should I say “I turned down a job to take this interview”?

A reader writes:

I was wondering whether you could offer advice on how much to disclose to an interviewer. I graduated last summer, and after 10 months of interning/temping and applying for jobs, I’ve finally started receiving invitations to interview and in one case a job offer. Now, most people will think I’m insane to do so in this economic climate, but yesterday I turned down a job offer for a 9-month contract with a local company.

My reasons were threefold: a) they wanted me to start with immediately without giving notice to my current employer, and as I’m currently interning for a charity whose work would suffer if I did that, I felt uncomfortable; b) the offering company’s immediate start requirements were such that I couldn’t be spared for even a day to go back to my nonprofit to assist in training/handover; c) I had negotiated with my nonprofit a day’s leave to attend a job interview for a well-paid and, more importantly, exciting graduate scheme in another city, but the immediate start requirements of the local company would make it impossible for me to attend the interview.

While my concerns for the nonprofit did have a large impact on my decision to refuse, I must confess that the inability to attend the interview was also a factor. A two-year graduate scheme with a potential for continuing with the company after that period was more appealing to me then a 9-month contract with no prospect of continuing/extension.

Now my question is this. Past experience has taught me that a common interview question is, “How much do you want this job/how dedicated are you to our graduate scheme or organisation, etc.?” Is it appropriate for me to tell my interviewer that I turned down a job offer with another firm (they are broadly speaking in the same industry but have very different concerns) in order to meet with them? Or does this qualify as “over-sharing”? I have a number of other reasons why I want to work for the graduate scheme company — primarily their commitment to environmental concerns (such as reducing their carbon footprint), their rate of growth/current expansion, and their customer service/public opinion (the UK public recently voted them #1 in their field) — but I want to ensure that my hunger for the position is clear. Feedback that my friends and I have received on other graduate scheme interviews is “We weren’t sure you wanted it enough” — but would telling them the truth be going too far in the other direction?

Nooooo, do not say that at your interview.

First of all, it’s going to make a lot of interviewers uncomfortable. If I’m interviewing a candidate who I’m not at all sold on yet (which is generally the case with first and even second interviews), and I hear that they turned down a job offer that they otherwise would have taken just to interview with me, I’m going to feel pretty awkward about the fact that I’m sitting there knowing full well that I might end up not hiring them. (And normally I expect that they know that full well too, but now I’m going to be wondering if you think your chances are better than they are.)

And turning down an offer in favor of an interview for a job that you have no idea what your chances of getting are can also come across as questionable judgment. Unless you had other reasons for turning down the offer, in which case it makes more sense — but then your statement “I turned down a job to take this interview” won’t seem accurate anyway.

It also raises the question of why you’re sharing the information with the interviewer; the sharing part itself can look like questionable judgment, and like you don’t understand the above.

Now, that doesn’t mean that it was bad judgment to turn down the job offer in general. In fact, it sounds like it was excellent judgment, because they asked you to screw over your current employer, and as a general course, it’s smart to say no to those offers — both out of integrity and out of concern for your reputation.

But that has nothing to do with the interview. In that context, there’s no benefit to bringing it up, and potential harm.

If you’re hearing that interviewers are unsure about whether you’re sufficiently interested in a position, there are much, much better ways to make that clear:  Seem enthusiastic. Say it directly. Explain why.

But don’t say the equivalent of “I turned down a marriage proposal that I would have otherwise accepted just so I could have coffee with you” and expect it to go over well.

{ 23 comments… read them below }

  1. Marmite

    I’ve interviewed for a couple of graduate schemes in the UK, and was offered a place on one (although I turned it down in favour of a non-grad scheme job). Generally I’ve found they’re asking WHY you want to work for them, not how much. They may also ask what you hope to get out of your time on the scheme. Think about those things rather than telling them how much you want the job.

    Grad schemes are usually hugely competitive and the selection involves competency assessment tasks as well as interviews. Depending on which one you’ve applied to the interview may only be a small part of the decision making process and your enthusiasm throughout all the hoop jumping will show your desire for the role.

    1. Kate

      I’m in the US and not familiar with the term “graduate scheme.” Would you (or another UK reader) mind explaining?

      1. Marmite

        It’s a bit like a long-term paid internship. Companies hire graduates, usually more than one, onto graduate schemes and develop their skills with the aim of moulding them for future work within the company. The pay is typically less than a direct job with the company, but there are high levels of support to develop the graduate’s skills. If the graduate performs well then they’ll usually be offered a permanent role at the end of the scheme. The schemes usually last one to two years and often involve rotating through various departments.

        Here’s an example of one: http://www.nhsgraduates.co.uk/the-scheme.aspx

      2. The IT Manager

        I googled and it sounds like a post-university, paid internship with training and a good potential for a follow on job, but I’d love some further explanation from a Brit.

        Apparently graduate scheme is the proper term, but the use of the word “scheme” rings tawdry to my American ears. :)

        1. Marmite

          I applied above, but included a link so it’s gotten stuck in moderation. Here’s what I said:

          It’s a bit like a long-term paid internship. Companies hire graduates, usually more than one, onto graduate schemes and develop their skills with the aim of moulding them for future work within the company. The pay is typically less than a direct job with the company, but there are high levels of support to develop the graduate’s skills. If the graduate performs well then they’ll usually be offered a permanent role at the end of the scheme. The schemes usually last one to two years and often involve rotating through various departments.

        2. Kate

          Ha, same. I can’t hear “scheme” without thinking “pyramid.” But this long-term paid internship with training situation sounds like a nice setup.

          1. Eric

            From my time living in the UK, that was one of the hardest things to adjust to linguistically. Scheme doesn’t have a negative connotation there, like it does here.

  2. W.W.A.

    Your advice is good but I must say, I have been in similar situations and I’m sure I’m not alone – agonizing over whether to accept an offer when you’ve been invited to interview for something that might be better, and wondering if you should tell either party what’s happening. My last job search ended up in this situation, and it worked out well but it was extremely difficult to figure out what to do, and what (if anything) to tell either of the hiring managers.

    1. Kay @ Travel Bug Diary blog

      If it’s two jobs offers you want, you let the slower employer know you have an offer coming and ask them to speed up the process. Happened to me a few weeks ago: I was told that an offer was coming up, so I emailed all my interviewers. I got a straightforward rejection from one, and a second interview from another. If you don’t want one of the jobs, it’s a different story.

  3. AdAgencyChick

    Definitely don’t say it. If I heard this from a candidate I’d be instantly turned off, because I’d feel like she was trying to get me to feel a responsibility to her that I don’t have.

  4. bob

    Two separate issues here as I see it. First one is don’t say that because it will come across as emotional blackmail and the second is you should have politely declined the job offer because they sound like jerks.

  5. Joey

    Not just no, but hell no. That is, unless you want to essentially scream “I’m acting irrational because I’m infatuated with you.”

  6. Katie the Fed

    This is kind of the employment equivalent of telling a guy you’re on the first date with that you held off buying a house last week because you thought he might be the one.

  7. Raj

    Alison

    Frankly, you give a lot of advice that is not in the best interest of the job hunter. I mean, you give advice to people to ensure that other recruiters jobs are made easier.

    I think if this person can tilt things in their favor and get the job by dropping this bomb, they totally should do it.

    Raj

    1. Laur

      I think it is very much not in the interest of the job hunter to say this in an interview. As someone who conducts interviews and hires, I think there is a distinct difference between expressing your real desire to work at a company and saying ‘I turned down a job because I’d prefer to work here’. The latter could, depending on the circumstances, lend itself to either a guilt trip or really turn someone off, which is what AAM is saying. Maybe it works with that particular hiring manager, but more often than not, I would venture it won’t.

  8. Jennifer

    I wonder – if during the interview they ask about if the candidate has had other interviews etc (I know I have been asked about this), what, if anything should OP say about this job offer they are turning down? It would (I assume) give OP a bit of a competitive edge to show that they are desirable enough to other companies to have an offer extended, but there are probably negatives involved with disclosing the information as well. And what, if any information do they have to give about why they turned offer down?

  9. Mia

    Hi,

    I’m the person who originally asked the question and I have now (finally) been given feedback regarding the interview I was going for.

    Needless to say I didn’t get the job – but not for the reasons I was expecting.

    I had thought that a lack of business-focused degree might impede me, but the feedback was entirely different. I’ve copied what I received below.

    “Thank you very much for your application to the [company] and taking the time to come and meet with us. However I’m sorry to have to inform you that at this time we won’t be progressing your application any further.

    “Though the panel were impressed with the strength of your qualifications and the experience you had gained in HR to date, ultimately it was felt that appeared overly confident in your abilities and that other candidates showed a greater awareness of the significance of the opportunities being offered them.

    “[Company] prides itself on working with like-minded people and it was felt that the opinions you expressed at interview were in direct conflict with this.

    “We wish you all the best in securing a position etc etc etc”

    When I called for clarification on my ‘opinions’ I was told that I had appeared arrogant and that when asked the ‘ethical questions’ (we were given hypothetical scenarios and asked what the appropriate response was) I was too forthright in my opinions and that ideally the company were looking for someone they could “mould to their mindset”. I was also told “off the record” that other candidates had made great personal sacrifices for the chance to interview with the Company whereas I acted as though I had earned the opportunity.

    To each their own, I suppose, but as all previous criticism of me to date (from prospective and past employers) has been that I am not assertive enough and too often doubt my abilities, I thought the feedback very strange.

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