I feel guilty for turning down a job offer after I was wined and dined

A reader writes:

A year ago, when I was a year out of college, my partner was seeking a transfer to another city, so I began job-searching in the area. I was fortunate enough to be invited to interview for a great position with a great nonprofit organization. They flew me out and put me up in a beautiful hotel with a hired car — the whole nine yards, and they were really wonderful people to boot.

The all-day interview went very well and the director called me as soon as I got off the plane home to offer me the job. I asked for a week to respond since we had been told we would hear about my partner’s potential transfer any day. The director was in touch several times during the week to (very politely) try to convince me to say yes.

A week passed and we still had heard nothing about my partner’s transfer, which indicated that it was unlikely that he would be getting it. So, in the interest of fairness to the org, I declined the job offer and told the director why. He was polite, but seemed understandably frustrated since they had been searching for the right candidate for several months at that point.

I still feel guilty for agreeing to be flown in, wined and dined when I was unsure of whether I would actually accept an offer from the beginning. I feel like I wasted their time and money. Fast forward to today and it’s now likely that we really will be relocating to that city. I still work in the same not-very-large field. The director and I will be running in the same professional circles and it’s not unlikely that I would apply for another position with his organization, though not necessarily in his division. So, my question is, have I shot myself in the foot? Do you think this will follow me in my next job search in this city?

Here’s the key sentence in your question: “I still feel guilty for agreeing to be flown in, wined and dined when I was unsure of whether I would actually accept an offer from the beginning.”

You should always be unsure of whether you’d accept an offer. Part of the point of the interview process is for you to figure that out — to learn about the work, the people you’d be working with, the culture, and the manager’s management style, and to decide if it’s right for you or not. And even once you decide that, whether or not you’d accept should be dependent on seeing what kind of offer they make you. You could decide that you like everything about the work and the people, but your acceptance still isn’t a sure thing because they might not make you an acceptable offer.

In other words, of course you were uncertain whether you’d accept an offer. And they knew that (or at least should have known) — it’s a normal part of the equation. Interviewing is not a one-way street that’s all about the employer deciding whether or not they want you, and you hoping they do.  You’re just as entitled to turn down an offer as an employer is to turn you down.

Now, that said, if a key element of whether or not you’d accept an offer had nothing to do with them and instead was about whether your partner got a transfer or not, that’s something you should be up-front about from the beginning. I assume that it came up relatively early in the process, when they asked you about relocation. If you weren’t up-front about it, but then cited that as your reason for turning down the offer later, I could see why they’d understandably be a little frustrated — they were operating without all the information, and that’s information they would have appreciated having. But assuming that they knew that situation, they made the choice to fly you in to interview anyway, and they assumed the risk that  you’d turn them down. (Of course, even if they didn’t know that situation, they still flew you in with full knowledge that you might turn them down. But I do hope you told them.)

As for whether you’ve harmed your chances with this organization in the future … probably not. I mean, it’s possible, since people aren’t always rational, and maybe they’re holding a strange grudge. But assuming that they’re reasonably logical people, they understand that you’re 100% entitled to turn down  a job offer. And if they really liked you, they’ll continue to want you on their staff.

Once you move, I’d email the director and let him know that you’re now in his city, that you really appreciated his time talking with you last year, and that you hope you’ll run into each other. Just wait until you’re really living there this time.

{ 50 comments… read them below }

  1. The Right Side

    5th paragraph of response – 4th word of first sentence. I think you meant *you’ve.

    As far as shooting yourself in the foot – I agree with AAM – it really depends on how much information you gave them. If you made it sound like you were definitely moving there and looking for a job – then they have a right to be upset.

    Either way – stay professional and amicable when and if you do see those individuals again. And you’ve learned a rough lesson about burning bridges.

  2. Victoria

    Not relevant at all, but damn! What nonprofit is busy flying recent grads out for fancy wining-and-dining interviews? I’m jealous!

    1. KayDay

      I was just thinking that–places I’ve worked will only pay for travel and “wining & dining” of senior/executive staff (or really specialized technical experts), definitely not recent grads, or even mid-level staff.

    2. Anonymous

      OP again – I thought I should explain this further. The position was a mid-level position with a large amount of responsibility, and I had some strong experience and education in the area (more than most recent grads). Additionally, the organization is quite large and may not be what most people think of when they’re thinking about the standard local nonprofit (though they are in fact not-for-profit). My apologies if the wording was misleading. Finally, though they did fly me in, it was not cross country; the other city is not very far from where I was, but too far to drive. Still, I was surprised at how much they were willing to spend on me given that I was very early in my career.

      1. Dana

        I think that’s awesome! Plus it should give you a lot of confidence in your job search in that region, even if you don’t end up with them.

      2. KayDay

        Thanks for the clarification. And for the record, I agree with a lot of the commenters, below, who point out that not all not-for-profits are little community orgs operating on tiny budgets. Like you, I’m still surprised the covered your travel for even a mid-level job, based on my experiences, but hey, good for you! It was obviously their decision to make, and they made it knowing that there are never any guarantees that a person will accept the offer.

  3. Anonymous

    AAM,

    I disagree with part of your response — I don’t think the OP owed it to the organization to tell them that taking the job was contingent upon her partner’s relocation.

    The deck is stacked against the applicant, at least in the US. As long as that’s the case, I don’t think the applicant is under any obligation to expose any card that he or she prefers not to. How often do companies staff up for a potential contract, don’t tell the job hunter, lose the contract, and then have to let a lot of people go? What entitles the company to operate with better information than the applicant?

    I’m not arguing that applicants should withhold information out of spite, but if it’s stuff they’d prefer not to disclose, they have every right not to.

    In this particular case, as you said, the company has to operate with the assumption that a deal isn’t sealed until an offer has been extended and accepted. Until then, “no” is always a reasonable answer. Now, if the OP had actually accepted an offer, but then turned it down because of the partner issue, well, that’s going to leave a bad taste and understandably so. But that’s not what happened here.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      She’s absolutely entitled not to mention it — but then she’s got to expect that they’re going to be put off by that and it could burn a bridge. Just like a candidate would be put off if an employer withheld key information (like that the position is dependent on grant funding that they don’t actually know if they’re going to receive, for instance).

      1. moe

        Not really a great analogy–the respective positions of the employer and the candidate are so different.

        What happens to the candidate who is fully up-front about the unknowns that might play into their decision? There’s a really strong chance all of the prospective employers will thank them for the info and politely move on to candidates who are more of a sure thing.

        The employer who is up front with candidates? Is doing a nice thing–and one or two candidates may drop out, sure–but they’ve still got dozens of qualified candidates who will be happy to interview.

        OP would have been honest to her great detriment, had the job transfer gone through–she may well have been stranded with nothing in hand. There’s no reason at all for a prospective employer to be miffed by a candidate being savvy given how stacked the process against candidates already.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Except an employer’s job isn’t to figure out or care how a candidate might best position themselves. It’s to act in their own best interest (which happens to include not being jerks). So yeah, they might be miffed if they find out a candidate wasn’t straight with them. Just like a candidate would be miffed if you reverse it. (And they would — we hear about that here all the time.)

          1. moe

            Sure, but it’s not really rational for an employer to get, or remain, upset about this. They receive dozens or hundreds of resumes, and get upset that one of those candidates chose not to disclose a small chance that they might not take the job? Like you said–it’s assumed the candidates still have that option. Why does the reason make such a difference, and why is the candidate obligated to act against her own interests? Would you keep pursuing a candidate who flat-out told you she may not be able to make the move?

            It makes far more sense for a candidate to be miffed, because the employer loses nothing by being forthcoming. The hiring manager can still eat and pay the bills…

            1. Chris M.

              The employer does lose the money spent with flying the candidate in for the interview and the time spent interviewing.

              I’d be miffed if a candidate didn’t tell me that upfront. For a great candidate, I’d be willing to wait until the transfer happened to have the interview, but going through the process only to be told that the acceptance of an offer would be contingent the transfer, that would annoy me.

              1. Student

                It’s unreasonable to expect a job-hunter to report on the full family mosaic that may impact the job hunt. Every family does its own financial dance in its own way, and the company would have to be crazy to want to be informed of all potential mitigating factors for every candidate ahead of time. The employer should always assume that the top pick might not take the job and plan accordingly.

                Besides, if the money was good enough, the OP might’ve convinced the partner to drop his/her current job altogether. It’s also not unheard of for a person to drop a partner to take a particularly appealing job. Do you really want to discuss that with a prospective boss? As a boss, would you want to hear about that in a job interview?

        2. KellyK

          I think you have a good point about the inequality of their positions. I also think there’s a difference between withholding information and not sharing every potential uncertainty. If the OP believed, in good faith, that the transfer was pretty much a sure thing, I don’t think she’s guilty of hiding anything (unless of course she made it sound like her partner’s transfer had already been approved). There’s always at least some uncertainty inherent in relocating. (The transfer could be approved and then fall through, he could have a job offer that was then rescinded, they could end up not being able to sell their house, etc. etc. etc.)

          I do think that when she was made the offer, it would’ve been appropriate to tell them that she needed to get confirmation about the transfer before accepting. *Especially* since they called her a couple times to try to persuade her.

          1. KellyK

            Er, I should have said “a difference between being dishonest, or not up front, and not sharing every potential uncertainty.”

  4. Anonymous

    OP here. Thanks very much for answering my question! I greatly appreciate your response. I think that a major reason that I still feel guilty was that I did not tell them about the relocation issue up front, as you hoped I had. At the time I was offered an interview it seemed very likely that my partner’s transfer would go through and since this was the only interest I had gotten in the area I was afraid of scaring them off. I didn’t disclose the full situation until the offer was made. It was honestly a big surprise when my partner’s transfer was not successful.

    However, in the interview they did ask me point-blank if I would accept if offered the position and I told them I wasn’t sure and would have to discuss it with my partner. So they went in to the offer with that information.

    Nonetheless, I agree that I could have handled it better than I did.

    Thanks for any feedback from the commenters as well!

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Ugh, I hate that whole “will you accept if we make you an offer” thing. I don’t know why companies do that. Obviously it depends on a range of factors — make an offer and see.

      1. K.

        That happened to me once and I think my saying “It depends” is what cost me the job. We hadn’t talked about benefits, they’d listed a pretty broad salary range and hadn’t told me what specifically they’d offer me … why would I say yes to that? I need more information!

      2. Wilton Businessman

        Just tell them “Sure, as long as it’s $500K, 12 weeks off a year and full benes for my family, I’m all in!”

        What a foolish question to ask. Why even waste the time?

      3. Anonymous

        I think that telling them that you “[weren’t] sure and would have to discuss it with my partner” cancels out the fact that you didn’t tell them about the transfer issue. They still should have definitely assumed that there was a chance you may not accept. I also agree that it was silly of them to ask that question.

        1. Ellie H.

          I agree – if they ask if you would accept an offer if given one, and you say you’re not sure, then they definitely know that you may decline the offer and are obligated to proceed accordingly! I really don’t think you should feel guilty, but I probably would too if I were in your position (though I’ve already said this is unreasonable), so I sympathize.

          1. Chris M.

            I disagree telling during the interview cancels the lack of information beforehand only because of the cost of bringing the candidate in for the interview: flight, hotel, car rental.

            1. Ellie H.

              That’s a fair point. I was somehow under the impression they had asked her that before flying her out, but I realize now that’s not the case.

              Still, I think the fact that they even asked it to her at that point means that they were not operating under the impression that having flown her out meant she was obligated to accept an offer – by asking they imply that they recognize the uncertainty.

      4. Sophie

        That sounds like something a car salesman would say. “We can only offer you this amazing opportunity today…say yes now…”

      5. Joey

        Sometimes companies do that because they have to get individual salary offers approved. And depending on the proposed salary it may take multiple approvals. And they don’t want to have to do it more than once.

      6. Jamie

        Asking someone if they would accept a hypothetical offer without details sounds crazy on the surface to me.

        Now, I have been asked before going into the offer stage that if we could come to an agreement on compensation would I take the offer. That didn’t bother me, because it was just making sure there were no other issues clouding the money portion of the negotiations.

      7. Anonymouse

        This reminds me of grade school, where we flicked football notes back and forth through intermediaries, confirming that someone liked us before we could possibly commit to liking them.

    2. ChristineH

      OP – I can definitely understand your reasoning…you honestly thought your partner’s transfer would go through. Sure, nothing is set in stone until it is in writing, but I probably would’ve handled it in a similar way. I agree with AAM’s advice about emailing the director once settled at the new location. No guarantees, but if you’re honest and professional, he might be willing to keep you in mind for future opportunities.

      Good luck!!

    3. moe

      I think you were more than honest in the circumstances.

      There’s already such a huge information asymmetry in the hiring process which favors the employer–how many candidates are in the mix? what’s the upper range of salary we would pay if it were demanded? budget projections? likelihood of layoffs, etc. etc.–that I am honestly sitting here scratching my head at the notion that you owe them any information at all about what was then a fairly small chance you wouldn’t accept the position. Regardless of the reason behind it.

      You’d be kicking yourself if your partner had gotten the transfer, and you’d squashed your chances by over-sharing. You interviewed in good faith when there was a strong possibility you would take the position. That’s all you owed them.

  5. Corey Feldman

    I agree as long as he was upfront about the conditions in which he would relocate, there is nothing to be guilty about. If not, its possible he hurt his chances with the company, but likely water under the bridge. I wouldn’t expect them to fly him out again, but once relocated and in the area, I would reach out as well.

  6. Wilton Businessman

    “Just wait until you’re really living there this time.”
    Exactly.

    As long as they knew up front that your transfer depended upon someone else and that’s why you turned them down, I don’t think they would hold a grudge.

    1. Wilton Businessman

      Oh wait, I see you weren’t up front. Could be a potential issue…. But still, if you are in the area already I don’t think it would be a bad idea to tap that person as a potential node in your network. Who knows, maybe he knows somebody who knows somebody….

  7. Tater B.

    I love this. Sometimes, those of us who are in the midst of “The Never-Ending Job Search” forget that we have rights as well. Speaking for myself, I know I’ve accepted offers when there were numerous red flags–and yes, it came back to bite me in the behind.

    I can say no!

      1. AD

        Not every NFP has donors; many have members. For example, the American Medical Association.

  8. Dana

    Think of how many times people have arranged travel on their dime to interview, only to not get the job.

    Don’t feel bad!

    1. Ellen M.

      ^this – The hiring manager wouldn’t feel the tiniest twinge of obligation or guilt for not hiring someone who had been interviewed, and in that case, the decision of one (hiring manager) has a huge impact on the life of the other (applicant). The other way around, not so much. The hiring manager will find someone else, perhaps not as fabulous as the OP, but he/she won’t lose sleep over it and bills won’t go unpaid because the other person said, “No, thanks”.

      Yes, applicants can decline job offers for a number of reasons, but there is still a huge inequality of power here.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        I can completely see that viewpoint, but I still think it’s unreasonable to think there’s no chance they’ll be a little bit irked that they didn’t know about this huge question mark of a factor before paying to fly her out.

  9. MillenniMedia

    They flew you cross country to interview, so it’s not as if they didn’t know at the outset that accepting the job would require relocation. Even if a partner wasn’t involved, most people would have to think very seriously about any job that would require a cross country move and the potential is there that the offer wouldn’t be worth the upheaval of life. Unless they’re pretty unreasonable, I wouldn’t worry much about burning a bridge.

    All that said, I too find it strange that this NP spent a fortune to interview someone just out of school. Doesn’t seem like the most responsible use of limited resources. Curious about whether it was as irresponsible as it sounds or if you had prior experience (working or life) that really stood out to them.

    1. AD

      You should not assume that an NFP is a cash-strapped, help-the-community, relying-on-donors type organization every time. It could be a megachurch, for all we know.

      1. Natalie

        Quite a few hospital systems and insurance companies are not-for-profit, but they’re just as huge and corporate as the next guy.

      2. Anonymous

        Agree with everyone above – not all NFP’s are have “limited resources” (Source: I work for a NFP that is far from being cash-strapped, although we are donor funded so how we spend our money and who we are accountable to is different from some other NFP’s at our financial level)

      3. Laura L

        Agreed. Plus, colleges and universities are (usually) non-profits and they frequently fly in applicants. Even for non-professor jobs.

      4. Eric

        Indeed. Even the NFL is technically a non-profit. They don’t make any profits, only the teams do.

  10. Anonymous

    I would probably be miffed if I had been the employer. That being said, I would just move on, and if it happens to come up just play it off and don’t treat it as a huge deal. It’s possible you burned a bridge, but these things happen. There are people out that have done similiar level things with me; I don’t know if I personally would want to deal with them again, but I certainly don’t have them on some bridge burned secret no job for you list. (There are only three people on that list – you have to REALLY cross the line!)

  11. Charles

    Interesting discussion about whether the OP (or anyone in this situation) should have said something up front. I’m in favor of being up front. The golden rule or the silver rule; either one, take your pick.

    Yes, the deck is stacked in favor of the employer. But, it doesn’t change the fact that an employer could feel “lied to” when all the facts are known. Doesn’t a job seeker feel the same way when something “withheld” is finally made know? Just because many employers act like jerks doesn’t justify a job seeker to act like one. (not saying the OP did here).

    Personally, I think the OP might very well have burnt a bridge here, and I wouldn’t blame the hiring manager (and not just the one she dealt with; but all of them who hear of this) for not considering her again. And knowing that her field is possibly tight-knit is another reason to have been more forthright.

    The fact that this organization had been looking for months tells me that they weren’t in a hurry to fill the position; had she told them that there was a slight chance she might not move so could they hold off on flying her in until she was certain would have been my choice for handling it.

    But, here’s something else to consider. Many times folks have written in to AAM asking about how to get a job in another city because they feel that they are at a disadvantage over local folks. Doesn’t anyone else see the OP’s situation as one reason for out-of-towners to be at a disadvantage?

    The OP’s action could also have messed up things for future out-of-towners at this organization. In the very least this organization might have second thoughts about others who are also trying to relocate and find a job. So, yea, burn your own bridge; but don’t muck it up for others.

    1. KLH

      Don’t go blaming the OP for possibly messing things up for others. She can’t control what decisions the organization makes in its hiring based on its interaction with her. Organizations make decisions on who to interview and who to hire on whatever criteria they want. Wore red shoes? No job for you because our last hire was terrible and she had red shoes too! Trash the cover letter from out of town because the applicant won’t know our ways, or might want to negotiate a relocation package, and we don’t do that. Hiring is like the worst Regency ball ever of applicants and employers, all acting out a variation of Pride and Prejudice.

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