can job offer be rescinded over a misunderstanding?

A reader writes:

My husband has been offered a new contract via email. His response was:
“With all honesty I cannot but accept this offer.”

The employer replied:
“I don’t know how to interpret your reply, but what I understand is that you decline the offer.”

He replied to this email clarifying that his answer was positive and that he wants the job. Does the employer have the right to ask somebody else for this job? We thought that my husband’s email was very clear. We replied immediately clarifying the situation. This took place on Saturday. Today is Monday and we still haven’t received a reply.

We tried to call him but there is no reply.

Any info/advice would be grateful appreciated. Since we clarified with an email straightaway that he wants the job, can the employer still say that he declined it?

The issue isn’t whether or not the employer “can say” he declined the job. The issue is that there’s been a major miscommunication that your husband needs to clear up immediately.

You husband should call this guy, and the HR person, immediately. If he doesn’t reach them, he should leave each a clear message saying something like, “I think there was a misunderstanding. I replied to accept the job, but my wording seems to have given the opposite impression. To be clear, I accepted your offer. I am now quite anxious that my reply was misunderstood, so please get in touch with me as soon as you’re able — I’m eager to set a start date.”

No reasonable person would rescind a job offer in this situation. But, on the other hand, there are plenty of unreasonable people out there, so one never knows. You can’t force an employer to be reasonable, but then your husband shouldn’t want to work for someone who would pull an offer over a small instance of confusion anyway, so sometimes things like this are good screening mechanisms to keep you from working for an ass.

(By the way, when you write “we called” and “we emailed,” I hope you mean your husband, not you or both of you, given that a spouse should not be contacting the employer.)

Of course, your letter was written more than two weeks ago, so my advice is coming way too late to be of use to you (an unfortunate effect of my mail overload). I hope you’ll write in and let us know what ended up happening.

{ 23 comments… read them below }

  1. Erica*

    I can't wait to hear the end of this story. That wording was totally misleading on first read, so I don't blame the recruiter/hiring manager.

    I too hope that the wife didn't get involved, and this whole thing just sounds crazy.

    What never fails to astound me is when people don't realize that employers can pretty much DO whatever they want, as long as they aren't discriminating or breaking a contract – even if it doesn't seem fair.

    I am sure there are circumstances where this wouldn't be true, but do you really want a job you have to fight or threaten for, before you even start?

  2. Rachel - I Hate HR*

    I had to read it 5 times to understand that he was accepting the offer. This is not the way to accept a job offer.

  3. Jayna*

    Why didn't he just use the simplest, most direct reply – something along the lines of "Yes, I would be happy to accept your offer." It's common knowledge in this economy that anyone with a job is dealing with an increased workload due to all of the layoffs – anyone with a job is taking on the load of those who have lost their jobs.

    Why would he use a sentence that takes a few read throughs to interpret the actual response? If he has lost the job due to his poor choice of words, make sure he uses SIMPLE, DIRECT English when he accepts his next offer.

  4. a. brown*

    Maybe we shouldn't assume the OP's husband is a native speaker. He may have learned a very formal kind of English, and that was the most polite way he thought to accept the offer.

  5. Aswin Kini*

    I am sorry, but when I read the first line of the post, "With all honesty I cannot but accept this offer." The first impression that I got is that the concerned person refused the offer. But on reading it carefully, I understood that he has accepted the offer.
    Why can't people use simple English to communicate?
    I guess the concerned person either had a really bad day or he tried to be over cautious while accepting the offer.

  6. Anonymous*

    That's pretty awkward language to use in a professional setting.

    It reminds me a little bit of the time when I was in elementary school, and one half of the "cool clique" came up to me and asked me if I knew anything about a rumour relating to the other half of the "cool clique." I said "Sorry, I couldn't tell you," intending to indicate that I didn't know anything.

    Unfortunately, they interpreted it as "I can't tell you," that is to say, that I knew but wasn't allowed to say. I couldn't convince them otherwise and they wouldn't leave me alone.

    At the time, the "lesson" I took from it was that my classmates were simpletons and I was so far ahead of them intellectually that we couldn't even communicate effectively. Now I understand that it wouldn't have happened in the first place if I made an effort to speak clearly, and save the uncommon language for audiences I'm more familiar with.

    Sure, I have pretty good grammar and a large vocabulary, but now I use the simplest language that will clearly get my point across.

  7. Henning Makholm*

    Well, if the employer actually considered it a red flag to learn that the candidate is wont to express himself that obliquely in important communication … could we really fault the employer? That's assuming that the job involves communicating with people, but which job doesn't?

    It's one thing to say "I cannot but accept", which is confusing but not directly misleading. But what's up with the "With all honesty" prefix? As far as my understanding of English goes, "with all honesty" usually means something like "you're not going to like this, but telling you what you want to hear from me would be a lie, so here goes". Putting that in front of a double negative is not just permitting a misunderstanding, it actively encourages it.

    Why shouldn't a reasonable person be able to let that communication style tip the balance in favor of his/her second choice for the position?

  8. Susan*

    I agree that the wording is off. I might have understood the answer if it had been written as … I can't help but to accept the offer because … That isn't what was written, unless the writer just now forgot some wording while typing the question.

    I definitely suggest to keep your language simple and to the point in such cases. This confusion could have come as a result of missing the confusing wording while proofing the response before it was sent out. Your husband did proof it didn't he?

    It seems as if the employer read the response the same way most others here read it. The writer states that the employer responded that they were confused by the response. We don't know how the entire interview or response went, so it is difficult to determine if the offer was pulled over one misstated response. Maybe the interviewer noticed a communication problem during the interview, but still wanted to hire the man. The employer might have chalked communication errors up to the interviewee being nervous, and he/she may have simply let it slide at first.

  9. Ang.*

    I'm a professional and technical writing instructor at a state university. As such, I am appalled at this statement and unsurprised that it was misunderstood. The only thing that keeps me from concluding that this person has serious communication issues (and is deficient in some vital skills) is my suspicion that he is not a native English speaker. I have seen similar constructions and phrasing from international students. If that's the case, I would hope that it would not be held against him; however, we don't know what kind of position this was, so it is also possible that the employer decided that they didn't want someone with these issues in that position.

  10. Anonymous*

    There are a few comments suggesting that the person may not be a native English speaker, but I don�t think that is necessarily the case. English is my first language, and I understood the comment on first read to mean that the individual was accepting the role. Perhaps it is more of an idiomatic thing (I am an English English speaker!). However, whilst I clearly read that the person is accepting the role, it sounds very begrudging � using this terminology in England would probably lead the person hearing it to think that they were taking it because they had no other choice. Either that or they were a little too knowledgeable about more formal, archaic English.

  11. Anonymous*

    Well, may be the employer was the one who wasn't a native English speaker, and so he saw the word "can't" and went from there? Or perhaps the applicant meant to say "with all the knowledge that I have about the position, I'm delighted to accept your offer, how can I not?"
    I recently had a somewhat similar situation when I saw an ad for a facilitator position and it required knowledge of a few specific languages. I thought to send them a "cold" letter offering the knowledge of the language which wasn't on the list – for future considerations. To me it was a clear marketing strategy advertising my skills and suggesting that they could be useful should the need arise. I've got a response from the person with some Asian name expressing their surprise re my resume since the language skills I offered were not the ones that they asked for.
    Clearly, this employer never heard of "cold calling" before.
    So I guess the lesson learned here is – speak very simple and plain language to avoid any misunderstanding.

  12. TheLabRat*

    To the Anon who said:

    "At the time, the "lesson" I took from it was that my classmates were simpletons and I was so far ahead of them intellectually that we couldn't even communicate effectively. Now I understand that it wouldn't have happened in the first place if I made an effort to speak clearly, and save the uncommon language for audiences I'm more familiar with."

    You had it right the first time; simpletons. That said, simplifying language as you suggest is generally helpful, particularly if you are unsure of your target audience.

    I hope the writer's hubby is able to get the gig though. It was an awkward turn of phrase in U.S. English but I got it.

  13. Inside the Philosophy Factory*

    As a logic teacher, the term "but" is the logical equivalent of"and"… thus confusing the the matter.

    I wouldn't know exactly how to decode that sentence, but I can see why someone reading quickly would see "I cannot accept"…

  14. The Engineer*

    Awkward phrasing at best it is.

    I'm known to joke this way (odd word order or verb placement, overly complex, etc.) but a job negotiation is not the place. If the applicant is a non native English speaker then his schooling was particularly bad. My experience is that ESL (English as a second language) speakers know the rules very well. Some other languages do use very different sentence word order structure. I don't have spare time to interpret someone who isn't clear. If I'm hiring, particularly on contract, and more so in this market, then you had better be clear, succinct, and accurate.

  15. M.*

    to "Anon" on 30 August: I have to say, as an Asian, with English as my native language, I take some offense at your remark – "I've got a response from the person with some Asian name expressing their surprise re my resume since the language skills I offered were not the ones that they asked for.". Plenty of Asian people are just as competent as non-Asians – or so-called "native speakers" – for the English language, and you also get many native speakers whose command of the English language is not necessarily perfect. My point is, whether the employer/employee is Asian, White, or otherwise, does not indicate his level of language competency, and one would be sorely myopic to make such assumptions. Having said that, I agree that the sentence used in the original posting can be misunderstood at first read, and for me definitely sounded odd, but its meaning was clear when read and interpreted in its entirety.

  16. novice-hr*

    I agree with M. I am Asian as well and that remark is offensive. You're soliciting for a job and while it's cold calling, you still should at least remember the recruiter name or address that recruiter properly rather than some "Asian". Had the recruiter called you and asked, "are you the white or black guy that send in your resume?", would you be upset?

  17. jaded hr rep*

    Why can't people call with offers and acceptances and talk live? I know sometimes there are impossible circumstances, but I've called internationally when offers and other important matters have been on the line and always made the extra effort. Wouldn't this have made the whole thing much simpler?

  18. class-factotum*

    native speakers whose command of the English language is not necessarily perfect

    Yes. I am a native English speaker who has studied and is fluent in Spanish. In Miami, I was told my Spanish would not be an advantage because there were so many native speakers there. Maybe so, but many of the 2nd-generation speakers had not taken Spanish in school and their grammar was awful.

    My accent, although not native perfect, is fine and my grammar is correct, as is my sentence construction: I would never say the Spanish equivalent of "With all honesty…"

  19. Julie O'Malley*

    I, too, took offense at the remark about "the person with some Asian name…." It stinks on more levels than I can count, but a couple of the bigger ones are:

    1) It assumes all the readers here fit some default category, which is apparently white, native-born, American English speakers.

    2) It implies that Asian names are so foreign that one couldn't possibly be expected to register anything other than the name's Asian-ness before dismissing it.


    Oh yeah … And just to add my 2 pedantic cents… the phrasing "In all honesty, I cannot but accept…" is ridiculous. If you're so shaky in English grammar and syntax, get a proofreader!

  20. Anonymous*

    Why should the employer have hired him, even if the wording was not misinterpreted?

    "With all honesty I cannot but accept this offer" functionally translates into "To be honest and in the interest of full disclosure, I have no choice other than to accept this offer."

    Why on earth would an employer hire someone who said that, whether or not the writing was clear? There is not a positive word to be found, nor a thank you. Even worse, the prospective hire has made it clear that he doesn't want the job, but is taking it only because he has to do so.

  21. ineedajob*

    Your husband's acceptance of the position was unclear. Would I want to work with someone who has difficulty in expressing himself, clearly? Would I want to expose my customers to someone who I knew to be difficult to understand? He dropped the ball at the one yard line on this one. It cost him this game but it probably won't happen, again. Tough lesson learned but at least he should feel good to know he's in demand!

  22. Lani*

    I understood it the first time I read it, and it never occurred to me that English might be a second language, I just assumed he was being a smartass, and wouldn’t want to give him the job either.

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