“Can I decline a job offer I already accepted without ‘burning bridges?‘”

Question: Please, Alan, I want to know how to write a resignation letter to a new employer who made me a job offer. I accepted it, but before I started the new job, when I resigned, my present boss gave me the same package to stay.

I want to keep on good terms with this company that gave me a job offer, and get consideration if this employer has a new job opening in the future.

Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania

Answer: Dear Kimaryo: I understand your predicament, in fact, I was once in your situation, myself several years ago, as a younger lawyer. And because I have been an employer for over 30 years, I have been on the “other side” also. While you cannot be certain that the employer whose offer you accepted, and are now declining, will consider you for other jobs in the future, you can do your best to achieve that result. Nothing is guaranteed, except that if you do your best, that is the best you can do.

1. First and foremost, accept the fact that you may well disappoint, and likely inconvenience, the employer who hired you. The employer who hired you spent a good deal of time and effort to do so, including reviewing your resume and other resumes, interviewing you, and determining the right offer to make. That employer might have already also told other candidates the job was no longer available, that is, he or she might have already said, “Sorry, we have hired a candidate.” For these and other reasons, you might have disappointed that employer, and inconvenienced them, as well.

For this reason, don’t be surprised and don’t be reactive if your decision is met with a reasonable degree of upset, anger or recrimination. Those are emotions that should not be too surprising, under the circumstances.

However, just as you accept your own humanity and imperfection, so too should you accept others’, as well. You have not done anything truly wrong, evil or illegal, and they have not done so, either. As the saying goes “Not every engagement ends up in a marriage.” Disappointment is part of life; so don’t get too down on yourself, or others, too hard in this situation.

For a more “technical, legal” explanation of your right to “change your mind” in these circumstances, consider reading an article I wrote and posted on this blog entitled “Can I Un-accept an Accepted Job Offer?.” Just [click here.]

2. When leaving a relationship, even one that never really began, the one best way to leave a favorable impression is to act with utmost grace. If you want to be remembered favorably, you need to act gracefully, in a way that leaves a lasting positive impression. Grace, concern, humility and authenticity are the ways to do so.

In this context, I believe grace includes (a) communicating your decision without delay, (b) acknowledging the disappointment and inconvenience you may have caused, (c) expressing remorse for those resulting difficulties, and (d) offering a hand to assist in any way possible to reduce those resulting difficulties, if there is any way you could do that.

3. It can only help how you will be perceived if you can offer an understandable rationale for your decision. An unexpected decision almost always elicits the question “Why?” If you can answer “Why?” with an explanation that makes that person feel “Oh, now I understand,” you will best served. A reasonable rationale for your decision will make it more likely your decision will be accepted without discord.

Some of the most positive rationales that I have heard for an unexpected change of plans include unexpected information you have received regarding your health, family or finances, that has swayed your mind and heart, such as the new insurance coverage not covering all the costs of a baby on the way, or finding out that the new job offer did not include tuition assistance for your children. Such empathetic rationales might even elicit feelings of empathy and discourage feelings of antagonism.

A commonly used and commonly anticipated rationale for changing one’s mind in this situation is an unsolicited and entirely unexpected counter-offer that provides not just higher pay, but irreplaceable experience – institutional authority, career opportunity and/or industry exposure – that is simply not possible at the new employer.

Act like a pro! Use our Model Response to Job Offer Letter; Seeking Improvements. It shows you “What to Say, and How to Say It.™ To obtain a copy for your use, just [click here.] Delivered by Email – Instantly!

4. To whom should you communicate your withdrawal of acceptance, how, and when? Hard as it may be, if at all possible, I encourage a brief face-to-face meeting to deliver any unwelcome news. I have read studies that suggest that, of the three ways to communicate unwelcome news, (a) the most appreciated way is face to face, (b) the next most appreciated way is by telephone, and (c) the least appreciated way is by letter or email. Yes, face to face is harder, but it has the potential to leave a lasting positive impression. At a very minimum, it takes a whole lot of guts.

The communication should be directed to the person who you believe was most instrumental in your hiring – that might be your intended manager, the Head of Human Resources, or the Head of Department in whose department you would have worked, whomsoever you believe “directed” the offer made to you. As noted above, the sooner the better after you have made your decision. And then, a week or two later, follow you communications up with an email thanking them for their understanding.

5. The employer you are disappointing will always remember what you did, but – more importantly – how you did it. There is a thought that is often attributed to the poet Maya Angelou. It is this: “No one will ever remember everything you said. And no one will remember everything you did. But no one will ever forget how you made them feel.” It is with that thought in mind, and your desire not to “burn bridges” to the future, that I suggest you consider these steps:

(a) Get back to the employer whose offer you are declining after accepting as soon as possible;
(b) Direct your communication to the person who you believe was most directly responsible for bringing you aboard;
(c) If possible arrange a short meeting with him or her;
(d) Acknowledge their disappointment and inconvenience you have caused;
(e) Express your remorse and your hope you will be forgiven;
(f) Ask if there is any way you can lessen their resultant difficulties;
(g) If possible, offer a reasonable rationale for your decision to withdraw your acceptance;
(h) A week or two later, follow up with a “Thank you for your understanding” note.

We now offer a Model Letter for Declining a Job Offer After Accepting It, to help you in this circumstance. It shows you “What to Say, and How to Say It.™ To obtain a copy for your use, just [click here.] Delivered by Email – Instantly!

Kimaryo, there is no question that you have a bit of a “relations repair” job in front of you, and that it is a matter that requires understanding of both others and yourself. Disappointment is part of life; how we deal with disappointment – our own and that of others – is part of “the art of living.” Just do your best, have faith, and move forward. It is that simple – and that challenging – at the same time. Since you have the concern in your heart, I think you have the ability to succeed in your mind. I hope this has helped a bit.

And thanks, too, for writing in all the way from Tanzania.

My Very Best,
Al Sklover 

P.S.: Plan on looking for a New Job? We offer a 152-Point Master Checklist of Employment Negotiation Items to help you make sure you have not (a) forgotten to ask for anything, (b) failed to raise any issues, and (c) that your interests are protected in your offer letter and/or employment contract. To obtain a copy, just [click here.] Delivered by Email – Instantly!


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