Say “No” the Right Way: How Declining a Job Offer can Advance Your Career

Job offer

Figuring out the best way to turn down a job offer is a “good” problem to have. If anything, receiving one or multiple job offers gives you a sense of your professional currency on the job market and could even make you a more attractive candidate for other potential employers (the latter is especially true for academic positions, as recently covered in Chronicle of Higher Education article on “sham” faculty searches that points out interest from one employer can serve as leverage or a point of negotiation with another employer).

Declining a job offer is also a powerful way to practice saying “No.” Not to be trite, but learning how to say “no” is no small thing; in fact, it is an invaluable professional tool. Increasingly, efficiency experts, CEOs, and industry leaders are embracing the value of strategically saying “no” as a way to work smarter and achieve more professionally.

As Psychology Today puts it, historically, saying “no” in one’s professional life hasn’t been celebrated, more often than not interpreted as a negative declaration, an outright refusal, or even a rejection of opportunity. But, as the article explains, a strategically-timed, well-thought out “no” in the workplace (and in one’s personal life, too, for that matter) has a kind of “hidden” power to sharpen our focus, keep us true to what matters to us in work and in life, and protects us from making mistakes that can take us off course.   

This holds true for saying “no” to employment opportunities. Turning down a job doesn’t have to be an uncomfortable or awkward conversation or email. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be the end of the conversation. When you’re actively on the job market, you should learn how to say “no” in a way that opens doors rather than closes them, leaves a good impression of you in the employer’s mind, enhances your reputation as a consummate professional and person of integrity (people talk, after all, and in highly specialized fields, word gets around), and leaves future opportunities and collaborations on the table.   

Just say “no”:

Be quick to respond to the job offer, and be up front yet polite. Phrases like, “I’m honored to be considered for the role” or even a simple “thank you so much for the job offer” should precede a friendly but very clear "no" or declining of the offer.

Leave the door open for more:

After you’ve turned down the role, quickly transition (don’t linger on or belabor your “no”) into something that could suggest a continued collaboration or ongoing conversation, like offering to recommend another colleague for the role, attaching a link to a recent study that you discussed in the interview, or even asking follow-up questions about future opportunities with the company, department, or person.

Always respond:

Whatever you do, don’t simply ignore the offer, whether you’re uncomfortable with articulating the “no” or it simply falls off your radar. It may not mean much to you, but your silence will be interpreted as rudeness and could definitely be a bridge-burner. Again, these kinds of situations have the power to affect your overall reputation in the field as a trustworthy, forthright professional or... not. How you conduct yourself in these instances could very well follow you (even if you're unaware of it) for years to come, so act wisely and with integrity. 

Pick up the phone:

While an emailed reply is fine, an actual phone call in addition to your message is most appropriate. It’s the best way to truly convey your sense of gratitude for the offer -- taking the time to call and explain your “no” indicates to the employer that you really value the position (and them), even if you don’t end up taking the job.

Tell it like it is:

In some cases, your rejection of the offer has nothing whatsoever to do with the role or company. You may simply not be ready to leave your current situation or make a change. But, oftentimes, you decline an offer because one or more elements of the job are unappealing to you. Maybe the pay is lower than you expected, or you were hoping for some flex time, or you’d have to relocate to a place that’s unrealistic for your family… Whatever it is, don’t withhold this from the employer. Politely and succinctly point out what the biggest drawback to the job is. You never know, they may be willing to work with you on finding a solution, turning your “no” into a “yes.” At the least, though, they’ll appreciate knowing exactly why you turned down the position, and these insights often help to inform hiring practices in the future. Even an interaction such as this can position you as an asset for them, which may reap dividends for you down the road.  

Give thanks:

Likely you interviewed with more than one person and department, possible over multiple days/weeks, before receiving the job offer. Take a few minutes and send a short, personalized “thank you” note to each person you came in contact with at the company. Little things like this go a long way to making a good impression and boosting your reputation. You never know what opportunities the future holds or who you will encounter again, so laying this kind of groundwork can only serve you well in your field.

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