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Employment

Is it OK to renege on an offer letter?

Chemjobber on what you shouldn’t accept unless you’re sure you want the job

by Chemjobber
February 11, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 7

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Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Accepting an offer before you've made up your mind isn't wise.

When you come to an intersection with a four-way stop, what are the rules of the road where you live? Some drivers’ manuals do not have clear-cut rules but note that common courtesy requires the initial driver to go first. In Wyoming, the manual states in capital letters, “If in doubt, yield to the driver on your right” and “Remember to never insist on the right of way at the risk of a crash.” If such an interaction is so simple yet has so many differing approaches, what hope is there to establish good rules and norms around more difficult questions, like employment?

Each year, I host a discussion forum on my blog for those who are seeking tenured academic employment in chemistry. Readers post more than 1,000 comments as job openings begin to show up in June and reach a steady pitch in September and October. These comments include the informative (“University X has begun phone interviews”) and the plaintive (“Has anyone heard from College Y after the on-site interviews?”). By December and January, the comments take on a painfully earnest tone, as candidates obsess over the “correct” way to accept an offer, reject an offer, or ask for more time.

One commenter posed an ethical question: “What downsides could result from accepting one of my two offers and then continuing to pursue one or two more schools?” When I posted this question on Twitter, there was near-unanimous agreement from established professors: this was a bad idea, and the candidate should not be tempted by it. Lisa McElwee-White, chair of the Chemistry Department at the University of Florida, tweeted her emphatic response: “Don’t. Even. Think. About. It. Tell me when and where else you’re interviewing and I’ll work with you on timing our offer. . . . No one needs enemies in a business that runs on anonymous peer review.”

Several chemists reached out to me privately with a different perspective. They felt that many sectors of the job market were large enough and the likely opportunities for retribution were low enough that candidates could get away with reneging on an offer. One early-career professor suggested that no one remembers faculty candidates 1 year later, and it was unlikely that search committee members were lying in wait to get revenge. A former industrial chemist argued that no employee should ever cease looking for a better employment situation and that signing an offer letter shouldn’t preclude a candidate from searching further or considering other offers.

I disagree. When you sign a letter of employment, it is both a written and unwritten statement that “I have accepted your position, and I do not intend to search further.” Rather than misleading employers by signing an offer letter with the intention of potentially reneging, ask for more time to consider the offer. Most employers expect that there will be a negotiation period after an offer is made. For academics, this includes negotiating on start-up packages and teaching expectations; for industrial positions, there are often discussions around salary or relocation packages.

It’s also important to be frank with one’s future employer. Don’t be afraid to make reasonable requests, like, “Please let me visit these next two schools so that I can make a more informed decision.” If the employer pulls the offer, would you really want to work there?

Good communities thrive by establishing norms for both employer and employee. If we expect candidates to be bound by offer letters, then employers should be as well. These rules of the road can help us better navigate the job search, avoid inadvertent crashes, and get where we want to go.

Chemjobber is an industrial chemist who blogs about the chemistry job market at chemjobber.blogspot.com. Find all his columns for C&EN and suggest future topics at cenm.ag/benchandcubicle.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.

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Comments
LanceM (February 12, 2020 10:56 AM)
While reneging is never a great option, there have been many scenarios of friends or acquaintances that have accepted a job (corporate not academia) where they were suppose to start working and the company said the position was no longer available. In the end, each person has to do what is best for them. It is better for both parties if a potential employee feels like they want to be somewhere else, to let them go somewhere else.
Stephen Chace (February 13, 2020 3:46 PM)
Has happened to me. Very few companies worry about behaving ethically. Since i am an employee at will, i can be fired for no reason. In the US, the cost of unemployment payments is the only thing keeping many employers from exercising that right more often.

When i was young and naive, i would never renege on an accepted offer. As mentioned above, if i had other possibilities, i would mention that. But sometimes an offer comes out of the blue.
F. M. Scheidt (February 12, 2020 4:38 PM)
For a potential employee who has accepted a job offer, it IS ethical to renege on it, if it's to his own self-interest to do so. OTOH, it is grievously UNETHICAL for an employer to do so, once the employer has made an offer to a proposed employee and the employee has accepted.

The reason for the apparent paradox is because the employer is hurt only very slightly by the potential employee's reneging. However, the proposed employee is hurt very much by being refused employment after have being proposed -- and accepted -- employment. What's involved here is the relative amount of "pain".

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