Why Burning Employment Bridges is Never a Good Idea

The working world is smaller than you think. Leaving a bad impression can have long-term consequences.

Last week I was out for dinner with a friend who related this story:

Three years ago, she was working as the marketing director for a small-but-growing business, which needed a junior designer-slash-social media manager to support increased demand from clients.  They put an ad on Craigslist, sifted through 30 applicants, and finally hired a guy who seemed to tick all the boxes:  He had design skills, social media experience, and had performed well at three interviews.  They made an offer and agreed on a start date.

So far, so good.

Four days before the start date, the guy called and asked the company if they could provide a letter of employment: He’d recently moved back to the city after working in the UK for a couple of years, and he needed confirmation of employment in order to arrange a new apartment.  “No problem,” my friend said – and got the letter out to him the same day.

But then the start date rolled around, and the guy didn’t turn up at 9am as planned.  They finally tracked him down on his cellphone around noon:  “Oh,” the guy said.  “I took another job, so I won’t be working for you.   Um, didn’t you get the email I sent you on Friday?”

No one believed that there’d been an email, of course – and even if there had been, bailing on a new job the Friday before a start date, by email, after the employer had provided a letter of employment just three days earlier was guaranteed to leave everyone involved in the process more than a little cheesed off.

As an employer, it’s the kind of experience you remember.

It’s funny how things turn out…

Flash-forward 3 years, and now my friend is the VP Marketing for a fairly cool tech company downtown which is hiring an intermediate designer.  The company’s got great buzz so it’s had lots of applicants, and the HR department schedules my friend for a morning of interviews with the shortlisted candidates.

The second interview of the day?  Right:  It’s the guy from three years ago.

It’s obvious that he’s enthusiastic, eager, and really wants the job. Unfortunately, it’s also obvious that he doesn’t remember that the person sitting across from him in the interview room is the person he bailed on 3 years ago.

Now, if life was a Seth Rogen movie, my friend would have refreshed his memory and a comically awkward scene would have ensued. As it was, she simply gave him a perfunctory 15 minutes and sent him on his way, then told the HR manager the guy was a definite ‘no’ – and explained why.

Awkward situations happen.  You don’t have to make them worse.

Job-seeking can be weird that way:  You spend weeks job-hunting without success and then suddenly find yourself with 2 job offers in the same week.  It’s always a bit of a sticky situation, but you don’t have to leave a slew of bad impressions in your wake.  Here’s how to handle it with maximum grace and minimum long-term career damage:

1.  Don’t rush to accept a job offer if you’re expecting another one: It’s perfectly acceptable to ask the potential employer for 24 hours (even 48-72 hours for a more senior role) to ‘review’ the offer.  It won’t make you look less enthusiastic – it’ll make you look like a conscientious and thoughtful decision-maker.

2.  Be honest, but be polite: If you receive a job offer from Employer #1, but are reasonably certain of receiving an offer from Employer #2 within the next couple of days, it’s okay to let Employer #1 know that.  Don’t say “Thanks for your offer, but can you give me a week?  I’m waiting for a better offer from someone else.”  Instead, say:  “Thanks so much for your offer.  Could you give me a couple of days?  I had a couple of interviews with them before I interviewed with you, so I feel like I owe it to them to follow up.”   This approach lessens the chances that you’ll have to wriggle out of Employer #1’s offer if Employer #2 makes an offer 2 days later.

3.  Don’t play one employer off against another: Unless you’re one of only five people in the world who can do what you do, it’s never a good idea to try to engage employers in a bidding war.  It’s fine to let a potential employer know you have other irons in the fire, but saying things like “You’re going to have to make me an offer within the next 24 hours or I’m going to go with Employer #2…” is almost guaranteed to make you look like the kind of person who no one wants to hire.

4.  If you make a mistake, own up to it – and be gracious: The guy in my friend’s story could have mitigated a lot of career damage by making one phone call:  “I’m so sorry – I know I was supposed to start on Monday, and you guys were really great about giving me that letter of employment.  However, yesterday I was offered another opportunity that I just couldn’t turn down…” Then provide a reason that the jilted employer can empathize with, even if you have to tell a white lie:  “The other job is down the street from my house, so I wouldn’t have to commute…” or “I’ve wanted to work with horses ever since I was a little kid, and this opportunity will let me do that”.  Don’t say “they offered me more money than you did” or “they’ll look better on my resume than you will”.  Sure, the situation will still be awkward – but at least you won’t leave a lasting impression as ‘that jerk who bailed on us at the last minute’.

Bottom line:  Even in a big city, it’s amazing how often you’ll inevitably cross professional paths with people years down the line. Leaving people with a positive impression can be the best long-term career investment you’ll ever make.

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