In the April 12, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how to turn down a job offer while maintaining a good long-term relationship with the employer. Is that so hard to imagine?

I have been pretty lucky and currently have a few job offers on the table. All the offers sound like good opportunities, and while I’d like to work for all of them, I’d probably violate labor laws and my own sanity if I actually did! Is there a right way to turn down offers? That is, so I can maintain my relationships with those I turn down, should I want to reconsider working for that boss or employer in the future?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

The best way to turn down an offer is to call the hiring manager directly (not the human resources department). Don’t just send an e-mail. Say thank you, but then demonstrate your respect to earn respect back. This is where valuable long-term relationships start. (Why don’t HR departments get this?)

How to Say It
When you talk with the manager, try this: “It means a lot to me that you’ve asked me to come work with you. I’ve been fortunate to receive several offers, and I’m taking the one where the work is the closest match to my objectives. Unfortunately, that’s not your company. This was a difficult decision, because you’re someone I’d like to work with, if not now, sometime in the future. With your permission, I’d like to stay in touch. In fact, if it’s not presumptuous, I’d like to recommend someone to you who I think would be a good candidate for this job… and I’d be glad to put you in touch….”

If you’re really impressed with the manager (Why else would you want to stay in touch, right?), recommending someone else is a nice consolation prize, and it shows how much you think of the manager. Just make sure the referral is a good one.

What if you haven’t got a referral to offer? There’s an alternative How to Say It suggestion in the newsletter that could nurture a new professional friendship. Sign up for your own free subscription, and get more tips in upcoming newsletters!

Here’s another: If the job is related to sales or marketing, offer a lead on a possible new customer, if you can. Introduce the manager to another manager that he or she might do business with. Give something back to demonstrate your respect. That’s where relationships start. Then follow up — it’s up to you to stay in touch. If you can do something for the manager in the near future, do it.

That’s how to stay close. That’s how you cultivate future opportunities.

When an employer rejects you, it’s usually with a little note that says, “Thanks for interviewing with us. Go suck rocks.” After investing money and time getting to know you, fools waste their investment and insult you. Building a network of good contacts means saying “No” with class, and with the intent to build new relationships anyway.

How do you turn down job offers? Does your method pay off?


  1. I like this idea and never thought of it as a way to make new contacts and build relationships with others in my line of work. Thanks.

  2. To answer your question as to why employers don’t seem to get this: Job seekers are, in effect, running small businesses (one person – themselves). When you run a small business you can’t afford to display bad manners to anyone, and you depend on outside relationships a whole lot more.

  3. @Bob Lewis: But that doesn’t explain why big employers, which have lots of “representatives” (translation: employees) facing the professional community, fail to establish and follow a simple policy: Demonstrate good manners, because all of our employees together represent a massive “face” to the rest of the world.

    I think this problem is simply due to the Steve Martin effect. Remember the skit where Martin’s goofy character is standing before a judge, who informs him he’s up on charges for murder, and that murder is illegal? Martin’s character scrunches up his face with a big grin, and says, “Oh? Well… uh…. I FORGOT!”

    Bob, I think companies just forget.

  4. I have done similar responses in the past with the thought of possible connections to future opportunities. I have found that as of present those contacts have slowly dissappeared over the years through attrition, retirements ect. The practical value, it is a feel good cordial jesture.

  5. I think employers do not think about their ‘choice’ not working out or leaving prematurely. If you are curt with the people that were in the running, if a position opens a few months later, they are either going to decline or take it but have no real loyalty. I think respect goes both ways.

  6. It is always a good idea to be polite in business dealings unless you are the General Sherman march to the sea type and have the talent and reputation to back it up.
    That being said, I have observed that the increasing bad manners of companies over the years with respect to their communications with job applicants. A decade of lack luster job growth has made many mediocre companies act like it is a great honor to work for them. They will be in for a rude shock when the next upsurge hits and there are fewer applicants than openings. What goes around comes around.

  7. Nick,
    What is your take about someone turning down an offer giving any specifics as to why they turned it down? As in would it be at all valuable to the “bridesmaid” company to know that the candidate really would have preferred to work for that particular manager but did not feel well received by HR or another manager that was his decididng factor. Or if the situation is that the candidate really wanted to work at that company but the offer from another company was significantly higher?

    If the preference is not to give too much detail what do you suggest if the hiring manager pushes for more specifics?

  8. @John Zabrenski: I remember the first time I went through a full cycle in Silicon Valley. The market was pretty healthy and everyone was pretty respectful. Then profits shot up, and companies started hiring left and right. The level of disrespect for applicants shot up, because it was a buyer’s market. Engineers became frustrated.

    Then the market turned down. No one was hiring. Rather than tough it out, companies let lots of people go to balance their books quickly. Engineers who’d been making lots of money were – literally – living in their cars.

    Then the marke turned back up. Companies started recruiting madly, because orders were up and jobs that had long gone unfilled needed filling.

    What happened? Engineers started looking for starting bonuses. Some companies started giving out Beemers to new hires. Salaries shot up, because it was a seller’s market. Engineers jumped ship left and right for more money. Why bother being loyal?

    But the net was not good: Engineers never trusted employers again. Not on the whole, anyway, though some companies were favored over others.

    Companies will be in a for a rude shock when things turn back up, and they will indeed turn. It all comes back around. So, be firm, but be respectful. And keep a list. Remember who’s nice to you, and who’s not. Because soon you’ll have your pick of who you work for – some will be more worthy than others.

  9. There’s another reason to turn down an offer with class–the hiring manager or HR person could change jobs themselves and be in a position to hire you at another company. People have long memories when it comes to rudeness or just plain inconsiderateness. I personally would never want to burn any bridges.

    I agree that HR and companies in general don’t get it, as Nick said. If I’m offered a job and I decide not to accept it, then I believe that I owe the company/hiring manager/HR/whomever the courtesy of a response. Yet many times I’ve interviewed with companies, made the second or third round, then nothing. Not even a phone call to say thanks, but the position has been filled. I can’t make companies and HR behave with courtesy, but I can make sure that I do.

  10. @MaryBeth

    Nicely said!

  11. Oh, Wise One, on this one I think your rose-colored glasses need some de-tinting.

    I’ve been interviewed by a nationwide employer whose mission is to live good values and create community. After an earnest and full-out interview, where I prepared and demonstrated all my stuff I never heard a word one way or the other. That’s cramming rocks, not sucking them.

    That’s not to mention what’s much more commonplace: you make an application, at best get to speak to the hiring manager or HR after Herculean and even ingenious efforts to penetrate their defenses … and then you hear nothing. If you’re lucky, a robo-e-mail acknowledgment. Hey, if you can’t get together a pro forma e-mail, given today’s super-efficient, cheap technology, you don’t even give a pebble.

    To be Marxist about it, labor has no powerin our country and it’s gonna stay that way for a long time.

  12. I loved your article, Nick! I think you provided some really sound advice to job search candidates!

    As a former hiring manager (before I started my resume writing practice), I know I would think very highly of someone who took this approach. Trust me, his / her resume would be put in a “keeper” file.

    My dad used to say, “Your reputation is the only thing you truly own in this world – guard it jealously.”

    A candidate taking the approach you mentioned shows class AND integrity!


    I will be sharing the link to your article in a blog post and tweeting about it!

  13. @John H Steinberg: I leave it up to wise job candidates to decide which employers are worthy of long-term relationships. You can always dump that load of rocks right back on the desks of the ones that aren’t. My point is, if you can’t stop employers who behave badly, encourage those that behave well. Raise your own standards. And leave the rest behind.

    I don’t believe in Marxism and I don’t believe in “labor.” “Labor” is a manufactured collective noun designed to give power to union bosses who behave a lot like any other bosses. I believe in the individual and in individual motives.

  14. @Kathy Sweeney: Thanks, Kathy!

    A few years ago, Kathy invited me to do the keynote for the National Resume Writers Association Conference in Savannah, GA. I asked her, “Are you sure? Do you know what I tell people about resumes?”

    Without missing a beat, she responded, “Sure! That’s why we want you to come speak!”

    I met a lot of out-of-the-box resume writers at that meeting. Thanks for posting, Kathy!

  15. @Nick Corcodilos:

    You wrote: ” “Labor” is a manufactured collective noun designed to give power to union bosses who behave a lot like any other bosses. I believe in the individual and in individual motives.”

    As a Scandinavian, I probably know unions more closely than most of the attendees here. While I agree that unions sometimes behave like they own their members, not the other way around, they can also be very valuable, because they level the employee’s playing field vs the employer. I think a lot of the stupid HR tricks exist because companies are a lot more powerful than individual employees, and the tricks also often are designed to ensure that employees are kept subordinate. Union busting is done for a reason – to keep employees weak.

    In Scandinavia, unions have (in general, there are obviously exceptions) been a good tool for society. Through central negotiations, salaries have been kept low enough to keep the economies competitive. Unions don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them, and when the labor movement was organised they had the slogan “Do your duty – demand your right”. At the same time, both social inequality and unemployment has been kept low.

    I do not intend to paint a rosy picture, just to give a more nuanced image of unions. And, I would like to ask Nick: If you do not want unions, how would you level the playing field between powerful companies and fragmented, individual employees? I agree that all people are individuals, and Marxism is on the dump where it belongs, but we should not deny that most of these individuals also belong to a group with common interests – they work for a salary.

  16. @Karsten: I don’t pretend to have answers to your questions. I can only look at where we are today in the U.S. on this point. Unions can be beneficial, but where we are today is that ridiculous pension and health benefits have virtually bankrupted the nation. The pendulum has almost come off its peg. Regardless of anyone’s position on unions, the pendulum has swung wildly against the unions.

    I’m not a public policy expert, or a labor expert. I’m a headhunter. My job is to help individuals and companies get together to make more profit. But today, unions and union bosses have tapped the well to the point that it’s dry, and the rest of the community is tired of carrying water to refill it.

    Sorry about the metaphor, but I think in metaphors.

  17. I agree that unions sometimes can kill a company through too high demands (cases in point: General Motors, airline industry). But blaming unions for the dismal state of the US economy seems to me to concentrate on a detail while missing the big picture of the last decades’ political shift to the right, increasing economic inequality, which Joe Average has compensated by aquring debt to uphold consumption (cf. subprime), union busting, outrageous CEO compensation, lowering taxes etc. In general, it was not unions who tapped the well, it was the overall politics. I agree that all workers are individuals, but not reckognising their group interests towards more powerful employers seems a bit naïve to me.

    Remember that the Scandinavian countries have been able to stay competitive with low unemployment rates, despite a public health care sector, high taxes and high degree of unionzation – the so-called “flexicurity” model (flexible labor market, high degree of social security).

    That said, a discussion pro/contra unions may belong in a separate thread, and in any case; your approach to get the job by showing how to contribute to the company makes sense in any case!

  18. good topic. I agree that bowing out with grace and integrity is a good thing to do, 1st because it’s a good thing to do, a good personal standard to set and follow. I’d add to apply that to where you came from. When I quit to move on, I made sure a good hand off was in place, my replacement, project prepared/organized to hand off. If fired, ditto. You lose nothing and add much to your professionalism
    Second the topic touches on past topics. Networking is just as much about giving as getting. You may not have gotten the offer, you may not have gotten feedback, but if you progressed to a short list and had several rounds of interviews, it’s highly probable you have some advocates in that company.
    Third. it hedges your bets. and if the employer is smart it hedges theirs. You made a choice and took a job with one company and excused yourself from another…but things happen things change. You may find out once that you are with the new company it wasn’t going to work for a lot of reasons. At least you have a place to fall back on, a safety net you made by being professional. It’s not the 1st time someone came back after accepting an offer and simply said I made a mistake ….can we talk.
    A company that’s profession in treating turn downs likewise may find that they laid a path for the next go round, be it sooner or later. If you’re a good choice for the company today, that’s very likely going to be true next year. For really great candidates your recruitment campaign to bring them aboard restarts the day they turn you down

  19. @sandra mccartt: Sorry I missed your post! How much you disclose about your reason for saying no is really a matter of judgment. On the one hand, you want to be helpful and to promote your relationship with the manager. On the other hand, Mom always teaches that if you can’t say something nice, just keep quiet!

    I think that if a candidate is positive about the hiring manager, then HR should not be such a big issue. You’re not going to work for HR. But if HR really is the problem, and you have developed a candid relationship with the manager, maybe it is worth disclosing the problem. But here’s the HOWEVER:

    I think the candidate should make up his or her mind about the offer before disclosing the reason. Don’t play games with the offer. Any reasons you disclose should be simply informational. Not part of a negotiation.

    If your want to negotiate using your reasons for potentially saying no, then be up front about that. I don’t like playing coy. “Gee… I really hated this, but if you fix it then I’ll say yes.” Most of the time, I think the candidate already knows whether the employer will (or even CAN) make a change to something… so don’t be coy.

    The best way to share useful information is to keep it free from your decision about the offer.

    My two bits. I’ll bet you can come up with a situation where this might not be so smart, since you’re a headhunter, too!

  20. Thanks Nick,
    My advice as a headhunter is in line with yours on turndowns. I have had candidates who graciously try to make the thank you but no thank you as positive as they can only to have the hiring manager press them for what they could have differently or what were the things about the company they are joining offering that they didn’t offer. So should have made my question more clear as to it being after a firm decision has been made by my candidate.

    Many times I do the turndown myself but if the candidate has developed a strong relationship with someone during the interview process and want to decline personally I leave it up to them.

    I recently had one where the hiring manager pressed the candidate to the wall for more details after the candidate had declined by saying that he felt the job he accepted was a better fit for his long range career goals. My candidate not wanting to tell him that he was uderwhelmed by other execs and could not stand the HR person who would be his HR business partner dodged. I then got a call asking me to find what the “real” reasons were.

    My candidate asked me not to share his impressions because he really liked the fellow and assumed that he must be aware of an HR person with an ego problem and the quirks of other members of the management team. My thought was that perhaps the hiring manager was looking for some specifics in order to make some changes but it could also be that he had taken the turndown personally. So where I am at this point is a bit caught between honoring ny candidate’s confidentiality and feeling like I have a duty to give my client some candid information. I will hopefully be working with both of them in the future. Help coach, how would you handle this one? My best thought is that I may tell my client my candidate felt more comfortable with the other group just a different culture.

  21. @Sandra McCartt: You’re in a good position to help your client, but you must not violate your candidate’s trust in you. Try this. Instead of telling the client what your candidate thinks, ask your client what HE thinks. “The candidate had a very positive experience with you. I think he’d love to work with you. Knowing that, what do you think his experience was with your other managers? Figuring this out might help you with future hires.” Then let the guy talk, and help him along. For example, “Among all the people the candidate met with, which one do you think might have been the weakest?” Let him talk. “How do you think your HR department influenced all this?” Let him talk. The guy will figure it out. My guess is, he already knows what the problem is. He just needs to say it out loud. Listen and help him get it out. But I’d stay away from comments about your candidate. The client will get the message, and you will honor the confidentiality.