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Declining an Offer Does Not Necessarily End the Conversation

As a new parent, there are these unanticipated moments of unbridled delight: when a baby grasps a finger with his or her palm, seeing a toddler stand, or uttering their first words. While most parents long to hear mama and papa, whatever one gets is a delight. 

Of those first words, “no” is among the first. And of the many words, it is an escalation as it proves concepts are being exchanged. It often leads to a game of deduction, parents test offering hoping to find out what an infant desires. Is it the keys? No! Perhaps the spoon? No!

But soon, hearing “No!” metamorphoses into a defiant call. It is stamped out by refusing to put on clothes when one is late out the door. And it is the clarion to do battle after being instructed to turn off the tablet.

Sleep-deprived, young parents carry their frustration into the workplace. As an HR manager with a toddler, hearing “No!” after selecting a candidate from the shortlist feels like a betrayal. After all, this is the candidate that from all indications was keen on the job and who, everybody in the company agreed, was a sound bet to hire.

Having invested in such a candidate who had signalled her willingness, being rejected after a month of negotiating at first glance felt like entitled arrogance. While one can forgive a 3-year-old, not so if the person is 30 plus years more senior.

Lessons In A Rejection

In having an offer rejected, understanding if such is final or simply a negotiating tactic is critical. . Candidates with common sense know they should leave the door open. A Lensa article on how to decline a job offer highlights tact, honesty in why the offer is being rejected and at least identifying internally if there is a point where an offer would be acceptable.

It is also valuable to observe how the company recruiting handles a rejection.

Was there anybody particularly invested in that particular candidate? Is there willingness to review the offer, negotiate or even, question whether the company is becoming uncompetitive?

It is important to know not just what competitors are willing to offer, but how the market perceives one’s own company and brand and how that would influence not only this recruit but future candidates.

Applying Game Theory

As with other aspects of business, recruiting talent involves game theory. For many, this evokes images of the Prisoners’ Dilemma: the situation where if the two contestants both elect to cooperate with one another, without knowing if the other chooses likewise, delivers the optimum outcome for both. 

However, here the players are in different situations. The similarity though is that they do not have all the data on which to make a decision. Economists call this asymmetric information. Tim Hartford in The Underground Economist illustrated this by talking about buying a used car, or a lemon. The dealer knows which cars are in poorer condition and the buyer knows an upper spending limit. How does the buyer ensure the best deal?

A Yale Lecture on Asymmetric Information discussed this situation, noting that despite information gaps, details are still deduced by what does get communicated, While not conveying what is people instead fill in gaps and communicate how they handle the information that they do know. This, they argue, is still useful. With it, one can piece together the information they do need to make a decision. For example, what would it mean if the dealer is hedgy on offering a warranty? Or the warranty does not include transmission?

In declining an offer that, on the face of it, looked reasonable, a candidate can be providing other data that could be either used to sweeten the deal or, information on what the market is offering elsewhere.

Let us consider a second outcome. The candidate makes the briefest of replies, by phone, declining the offer, giving no reason. This could be the result of dissatisfactory salary.

What does this tell us? If anything, it is a sign that one should not have considered offering the position in the first place. Here you have a person that lacks empathy for the work of others. We all can recognize the work that others put into our work. If one then chooses another path despite the efforts of others, common courtesy dictates acknowledgement and some gratitude. 

And what if the Candidate explains that s/he received a better offer? If it is left vague, then this could be an opportunity to find out what was better: the working hours, benefits, salary? This leaves open room for more discussion.

Perhaps as a policy, the company cannot consider amending an offer, but still, it is important to know on what basis the job was declined. 

Thinking Outside the Box

Sometimes the reasoning is less to do with compensation and more to do with the way a candidate might be employed. In the instance that prompted this piece, it turned out that the candidate did not want to be full-time and felt that that was the only thing on offer.

In this particular case, the rejection was gracefully written. That alone suggested that the candidate did not want to burn any bridges. If anything, the ambiguity as to why she could not accept begged us to reach out to understand. 

Our first thought was that our competitor was more alluring. Though we thought our offer was competitive, perhaps the market had moved on. But in talking to her, it was not about money nor our place in the market. Our earnest desire to know what was missing engendered more trust.

It turned out that for her, given her internal need to be loyal she felt conflicted. She and her fiancee wanted to start a family, and as it was a taboo topic, we never explored alternatives. 

But there was an easy way to redress this. We pivoted to offering a contingent worker position with medical benefits. Given the way we operate, we could easily furlough her and she would not feel that she had misled us.

In Hindsight

It is a strange aspect of the way we approach things that we try to model what others are thinking. We use it to fill in the gaps when others speak and we are not paying full attention, or when we laugh at a joke, as stereotypes of what we thought was happening gets up-ended. 

Taking “no” for an answer does not need to be the final word, whether it is with a toddler or somebody declining an offer. Whether you accept it is a choice.

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