job offer from a company in the midst of layoffs

A reader writes:

I’m a senior in college and I interned at a company this past summer and subsequently got a full-time offer. However, some time ago the company announced that it is downsizing and laying off half of its employees. I haven’t heard anything from HR but from what I’ve heard, the company may or may not rescind my offer. I also heard from a coworker that she “wouldn’t be surprised if [the company] did, and a few interns will probably choose to go somewhere else now that the company is in bad shape.”

I’m in the process of applying for new jobs and have gotten a few interviews. My question is, if the company choose to honor my offer, would it be considered burning bridges if I back out and take another offer (assuming I get one)?

First, contact the company about this since you haven’t already. Say that you’ve heard that they’re experiencing some cutbacks and you want to touch base on your role there once you graduate. Is it a certainty or would they recommend that you look at other options?

They may tell you that all of their cutbacks have been in areas unrelated to what you’ll be doing. For all we know, they may even be bulking up the area you’ll be working in; that can happen even when other areas are being cut. Or they may be vague. But ask. You don’t want to be making decisions about this without even having spoken to them yourself!

Now, even if they tell you that your job is secure, you may decide that you don’t believe them. Or you may decide that the company is shaky enough that you’d rather look elsewhere anyway. (But keep in mind that plenty of companies have gone through periods of layoffs and ended up perfectly strong. Layoffs aren’t in and of themselves a signal to run — you need to know more.)

In any case, if you do decide that you want to explore other options, it’s certainly your prerogative. Just make sure that you give the company plenty of notice, well before your scheduled start date (which I’m assuming is in May or June, once you graduate). If you notify them a week before you’re supposed to start, yes, that will burn a bridge. If you notify them two months before, it’s likely to go more smoothly.

{ 15 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Definitely find what which departments got cut. Ask your HR contact, but also ask your coworker if she has more info and Google for news on the company. Have they been losing money? Are they restructuring for the third time in as many years? Do they seem to be changing directions? Is the industry as a whole suffering? Even if all the answers to these questions are yes and you end up taking the job anyway, you won’t be walking into the situation blind.

  2. Karthik*

    A bigger question to ask is if they’re laying off people with experience (read: expensive) and bringing in new grads to save on payroll. If you’re thrown into a system with very little mentorship, there’s a good chance you will Fail. And when it comes time for a new job, you won’t have a very good reference when management pins the blame on you.

    But it could be something different, where a department that’s no longer relevant to the company is being cut out, and yours is being strengthened. So the best thing to do is find out with the company.

  3. Joey*

    I’d at least start looking. I doubt a company doing such dramatic layoffs is going to be your ideal place to work. Most good companies and leaders take measures way in advance to mitigate such drastic cuts. Sure there are exceptions but huge layoffs is a bad sign.

  4. Anonymous*

    I am a recent graduate as well and I took a position at a company that had recently underwent huge layoffs. I had many doubts about taking a job there, but I didn’t really have much of a choice since it was better to have one than to have none at all. I did my research and found that most people who left were those in upper management or had many years of experience. In fact, the company achieved most of its layoffs by offering an early retirement package. As Karthik mentioned above, I figured that I wouldn’t have as much to worry about since I would be a part of that “cheap” labor segment the company was bringing in. But I agree with AAM, you have to take chances sometimes because in this economy, no job or company is a safe bet.

  5. anon-2*

    To back one of the anonymous folks, yes, I’ve seen that — younger people with lower salaries often replace older personnel, who have incentives to go into retirement.

    As AAM said, layoffs aren’t a reason to stay away – but — why are the layoffs taking place? Is the company re-sizing in order to streamline, or are they doing it out of desperation?

    Assess your situation, and the company’s. Look to your role, where you’ll be in the organization — but also assess whether the ship you’re boarding is sinking or not.

  6. Beth*

    Another thing to think about is that a company with major lay offs will probably be a toxic place to work for awhile. I work for a company that just had a major reorganization and it really brought out the worst in people – back stabbing, trashing of others etc as everyone was in a panic about their own jobs. I was horrified at how badly people behaved.The crisis has passed, but the hostility and lingering resentments of how everyone treated each other remain.

  7. Karl*

    They’re laying off half the employees? That’s a pretty massive restructuring. Any corporate restructuring has risk — what’s your risk tolerance?

    In October of my senior year, I accepted a job at a defense contractor I’d followed since freshman year, after hearing great things about their culture. Three months before my June start date, they got acquired, and my division was to be sold off to a third company. They claimed everyone’s offer was secure, but I decided not to trust promises from an HR department that was sure to be laid off in the acquisition.

    Since I had accepted the offer on the basis of the original company’s great corporate culture, I decided I wasn’t going to wait and see. I secured a full-time offer from the place I’d interned, and notified the acquired company that I wasn’t going to join them after all.

    They weren’t happy, and my college’s career center said my “reneging” on the offer made the school look bad… but eight years later, I still think it was the right decision for me.

    Postscript: Several employees from the company that bought my division were involved in torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Talk about dodging a bad-culture bullet…

    1. Mike C.*

      Wait, deciding to work for a different company makes your school look bad, but having close relations with a company that tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib doesn’t?!

      Is there a place more out of touch with reality than the College Career Center?

      1. Karl*

        To be fair, the scandal didn’t break until a few months later, so the Career Center didn’t know that at the time.

      2. The gold digger*

        My college career center advisor asked me how fast I could type when she learned my major was English. I got my non-typing, professional position with an insurance company through another university.

  8. OP*

    HR assured me that my offer will be kept. I have no idea what my department is yet, the offer was an offer to join the company, not for a specific position. They will probably find somewhere to place me based on the needs of the company, but then again, with two thirds of the company’s main products discontinued (which is the reason for the layoffs), who knows what is going to happen in a couple months when I’m supposed to start. This is the third or fourth major restructuring in the past 2 years, each time with more and more employees laid off. The company is realigning their focus to another product that has been bringing in steady profit, but I really don’t know if the growth of this department alone is going to be enough.

    And yes, they laid off a lot of the upper management. A lot of the managers and VPs that I respected and learned a lot from will no longer be there.

      1. OP*

        Yes we had agreed on a salary. However, I don’t have a start date yet and I have no idea what I will be doing. The position is rotational, I change department every 18 months or so.

  9. Anonymous*

    Well, keep in mind that if the company really didn’t have the financial means to hire new people, hopefully they are smart enough not to do so.

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