Reneging on a Job Offer: When 'I Do' Becomes 'I Don't'

Photograph by Mike Kemp

Career coaches often compare dating and the job search process. In both settings you are meeting people and looking for the right match. At some point when dating, things get serious and eventually lead to a proposal of marriage or long-term commitment. Once you make that commitment, both individuals expect the other to stay true to the commitment.

In the job search, the interviewing process is supposed to lead to a job offer and employment. In a way, your acceptance of the offer is the same as saying, “I do.”

Why is it then, that students feel it is OK to say, “I do,” and then change their minds, sometimes at their start date? Over the past few years, career centers have seen an increase in the number of students who renege after accepting a job. Along with that, there has been an increase in the severity of consequences for the student.

Two recent Bloomberg Businessweek stories highlighted the consequences at several schools. One story describes the case of two MBA students at Georgia Tech who reneged on internship offers and lost recruiting privileges as a result. The other describes the policies in place at some schools to discourage reneging.

I’ve read both and viewed some of the responses. It seems like several readers don’t understand that this is more than an employment-at-will issue. Anyone is free to take a job or decline the opportunity. But before that decision is made, the individual should have given significant thought to the pros and cons of the role and organization. If you apply the employment-at-will theory to the job market, then companies are also free to rescind job offers whenever they like without consequences.

That’s not the case. At most business schools, there are consequences for companies that rescind an offer. In addition to the considerable reputational risk, companies risk being kicked off campus for a period of time and denied access to talent.

With students, Wharton and Kellogg have gone so far as to threaten fines of up to $20,000 for this behavior. Why so? Since 2001 when businesses were being questioned about their ethics, many pointed to business schools as the culprit for not teaching ethics. Reneging on a job acceptance displays a lack of ethics on the part of the student. In the business world, when you agree to do something, the expectation is that you will follow through on that promise. You owe yourself and the people expecting you to join their ranks the professionalism you displayed in the interview.

I know someone who reneged on one job opportunity to take another position. The day he showed up to work, he found the company no longer wanted him because they discovered he had reneged on a competitor. The feeling was he simply could not be trusted.

The world is small. Once you accept a job offer, think hard about any offers that arise afterwards. The tradeoff for your reputation may not be worth it.

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