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How to Turn Down a Job Offer (Without Burning Bridges in the Process)

As we power through the jobpocalypse that has been raging for the last year or so, it might seem perilously silly to even raise the question of turning down a job offer. But the reality is that it's something you should consider, and file some strategies away for when you might need it. After all, job offers do sometimes come out of the blue, even when you're happily engaged at your current company. Or perhaps someday you'll be in the enviable position of having to choose between two great offers. How do you respond in a way that you don't offend or burn bridges?

That's exactly the topic of Jodi Glickman's column in the Harvard Business Review last week. She obviously recommends carefully crafting your message, and suggests that you build it around these three key points:

  • A gracious thank you
  • A well-thought out rationale
  • Forward momentum
The thank you is pretty self-evident; you should give a sincere and heartfelt thank you to the hiring manager who extended the offer. And the forward momentum is simply an acknowledgement that you should stay in touch to be kept abreast of future opportunities.

But the rationale is more interesting. Glickman suggests that you build your explanation around one of these five rationales:

External factors like family, timing, or geography prevent you from taking the position.

Money is an acceptable rationale -- "I wish I could make this work, but I need to be at a higher compensation level."

You recognize that you lack the skills you think you need to succeed in the role.

People issues can be challenging to message in a polite and socially acceptable way, but Glickman suggests using language like, "I respect the work you all do but I just don't think it's the right fit for me personally. I prefer something more face-paced/more entrepreneurial/with a flatter organizational structure," where you fill in the details (as long as the details aren't "I don't care for the Director."

The role seems like a dead end. The job probably isn't a dead end for everyone, but if the role doesn't contribute to your personal career goals, it's a perfectly acceptable thing to say.

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