How to Turn Down a Job Offer Without Burning Bridges

A businessman holding up a "no" sign

A working saying “no.” |

The good news: You got the job. The bad news: You don’t want it. A few years ago, that was an almost unheard of dilemma, as people scrambled for work in a tight employment market. But as the economy has improved, many workers, especially those with in-demand skills, now feel that they can be picky about the jobs they accept.

“In today’s labor market, are more in control than every before,” according to Tara Sinclair, the chief economist for “Simply put, there are fewer unemployed job seekers for every opening.” In 2009, there were roughly six job seekers for every open position. By 2015, that number had fallen to 1.7 potential candidates for each opening.

With more jobs open and fewer qualified candidates, many job seekers no longer feel they are lucky simply to get an offer. Whether it’s because of a lower-than-expected salary, a better opportunity elsewhere, or bad vibes about a company, you may eventually find yourself having to tell an prospective employer, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Yet even if you’re sure the job isn’t right for you, telling an employer that can be hard, especially after you’ve gone through a long interview process.

“All along you’re giving the impression that you’d love the opportunity to work at their company and then, when the offer comes through, you sing a different tune,” Marjie Terry, a workplace communication trainer, told Forbes. “This can be very awkward.”

Here’s how you can tell a company you’re not interested without looking like an ungrateful, unprofessional jerk.

1. Let them know right away

job interview

Communication is key |

Yes, employers will often drag out the hiring process for weeks. But you don’t need to emulate their dawdling behavior. If you’ve decided a job isn’t right for you (or if you’ve found another position in the meantime), let the hiring manager know as soon as possible. It’s simply common courtesy, and it allows the company to quickly make an offer to someone else.

“If you wait too long, they may miss out on another candidate whom they’re considering and if this is the case, you’ve just burned your bridges with that company,” Andy Teach, the author of From Graduation to Corporation, told Forbes.

2. Express your appreciation


A grateful handshake |

The position may not be the right fit for you, but you should still be polite and grateful when saying no to a job. Express your appreciation and thank the interviewer or hiring manager for extending you the offer. Your professional paths may well cross again, and you can be sure that a curt or ungrateful rejection of a job offer will not be remembered fondly. Keeping the lines of communication friendly and open could pay off later in your career.

“’[D]on’t make it seem as though the position was beneath you or that you didn’t give the offer serious thought and consideration,” wrote Jodi Glickman, the author of Great on the Job, in the Harvard Business Review.

3. Use the phone

commute, train, phone

Job applicant using phone |

If confrontation makes you queasy, you may be tempted to tell an employer “no” over email. But a phone call is usually better, especially if you’ve gone through multiple rounds of interviews and have developed a rapport with the hiring manager or gotten to know other people in the company.

“Avoid sending your offer rejection by email, and never commit career suicide by declining via text — even if you have the perfect apologetic Emoji,” Lynn Taylor, the author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant, told Business Insider.

4. Tell them the real reason

Source: iStock

Worker on the phone |

Be upfront about why you’ve decided to reject the job. If you’ve accepted another offer, decided the position wouldn’t allow you to achieve your career goals, or couldn’t come to an agreement about the salary, explain that to the hiring manager. They’ll understand.

“No one is taking this stuff personally,” Ginny Clarke, author of Career Mapping: Charting Your Course in the New World of Work, told The Ladders. “Don’t lie. If you like another job [more], be honest.”

Be as diplomatic as possible, however, if your reasons for rejecting the job are related to concerns about management or coworkers. If your would-be boss came off like a tyrant or everyone in the office looked like they’d rather be anywhere but at work, you might want to say that the “culture fit” wasn’t quite right. 

5. Be sure you mean it

Source: iStock

Turning someone away |

If you reject a job with grace and professionalism, you’ll be less likely to burn bridges with that employer. But don’t assume that just because they offered you the job once the offer will still be open to you if you later regret your decision. If your situation changes and you want to reach out to the employer and see if they’re still interested in hiring you, feel free to do that, but be prepared for them to say no to you to this time. No one — not even employers — wants to feel like they’re someone’s second choice.

“I don’t want to hire people who aren’t fully sold on the job, for all sorts of reasons: I won’t have confidence that they’re not going to keep looking for another job, or that they won’t be easily lured away, or that they’ll give the job their all,” wrote Alison Green of Ask a Manager.

Follow Megan on Twitter @MeganE_CS

More from Money & Career Cheat Sheet: