How to gracefully decline a job offer

How can you gracefully turn down a job offer? These steps talk about declining a job offer without the risk of burning bridges.

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You applied, you interviewed, you got the job—and now you want to turn it down. How do you do it? Do you have to give a reason? What if you might want to work with that employer in the future? How do you avoid burning any bridges? Here's everything you need to know about how to decline a job offer gracefully.

Just like it's normal and routine for employers to reject job candidates, it's completely normal and OK for you to reject an employer's job offer. Interviewing for a job does not signal that you will definitely accept it if it's offered to you, no more than an employer interviewing you is an implicit promise to hire you. As long as you didn't say things in the hiring process like, "I will definitely accept this job if you offer it to me," you haven't misled the employer about your intentions.

There are some employers out there who react badly to rejected offers, but there are also employers out there who react badly when you ask for a raise or try to use your vacation time. It's a sign of serious dysfunction on their side, not a sign that you've done anything wrong. (And if someone does respond badly after you politely decline an offer, you likely dodged a bullet. That's an employer who doesn't abide by professional norms or treat respect as a 2-way street.)

Once you've decided that you're not going to accept the offer, call or email the employer and let them know right away. Don't delay, because that can cause a real inconvenience on their side (which can turn normal disappointment into frustration that you didn't tell them sooner). Plus, they probably have other candidates on hold who would be delighted to receive the offer once you decline it.

People do turn down jobs via email all the time, so if you want to go that route, the world won't implode. But the more gracious move is to call and speak with the person who would have been your manager. That person is probably at least somewhat emotionally invested in you now that they've offered you the job.

Timeliness is more important than connecting on the phone, so if reaching someone by phone would add days to the process, go ahead and send an email. Just add a note like, "I'd hoped to reach you on the phone, but wasn't able to reach you and didn't want to delay the process."

This might seem unfair since employers turn down candidates all the time without offering a reason, but you'll come across better and preserve the relationship for the future if you give some amount of explanation for your decision. Your reason doesn't need to be a comprehensive account of your reservations about the job! It's enough to say something like, "Thanks so much for considering me, but after a lot of thought, I've decided to decline and focus on a few other roles that I think are more in line with the work I'm hoping to do."

Or, if you have a reason that's easily explainable in 1 or 2 sentences and not insulting (e.g., not: "You seem like a terrible manager"), share that! For example:

  • "Ultimately I think we're too far apart on salary. I'd need $X to leave my current position, and I know that's far outside your range."
  • "I've given a lot of thought to relocating to Chicago, but have decided this isn't the right time for me to move."
  • "I hadn't realized until we talked how much admin work that position is responsible for, and I'm really looking for a role more focused on program work."
  • "I've decided to accept a position with a different company."

It's possible that your reason could spur the company to try to find a way to address your objections. In some cases, you might be open to that—such as if they suddenly increase the salary offer, or say they'd be willing to let you work remotely if location is the issue. But if they offer something that won't change your mind, it's fine to just say, "Thank you so much for your offer. I don't think it's exactly what I'm looking for right now, but I really appreciate you trying to make it work."

When you turn down the offer, say something like, "I really appreciate the time you spent talking with me about the position, and I hope our paths might cross in the future."

If you really liked the company or the manager and think you might be interested in working with them in the future, say something like, "I'm really impressed by the work you're doing on X and would love to find a way to be a part of it down the road, even though the timing (or salary or so forth) didn't work out this time."

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Article copyright 2018 by The Cut. Reprinted from the October 2, 2018 issue with permission from The Cut.
The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. Fidelity Investments cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or data.
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