You Got the Big Job Offer. What If You Don’t Want It?
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You Got the Big Job Offer. What If You Don’t Want It?

You can say no to a new position or assignment, gracefully–and keep your options intact.

Tue, Aug 16, 2022 11:20amGrey Clock 4 min

The plum opportunity you dreamed of is yours: a new job, a stretch assignment, a move to that big office abroad.

What happens if you don’t want it anymore?

Our ambitions are changing. Some of us are rethinking our relationship to work, prioritizing the rest of our lives over that next rung up the ladder. Others are concerned about a potential recession, the sense that if you’re last in, you’ll be first out.

“None of us have felt in control for a long time,” says Daisy Dowling, the chief executive of Workparent, a coaching and consulting company that serves organizations from law firms to sports leagues. “There’s a real sense of, ‘Gosh, darn it, I’m going to do the thing that’s right for me. I’m not going to get pushed around by circumstances anymore.’”

Still, declining an opportunity you raised your hand for, or one that used to be your dream, differs from saying no to pointless busywork or another 6 a.m. meeting. There’s the puzzle of what to say, how to say it. And sometimes there’s an identity crisis.

“Am I not a move-to-London person? Am I unambitious? If I put my hand down for this, will I ever be able to recover the lost ground?” Ms. Dowling says she’s hearing from clients.

It’s totally normal to wade through those questions. But don’t drag the boss or hiring manager along with you. Once you’ve made your choice, be definitive and emotionally neutral. “Upon further reflection, I’ve realized I need to take myself out of the process for personal reasons. This is not right for me,” Ms. Dowling suggests saying. 

Share a few details if you’d like–you need to stay put until your child finishes high school, your partner was recently diagnosed with a health condition. Then pivot, Ms. Dowling says. How can you smooth this transition or help solve this leader’s problem? Maybe you can’t move to Los Angeles full-time, but you’ll fly out once a month to help onboard the new client.

Raul Lorenzana declined more lucrative roles to spend more time with his two daughters.PHOTO: RAUL LORENZANA

In early 2020, Raul Lorenzana told himself that it was time to move up and make more money. Though he loved his job managing a restaurant in Louisiana, he enrolled in his company’s training program to become a director, a more corporate role that would require extensive travel.

Enter Covid-19. Stuck at home, Mr. Lorenzana discovered the joy of spending more time with his daughters, now three and 13, after years of working a busy, unconventional restaurant schedule.

“That year made us realize—made me realize—how little we needed to have a happy life,” he says. “Before that, it was always drive-drive-drive, push-push-push. But there was never a final number, never a goal. It was just more.”

The family crunched numbers to see what they really needed to live on. Mr. Lorenzana opted out of the training program. They moved to Houston to be closer to extended family. There, Mr. Lorenzana turned down several jobs in favor of one that paid 20%-30% less than the other offers but featured a more flexible schedule.

He took one recruiter out for tea to decline, explaining that it was a difficult decision related to his family, not the opportunity. He followed up with a formal letter to his contacts at the company, praising the process and the recruiter’s interactions with him.

“I was actually scared of it. If I get too far up the ladder, what’s expected of me, how could I be with my family?” he says.

If you can, bow out early in a search process, or mention your hesitation upfront, says Paul Pompeo, a recruiter based in Carlsbad, Calif. Bringing up concerns could eliminate you from consideration, but there’s also a chance being transparent would prompt the company to tweak the role in a way that makes it your dream job. The worst possible outcome is to have your “no” come as a total shock after rounds of interviews, he says. That makes you more likely to burn a bridge with that company, or even in the industry at large.

Christine Alemany was initially annoyed when a candidate turned down the marketing role she was offering at a technology company years ago. But the woman had been candid about how conflicted she felt about switching industries, and Ms. Alemany says she appreciated the honesty. That created a trust between them, she says, so she left the door open, telling the candidate to contact her if she changed her mind.

The candidate did, and Ms. Alemany felt comfortable accepting her “yes.” The two went on to work together for several years, says Ms. Alemany, who now runs her own marketing firm in New York City.

For Felami Burgess, a top leadership opportunity collided with concerns about burnout and flexibility.PHOTO: MARIE LAURE-ROUX

Saying no to an opportunity can be agonizing when it shatters longtime aspirations. For years, Felami Burgess, who works as a media-studies professor and runs her own production company, dreamed of ascending to a C-suite role at another organization. After spending much of the pandemic caring for her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, she began applying for jobs this spring. Soon, she was four interviews deep in the running to oversee a nonprofit in Pennsylvania.

“This is an executive-leadership role. I can do this,” she told herself. But as she prepared presentations and travelled from her home in New York to meet with the board, she began to worry about a move to a new state, the possibility of burning out and less flexibility to care for her mother.

Last month, she drafted a note to the directors, telling them she couldn’t continue with the process. As she pressed send, she began to tremble, she says, and then cry. Would an opportunity like this come again? For now, she’s holding fast to the belief that there’s nothing wrong with taking a career timeout.

“It is OK to put your mental health and well-being above all else, above money, above position, above obligation,” she says. “We certainly are free to change our minds.”

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: August 15, 2022.


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What’s still keeping American workers out of the office?

At a time when restaurants, planes and concert arenas are packed to the rafters, office buildings remain half full. Thinly populated cubicles and hallways are straining downtown economies and, bosses say, fragmenting corporate cultures as workers lose a sense of engagement.

Yet workers say high costs, caregiving duties, long commutes and days still scheduled full of Zooms are keeping them at home at least part of the time, along with a lingering sense that they’re able to do their jobs competently from anywhere. More than a dozen workers interviewed by The Wall Street Journal say they can’t envision returning to a five-day office routine, even if they’re missing career development or winding up on the company layoff list.

Managers say they will renew the push to get employees back into offices later this year. The share of companies planning to keep office attendance voluntary, rather than mandatory, is dropping, according to a survey released in May of more than 200 corporate real-estate executives conducted by property-services firm CBRE, one of the largest managers of U.S. office space.

A battle of wills could be ahead. The gap between what employees and bosses want remains wide, with bosses expecting in-person collaboration and workers loath to forgo flexibility, according to monthly surveys of worker sentiment maintained by Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University economist who studies remote work.

Escalating expenses

One reason workers say they’re reluctant to return is money. Some who have lost remote-work privileges said they are spending hundreds, or in some cases thousands, of dollars each month on meals, commutes and child care.

One supercommuter who treks to her Manhattan job from her home in Philadelphia negotiated a two-day-a-week limit to her New York office time this year. Otherwise, she said she could easily spend $10,000 a year on Amtrak tickets if she commuted five days a week.

Christos Berger, a 25-year-old mortgage-loan assistant who lives outside Washington, D.C., estimates she spends $2,100 on child care and $450 on gas monthly now that she is working up to three days a week in the office.

Berger and her husband juggled parenting duties when they were fully remote. The cost of office life has her contemplating a big ask: clearance to work from home full time.

“Companies are pushing you to be available at night, be available on weekends,” she said, adding that she feels employers aren’t taking into account parents’ need for family time.

Rachel Cottam, a 31-year-old head of content for a tech company, works full time from her home near Salt Lake City, making the occasional out-of-town trip to headquarters. She used to be a high-school teacher, spending weekdays in the classroom. Back then, she and her husband spent $100 a week on child care and $70 a week on gas. Now they save that money. She even let her car insurance company know she no longer commutes and they knocked $5 a month off the bill.

Friends who have been recalled to offices tell Cottam about the added cost of coffee, lunch and beauty supplies. They also talk about the emotional cost they feel from losing work flexibility.

“For them, it feels like this great ‘future of work’ they’ve been gifted is suddenly ripped away,” she said.

Parent trade-offs

If pandemic-era flexible schedules go away, a huge number of parents will drop out of the workforce, workers say.

When Meghan Skornia, a 36-year-old urban planner and married mother of an 18-month-old son, was looking for a new job last year, she weeded out job openings with strict in-office policies. Were she given such mandates, she said, she would consider becoming an independent consultant.

The firm in Portland, Ore., where Skornia now works requests one day a week in the office, but doesn’t dictate which day. The arrangement lets her spend time with her son and juggle her job duties, she said. “If I were in the office five days a week, I wouldn’t really ever see my son, except for weekends.”

Emotional labor

For some, coming into the office means donning a mask to fit in.

Kenneth Thomas, 42, said he left his investment-firm job in the summer of 2021 when the company insisted that workers return to the office full time. Thomas, who describes himself as a 6-foot-2 Black man, said managing how he was perceived—not slipping into slang or inadvertently appearing threatening through body language—made the office workday exhausting. He said that other professionals of colour have told him they feel similarly isolated at work.

“When I was working from home, it freed up so much of my mental bandwidth,” he said. His current job, treasurer of a green-energy company, allows him to work remotely two or three days a week.

Lost productivity

The longer the commute, the less likely workers are to return to offices.

Ryan Koch, a Berkeley, Calif., resident, went to his San Francisco office two days a week as required late last year, but then he let his attendance slide, because commuting to an office felt pointless. “I’m doing the same video calls that I can be doing at home,” he said.

Koch, who works in sales, said his nonattendance wasn’t noted so long as his numbers were good. When Koch and other colleagues were unable to meet sales quotas in recent weeks, they were laid off. Ignoring the in-office requirement probably didn’t help, he said, adding he hopes to land a new hybrid role where he goes in one or two days.

Jess Goodwin, a 36-year-old media-marketing professional, turned down an offer to go from freelance to full time earlier this year because the role required office time and no change in pay.

Goodwin said a manager “made it really clear that this is what they’re mandating right now and it could change in the future to ‘you have to be back in five days a week.’”

Goodwin, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., calculated that subway commutes to Midtown Manhattan would consume more than 150 hours annually, in addition to time spent getting ready for work.

Goodwin’s holding out for a better offer. She said she would consider a hybrid position if it came with a generous package and good commute, adding: “And I would also probably need something in my contract being like, ‘We’re not going to increase the number of days you have to come in.’”


Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual

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