what does “we’re ironing out the details” mean when I’m waiting to hear back about a job?

A reader writes:

I have recently interviewed at an amazing company for an internship program that they have open for this semester. I had two phone interviews on the same day and had two in-person interviews the following week. After each interview, I sent a personalized thank you e-mail within 24 hours. A week after the in-person interviews, I left a voicemail for the hiring manager, and today (a week and a half after my last interview) I sent in a follow-up email following what you outlined on your “ask for a timeline” post.

She sent back a response within an hour saying that she doesn’t have a timeline and that she will let me know as soon as they finish “ironing out the details.” I feel like most of the details would be ironed out since it’s an internship program that they have proudly acclaimed to have run for years. I also thought that they would begin the program soon since it’s already a couple of weeks into the fall semester.

Should I be worried that this may just mean that they don’t like their current candidates (i.e., me)? I’m sure they’re still not interviewing since they probably need to pick an intern as soon as possible. I was very optimistic after all of those interviews went well but now I’m not too sure.

It could mean all sorts of things. For instance:

* the past funding for the program has fallen through and so they’re figuring out where it will come from this year
* the person who used to manage the program left or otherwise can’t do it this year so they’re figuring out who will (or whether anyone even can)
* they have higher priorities that they’re focusing on right now, and they haven’t had enough time to focus on selecting people for internships yet
* the person who championed the program in the past left, and they’re thinking about whether/how to continue it
* they’ve made offer to their first choices for internships, and they’re waiting to hear back from those people before notifying other candidates
* something else entirely

It’s impossible to know from the outside which of these it is. Speculating won’t do you any good, but will likely drive you crazy.

But what you do know for sure is that you don’t currently have an offer from this company. Until you do, you should proceed as if you won’t, and make whatever decisions you would make for yourself if you received a firm rejection from them. That doesn’t mean that you will eventually get rejected by them (you might get an offer, you might get a rejection, or you might never hear an answer from them at all), but because you have no way of knowing what the outcome will be, you need to proceed as if there won’t be an offer and make decisions for yourself accordingly. If they do come back to you with an offer at some point, let it be a pleasant surprise, and decide at that point what you want to do.

But sitting around waiting to hear something, when there’s no guarantee that you ever will — and when, statistically speaking, most people in your shoes will be rejected — is a recipe for causing yourself stress and anxiety and for making bad decisions that you wouldn’t have made if you’d known that this job wouldn’t come through (such as not pursuing other work in the meantime).

{ 24 comments… read them below }

  1. Not So NewReader*

    Great advice for the OP! Who knows OP, while you are waiting for these folks, you might find a job that you like even better. I hang on to Alison’s statement something to the effect of pretend like you never applied and keep looking around. You have done your best, now turn and look at something else- what ever that may mean for you.

    If I had this advice years ago…. sigh….

    1. Jessa*

      It’s a terrible thing to say to someone because it SOUNDS to a lot of people like “We’re offering to you but we have to work out the start date, salary, etc.” Honestly if that’s not what’s meant it really needs to be said. Because most people would hear “working out details” as working out details of an OFFER.

      I’m with Alison, don’t presume this even if it’s kind of what you hear them saying. Because they’re probably not paying attention to how people hear that language.

      1. Anonymous*

        Yeah, I agree. To me, “ironing out the details” could mean just about anything, including “we are ironing out the details of your offer” to “I’m putting you off in an indirect way and really don’t have anything to tell you” to anything in between.

        I wish employers would just be more direct instead of using this vague, meaningless way of non-communication.

        1. Ruffingit*

          Agreed. It would be a lot better if people were more clear. “We are ironing out the details on the internship. We’ve not chosen a candidate yet.” OK, so now I know you’ve not yet chosen someone, which tells me definitively that the job isn’t mine.

          1. Colette*

            Sometimes the answer is “we’ve chosen who we want to hire, but she hasn’t accepted yet” or “we’re not sure whether we want to hire anyone we interviewed” or “the boss’s nephew hasn’t decided whether he’s going to take his other offer” or “if we don’t make that big sale, we’re going to layoff 50 people” or “the hiring manager is really disorganized”. I deal with a lot of people (not in a hiring capacity) and I can tell you that some people aren’t willing to believe that any viewpoint other than their own is valid, so if you provide them with anything they can argue with, they will. Othe times, giving an accurate answer requires sharing insider information. It’s not always cut and dried.

            1. Ruffingit*

              Oh I agree with this. I’m well aware of how ridiculous some people can be with not understanding anything other than their own viewpoint as being valid. That said, saying we’ve not chosen a candidate yet tends to cover even all the examples you mentioned.

              That said, the issue really is one of just accepting that until you hear “We’re offering you the job, expect the offer letter in your mailbox by Saturday” you need to mentally move on.

  2. Elizabeth West*

    Anytime anyone is deliberately vague, I assume that the answer is either no or maybe. I can’t run my life on maybes, so I react to them the same way I react to no. In other words, keep on truckin’.

    1. Jessa*

      The problem is that to an average listener this is not vague. The unspoken follow up to “details” is “of an OFFER.” The problem is that nowadays that’s no longer true. If this had not come up on AAM and someone just asked me about it, I’d be telling them that. And I’d likely be wrong. Because I’m dating myself as well over 50 and presuming that the language is as precise as it used to be and it no longer IS. Both sides of job negotiations seem to handle things much differently now and what used to be very clear language is now completely muddled with people trying to be vague or polite instead of saying “sorry we are not choosing you.”

      1. fposte*

        I don’t think it’s ever been true, though. I’m in roughly your age bracket and I experienced plenty of employment vagueness from people back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Email might make it happen slightly more often now, in that you get a vague response from somebody who would simply have ducked the call or never written back before, but there’s been no time in my life where you could count on organizations always to communicate with inarguable clarity.

        I think this is just the job-hunting is like dating thing again, and we’ve just updated the ways we’ve always been weird with one another.

    2. Ruffingit*

      Same. Anything less than “We’re offering you the job, check your email for the offer letter” and I take it as “Nothing is definite, move on mentally.”

  3. EngineerGirl*

    I’m not sure where this is coming from. Back in the dinosaur age, we applied and moved on to the next application. If someone got back, great! If not, then no harm, no foul, oh well, that’s the way the world works. This comes down to “don’t put all your eggs in the same basket” philosophy. Don’t make one employer THE employer. Don’t make one boss THE boss to work for. I think most people would be a lot happier if they didn’t idealize these jobs.

    But more and more I’m seeing “employers are so rude” because they don’t:
    a) get back to you within your time frame
    b) don’t give feedback
    c) are supposedly ambiguous about wording
    In other words, employers are being held to much higher standards than the job seekers hold for themselves. The excuse always is – “but the employer is in power!”.

    Look, everyone will be a lot happier if you decided that you were the captain of your destiny. That means that you create plans that have a plan b and plan c and plan d. That means that if someone doesn’t act the way you like, you do something (politely) about it or move on. That means that you keep your ego out of it and don’t get offended for every perceived slight. That also means that sometimes you take less desirable jobs in order to get an “in”, because hey, we need to earn a living. These are the principles that have continued to work for me across 30+ years.

    1. Jessa*

      Actually employers are rude when they don’t get back to you in THEIR timeframe. If you tell me Thursday and don’t call and I call you on Monday and you brush me off and say oh we needed another two weeks, that’s RUDE. No reason you can’t let someone know that on Tuesday that “sorry, we’re still working on this. We’ll call you in a week.”

      And employers are rude if they interview someone and do not respond and let them know if they did not get the job in question. NOT everyone who applied, but if you call them in for an interview you owe them notice.

      They don’t have to give me feedback as in “what I did to not get the job” kinds of feedback, but they DO control the process and it’s not reasonable to expect people not to need to know. If you’re going to offer me a job in a week and I take another one that I didn’t like as much because you couldn’t be moved to take 30 seconds to update people that hurts BOTH the employer and the potential employee.

      And they DO have all the control, the interviewee has no way to set the timeline or expectations of timeline.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I don’t think anyone is disputing that it’s rude, but job seekers have a ton of control in how they handle this. They can mentally move on, for one thing, and it’s generally in their best interest to do so.

        Employers act the way they act. We can debate what they should do differently all we want, but ultimately people should be doing the things that will bring them the greatest peace of mind — and that’s not to fret over this stuff but instead to get how it works, accept it, and behave accordingly.

        1. EngineerGirl*

          This exactly. Employers have power because people give it to them. Expect that employers are going to be just as flakey as people are – some have their act together, some don’t. But getting offended over it takes tons of soul sucking energy that could be put to better use by networking, creating a better cover letter, etc. Use your time and energy wisely and accept that human flakiness is part of the game.

          1. MrSparkles*

            I agree with that your energy would be better spent on something else than taking offence, but that is easier said than done, especially if you’re unemployed and in need of a job; your livelyhood is dependent on they (general “they”) getting back to you.

            Personally I mentally try and move on, but it’d be much easier to do so if I were currently employed and wasn’t in NEED of a job.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I think we’re all sympathetic to that — no one is saying it isn’t sometimes hard. But the goal should be to move on — not to dwell on it or to get upset (or to encourage others to do those things), but to actively strive to move on (and to encourage others to have that perspective).

          2. Ruffingit*

            Agreed with all. What employers should do can (and has) be its own thread and then some. What they actually do is what you have to handle in real life. I do think it would help a lot, as I said above, if employers were less vague sometimes. But, again as I said above, anything less than “The job is yours, offer letter is in the (e)mail” is taken by me as a no and I mentally move on.

            Comparing this to dating as we’ve often done here can help (work equivalent in parenthesis): If I go out with some guy (interview) and he doesn’t call me as he promised (no follow-up) then I might call him once. If he gives me some vague statement about being busy or whatever, but maybe we’ll get together Sunday…I move on. I don’t wait around to see if he’ll want to make plans. I just let it go and find someone who does want to spend time with me (new job). I’m not going to waste a great deal of time being angry because he didn’t follow-up and was rude.

  4. Dan*

    I get a kick out of how many people write in about a prospective job or internship and call it “amazing” or their “dream” job or company. There’s no way to know that before you start working there, because the grass is usually much browner when you can see all of the company manure piled on it.

    1. OP*

      It’s in the industry that I want, their clients are super awesome and seem fun to work on, the benefits are almost on Google-level, I had a friend who did the same post-grad program (with this company) and she loved it, and the commute is only 1 bus ride away. I don’t have much more to go on but these points make this company a lot better than others right off the bat.

  5. Tara T.*

    I definitely agree with the last 2 paragraphs of what AAM wrote, because a lot of times the interviewers are so positive and it seems like an offer will come, and then it does not for one reason or another. If they are too late in getting back to you with an offer, and you get something somewhere else, that is a bird in hand – take it.

  6. OP*

    Hey Alison,

    Thank you again for answering my question. I’ve had 3 different interviews with other companies (and one follow-up interview for this week) since I interviewed with this “dream company.” I agree, and understand, that you have to move on – it’s only logical. I still haven’t heard back from this company (the “ironing out the details” e-mail was exactly one week ago), and now I’m unsure how to follow-up (or if I even should).

    Either way, I’m grateful you took the time out to answer my question and I’d like to thank you for your help (through this post and all the other ones that have helped me).

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