Turning Down a Job While Unemployed

jobs-for-students-stubsToday I made the hard decision to turn down a job offer. I mean, in a sense it wasn’t all that hard because I suspected that I would probably turn it down if things played out as I expected, which they did. But it was still a decision I agonized over in the moment of making it, sweating profusely in my car in the parking lot after a different job interview, furiously texting my partner agonized reflections one sentence at a time (I’m lucky to have a great support in her, and despite being in the middle of a meeting she did her best to respond).

It’s hard to turn down a job when you’re unemployed. Though I’m still collecting some money via unemployment, this job would have paid me far more than UI does and certainly given our savings and my FIRE plans a nice immediate boost.

I thoroughly enjoyed the people I spoke with in my interview, and in many ways this was a great job. However, it wasn’t the right job for me, and I said no. I think it was the right thing to do.

Hunting for a job while unemployed can be tricky business with competing incentives. To the outside world, it seems like you have a near infinite amount of time, but to you, there remains the same amount as before, only unstructured and without the pre-assigned purpose that makes a workday feel “complete.” The only purpose your days have is to work towards getting a job, a task so amorphous that it can feel impossible to know if you made enough progress for it to “count.”

Today, over the course of two interviews, I came face to face with one of the hard questions of unemployment, namely: When do you stop thinking about long term prospects (career development, salary) and start thinking about short term needs (primarily money). This is a question whose answer will vary greatly based on a variety of factors unique to a given situation. The fact is that at some point you stop thinking about the cushy office job in your field with great benefits (or whatever you’re looking for) and start wallpapering the mall with your resume because you just can’t afford to be unemployed anymore, whether financially, psychologically, or because your resume is getting so stale it’s starting to grow mold.

The first job I interviewed for had good, routine work that I could handle, if not quite in my field. The interview went extremely well. The people I spoke with were lovely and I think I would have enjoyed working with them. The pay, as I said, was sufficient to be helpful. It was a contract gig, but there was every indication that if I did my job well I’d have my contract extended, potentially indefinitely. It was a good job, and I’m thankful to the recruiter who sent the tip my way.

Only a few hours later, I had a second interview with another company I had found myself for a full-time position at a higher rate of pay and in my desired field. I also enjoyed meeting my interviewer and felt our conversation went well, but not necessarily better than numerous previous interviews that had failed to get me a second interview, let alone a job offer. Coming to this without a personal referral, I have to think the odds are decently less than 50% I end up with this job. It would be a gamble.

The first job would have met my short term needs wonderfully. Great work environment, good company brand for keeping the resume fresh, plus you know, they would pay me for my time. But I didn’t know where I would go from there. To put this in a little perspective, the recruiting agency had scheduled me to simultaneously interview with another job-seeker, an arrangement that felt odd to me as soon as I learned there was only one job to be had. Nonetheless, we both interviewed, and in chatting afterwards I learned she was a recent college graduate. It was validating that I was chosen first, but to me taking this job would have been reminiscent of the stories that came out in 2009 and 2010 about laid off people with years of experience scooping up so many entry level jobs due to the bad market that college grads were plumb out of luck.

This is a perfect job for a recent grad – good resume building company, a rate of pay I didn’t achieve (in part due to a rather casual approach to my early career) until I’d been working for three years. But it’s not 2010, and it’s not a bad market, and I am betting I don’t have to take this step backwards and simultaneously rob my competition of her launching pad. This has been a good week for my job prospects (see interview #2) and I’m lucky enough to be in a solid enough financial position right now that I can still take the long view and aim a little higher. If I’m still unemployed in six months, or a year, or longer, well, the math changes. This is my first experience working with a recruiter, but I’m also inclined to think these entry-level kind of chances will continue spring up from time to time. Hopefully I’m not naive in thinking that.

In the end, I’m betting on myself. With luck, it’s an investment that will pay off.

One last point I want to address – there’s a little part of me that could feel selfish for taking the first interview when I suspected I might turn it down. I have two rebuttals for myself that I want to share with you in case you ever have the same feeling. First, if you’re not sure, always get the job before you turn it down – you never know how you’ll feel after the interview, and there are stories floating out there about people who interview for one job and end up getting a better one they didn’t know was even available. Second, they gave me until the end of the day (at most) to give a commitment… hence why I couldn’t even have a proper conversation with my partner in my home. I knew if they did that I would most likely turn them down, but if they had given more time, it’s possible the landscape could have shifted and I well might have taken it.



Filed under Work

2 responses to “Turning Down a Job While Unemployed

  1. Stevie Wonders

    Exploding job offers should be illegal. Hope it doesn’t hurt your UI benefits. When I started work, exploding offers were unheard of. Their usage makes me incredibly suspicious.

    Curious whether you would have declined the offer not knowing the circumstances of your competitor. Did she get the offer?

    I agree it rarely makes sense to turn down an interview, even if just for the practice, which most of us need as much of as possible. I’ve found it impossible to judge how you are doing in an interview (short of a blatant screwup), I treat them all like lottery tickets.

    I have several involuntary gaps in my work history. Aside from the money anxiety and dreariness of the job search, found them rather enjoyable. That is how I know I will love retirement!


    • Hi Stevie – thanks for dropping by the blog.

      It’s interesting that you bring up UI, because it did have an impact, and I considered blogging about it (still might). I had no idea that by simply taking the interview I would put my benefits at risk, and had I known it certainly would have been a competing counter to the “may as well see what the interview is like” argument. Fortunately I wasn’t too harmed, but there was a cost in both time/money to sort it out. That’s a really good term for what it was: an exploding job offer.

      In the end I think my declining was mostly about me – my competitor helped me put things in perspective, but I probably would have turned it down anyway. I was told that the job was going to one of us, so if I said no, the other person would be called. I’ll never know for sure though, because that recruiter never once got in touch or even returned my calls after I left a message explaining my decision… could have just been applying pressure I suppose. Hadn’t really considered that until now.

      The lottery ticket mindset feels pretty spot-on to me. And glad to hear you’ve been able to enjoy some aspects of being out of work, even when involuntary!


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