The best piece of advice career coach Jena Viviano has for job seekers in this situation is not to overthink their response. “It’s actually pretty simple,” she says. “We complicate things because we think there’s some ninja tricks to it. But it’s actually just about being a regular human—and being kind and respectful.” That’s the approach you should take to any interview process, but it’s especially important when you’re turning down a job but want to maintain the relationship.
One way to be more, well, human, is to pick up the phone—even if it feels more uncomfortable to decline an offer on the phone. Viviano recommends always asking for a phone call and only opting for email if the hiring manager or recruiter is unavailable or too busy to hop on the phone. From there, you should be gracious and thankful for the opportunity—while also leaving the door open by saying something like: “I would love to stay in contact with you. Would it be okay just to reconnect every three months or so?” Assuming you really do want to stay in touch, it is important that you note that down for yourself and follow up at the right time. Viviano recommends checking in with your contacts every quarter, even if you’re not actively job hunting. If it’s an early-stage company, you can even be an asset to them by making introductions to other potential hires, she says.
Whether you’re turning down an offer or pulling out of the interview process before you even get to that stage, you’re under no obligation to offer an explanation or reason for your decision. Vicki Salemi, career expert for Monster, says that holds true even if you’ve been connected by a mutual friend and have bypassed the formal application or typical recruiting channels. In those scenarios, it’s possible you weren’t even formally looking for a new job; an interesting opportunity may have just landed in your lap. “It’s always important to accept an invitation and have that first conversation,” she says. “But you have every right to pull the plug on the conversation. It’s completely okay because that’s what the interview process is about—it’s about exploration.”
When the reason for your reticence is, say, timing or something more concrete—perhaps you’re getting married or the company in question is in the process of securing funding—you can choose to disclose that if it feels relevant. It all depends on whether you’d like to continue the relationship, Salemi says. If you truly want to pick up the conversation a few months later, it may make sense to divulge that the timing isn’t right, or that you want to wait until the company can give you a better salary offer. But in a situation where you’re put off by a potential boss, for example, it’s better to keep that to yourself, especially if you still might consider working at the company (albeit on a different team). Either way, until you accept a job, you are entitled to pulling out of the process or declining an offer, without worrying about how it might reflect on you. “There’s a difference between burning a bridge and just being honest,” Salemi says.
Job seekers often don’t realize the proverbial ball is mostly in their court. “Most people don’t realize that it’s a candidate’s marketplace,” Viviano says. “Most candidates don’t go into an interview or networking situation acting as if they’re the leader.” In an employee’s market, Salemi points out, companies usually don’t read too much into a candidate declining an offer. If anything, that employer is thinking hard about how they can edge out the competition to better attract new talent. “It’s really like you’re dating an employer, and they’re dating you,” Salemi says. “You’re courting each other, but if anything, they’re courting you more.”
In other words, you should never accept a job solely because you’ve gone through the interview process or feel moved by a sense of obligation. And you shouldn’t feel bad about it. “If you’re thinking, ‘well, they invested so much time in me,’” Salemi says, “you invested time in this, too. That’s why it’s important to pause, evaluate the situation, and make a decision that you’re confident in—and don’t look back.”