When to Decline a Job Offer

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When you're looking for a new job, it’s easy to come down with a case of tunnel vision, focusing exclusively on reeling in an offer without considering whether it’s really the kind of job you'd like to snag. Many of us get so wrapped up in crafting the perfect cover letter or wearing the perfect interview outfit, all in order to snag an offer, that we forget that not every job is one worth taking. mental_floss spoke with career coaches Sarah Stamboulie, head of Stamboulie Consulting, and Jennifer Rosenthal, president of Career Confidence NYC, about the important factors to consider about when weighing a job offer—and when it’s a good idea to turn an offer down. 


Both Stramboulie and Rosenthal agree that it’s important to know what your goals are before going into a job interview. It’s difficult to know whether a job is a good fit, or whether an offer is right for you, if you haven’t thought extensively about what you really want.

Rosenthal recommends making a list of what she calls “key career ingredients” before beginning the application process. These are the criteria that are most important to you, and can include job stability, compensation, brand recognition, and more. Rosenthal notes that career ingredients are personal, not universal. “Some people are looking for stability above all else, and others don’t care,” she says. “Some like to be really independent, while others are looking for a really strong mentor. Everyone has different priorities.”

Rosenthal also emphasizes the importance of using your must-have list to help keep your eye on the prize during a difficult job hunt. “Most folks do not like the job search process, and find it stressful, so there can be the impulse to say, ‘I just want to stop this process and take a job.’ That’s why it’s so important to have that list,” she says.


Stamboulie recommends strongly against interviewing for jobs you know you don’t really want. “People should prep very hard and very specifically for the opportunities they’re really interested in,” she says. “Because when you get an offer from a job or a company you’re not really interested in, and it’s good money, or your mom says you should take it, all kinds of bad things come from that.”


Avoiding a bad job offer can be as simple as narrowing down your job search before you start applying. Other times, a job sounds great on paper, but things start to go downhill during the interview. Both Stamboulie and Rosenthal say it’s important to pay attention to your own feelings during an interview. “If you feel like you wouldn’t be happy somewhere, even if the interview process wasn’t overtly negative, it could just be a bad fit,” Rosenthal says. “It doesn’t mean it’s a bad role or a bad company, but it might not be for you.”

“Some people’s personalities are such that they’re better at seeing, and heeding, red flags than others,” says Stamboulie. “If you’re one of those people who’s not great at noticing red flags, talk to the people around you about your interview experience, and ask your friends for advice.”

Some interview red flags are more tangible than others. Your comfort level during an interview, and how you mesh with your interviewer, are decent ways to gauge whether a company’s culture is a good fit for you. But some red flags are more objective. “If any employer asks you illegal questions about your personal life, that should be a huge red flag,” Rosenthal says. “Clearly, no one should ask whether you’re married or trying to get pregnant. And if anything feels unethical but not quite illegal, that should also be a big warning sign.” (You can read a list of some of the most commonly asked illegal interview questions here, and questions you might not realize are illegal here.)


Once you make it past the interview stage and finally get a job offer, it’s time to take a close look at both the written offer and the attitude of your potential employer. One of the biggest things to look out for, according to Stamboulie, is the bait-and-switch. “If, throughout the interview, the interviewer referred to the job as a manager position, and now it’s suddenly an assistant manager position, that’s a bad sign,” she says. “Or if suddenly, the interviewer is acting like they’re doing you a favor when they give you the offer—if you were feeling the love during the interview process, and now you’re not—it might be time to reconsider.”

Stamboulie says it’s incredibly important to look at your job offer in its entirety. “In addition to the written offer letter, you should be looking at the employee handbook, non-compete agreement, or any other legal paperwork you’ll have to sign,” she says. “Sometimes there’s really bad stuff hidden in there: You don’t want to quit a job only to find out there was some vicious non-compete clause you didn’t know about. If you have a friend who’s a lawyer, or someone who understands how to read those materials, get them to help you. It’s always good to get a second pair of eyes on those papers.”


Make sure to do your research on the company and the position you’re about to fill. “Find out if the company is financially secure and why your particular position is opening up,” recommends Rosenthal. “If it’s a completely new position, that might indicate the company is growing, which is great. If it’s a position that opened up because somebody moved on, you can ask your interviewer where your predecessor went, and whether they were promoted or left the company. If they left, it’s not necessarily a bad sign, but you might want to do a little research on your own, take a peek at their LinkedIn, and see where they ended up.”


If you’ve received a job offer and it’s not raising any major red flags, Stamboulie and Rosenthal say the decision is ultimately a personal one. “It just has to feel right to you,” Rosenthal says. “If a job hits the top three things on your list but misses a few lower down, it might still be worth considering. It’s a decision you have to make based on your priorities.” Most people can tell when a job doesn’t feel quite right, says Stamboulie, and unless you’re in dire straits financially, it’s a good idea to turn down jobs that aren’t appealing.

“When should you turn down a job and keep looking? My thought would be, a lot of the time, if you’re asking that question, you should probably keep looking,” Stamboulie says.