends about it. Don’t forget: subscribing to our blog is FREE, and it’s definitely worth at least twice that “price.”

           Best, Al Sklover

P.S.: Job offer accepted, then withdrawn, leaving you in a bind? Consider our Model Letter entitled “Job Offer Accepted, Then Withdrawn – Requesting Payment of Losses.” Shows you “What to Say, and How to Say It.”™ To obtain your copy, [click here.] Delivered by Email – Instantly!

© 2010 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.