Why Candidates Decline Job Offers (And What To Do About It)

Every recruiter has had, or will have, the experience of a candidate declining a job offer, contrary to everything the candidate has said or done up until that point. 

This is a very expensive failure of your recruitment process because at the time of the offer you have completed around 95% of the necessary work and have collected (if you are a contingent recruiter) precisely 0% of the fee. If your second best candidate is not to your client's liking, or if the second best candidate is not your candidate, then you either (i) have to start the whole sourcing process again (bad), or (ii) lose the placement to a competitor (really bad). 

I still shake my head thinking about the candidate (an experienced recruiter) who I had taken through three interviews, only to ring him three times (once each at work, home and mobile) to offer him the job (which was explicitly communicated in the mobile phone voicemail message I left him) and never hear back from him. I caught his eye a few years later across the room at a recruitment industry event and at least he had the good grace to pretend he hadn't seen me, saving him from a potentially embarrassing conversation. 

Why do candidates do this? 

Candidates decline jobs, almost always, because they have doubts about some aspect of the position (eg duties, remuneration, reporting manager, reporting line, peers, colleagues, etc) or doubts about some aspect of the company (eg size, location, industry, financial success etc). Candidates know that expressing doubts is not helpful to their chances of becoming the preferred candidate. 

In most instances the candidate never had a strong likelihood of accepting the job but the recruiter optimistically ploughed ahead with the process, hoping that these doubts would prove to be unjustified. 

As a result they generally keep these doubts to themselves. It's human nature that a person would prefer to be in the ‘power' position of declining a job offer rather than being ruled out of the running by the employer or recruiter due to another suitable candidate expressing greater enthusiasm for the role. Candidates typically want to keep as many (close-to-suitable) job options open for as long as possible. 

It's likely the declined offer could have been prevented by the recruiter asking the candidate a more searching set of questions, both right at the beginning of the recruitment process and also during the recruitment process. 

Here are some pre-suppositions that I always found helped me to avoid the ‘turned down offer' scenario: 

  1. All candidates are susceptible to a counter offer, no matter what they might say to you at the first interview.
    My recommended action: After an offer is accepted, role-play the counter offer conversation so you know exactly how equipped the candidate is to effectively handle a counter offer should it occur.
  2. The closer to the offer the recruitment process gets, the more likely it is that the preferred candidate will raise their salary expectations.
    My recommended action:
    At each stage of the recruitment process, re-confirm the candidate's agreement to the salary discussed at the beginning of the process.
  3. Candidates don't seriously consider their resignation conversation until they actually have an offer.
    My recommended action
    : At your initial interview test the candidate as follows: ‘You have clearly been successful in your current job and I suspect your boss would be very reluctant to see you leave. What would you do if you resigned and were then offered a pay rise of $15,000 to stay?' (Pick a figure about 15% above their current remuneration).
  4. Candidates won't tell you about other job opportunities they are pursuing unless you ask (and even then, they probably won't tell you the whole truth).
    My recommended action:
    At regular intervals ask the candidate ‘What other opportunities are you waiting to hear on?' (Always assume they have other opportunities).
  5. Candidates will forget to tell you about relevant changes in their circumstances (eg received a pay rise or promotion etc).
    My recommended action
    : At regular intervals ask the candidate ‘Has anything changed at work or at home that is relevant to your job search?'

    Also ask every single candidate who is in a permanent job when their next salary review is occurring and what increase they are expecting to receive. Then make a note in your schedule to call, just after the nominated salary review time, to ask the candidate what happened at their review.

    The outcome of a salary review can often mean, either the candidate now has greater motivation for leaving (if the outcome was disappointing) or less motivation for leaving (if the outcome was better than expected).
  6. The less responsive to your calls and other forms of contact a candidate becomes, the greater the chance they won't take the job.
    My recommended action:
    Always leave a time/day by when you want them to get back to you and always be specific about the reason for your call. Also given them additional contact options (eg ‘If it's easier to text me then do so, or a LinkedIn message is also fine').
  7. When offered the job, if the candidate wants to ‘think about it' or ‘see the offer in writing', then there is a very strong chance they have a competing offer, have an offer pending or they will use the offer to gain a pay rise in their current job.
    My recommended action:
    Always respectfully press the candidate on what they want to ‘think about' so you can address their concern (they must have a concern or hesitation, otherwise they would have already accepted the job). 

Pre-suppositions are statements that are not necessarily always true however it's to your advantage to act as if they are true. When you act as if each of the above is always true then you dramatically reduce the chances that any assumptions you make about candidate behaviour (either consciously or unconsciously) will de-rail a potential placement towards the end of a recruitment process.


Views: 25394

Comment by Linda Ferrante on January 14, 2014 at 11:37am

I think the one thing missing in the article is that recruiters should develop relationships with their candidates.  Open, honest relationships where they can talk about everything from the yes's to the no's and the maybe's.  If your candidate doesn't feel comfortable talking to you (trusting you), then much of this information will be missed.  Throughout our entire recruiting process we are discussing things before moving forward.  Salary is discussed more than once.  Responsibilities are discussed more than once.  Counter offers are discussed more than once.  

Because of our recruiting process, we rarely, and I mean rarely (hasn't happened in the past 24 months) have a candidate not a accept the offer once it is made.  If there are questions along the way, or 'doubts' as you say, we are discussing them.  If the doubts linger and we can't figure it out, we halt the recruiting process.  

The end result has to make sense to both parties. If one side is hesitating, we take it off the table.  We strive for win-win for everyone and moving forward when both parties aren't 100% on board can be futile.  Let's save the heartache and stop the process.

Quite honestly, we don't 'act' like the suppositions in the article are true, we ask the questions and find out what is going on, then respond accordingly.  

Comment by Keith D. Halperin on January 14, 2014 at 12:12pm

@ Ross: This is excellent! While I'm familiar and agree with what you've said, you've added much more valuable information, which I'm going to save. An additional point that I use to lock in deals is to (whenever possible) NOT send out written offers, but send out written acknowledgements of the verbal acceptance of an offer. A written offer is like a hunting license a candidate can use to further their own interests. Fundamentally: we should perform complete due diligence in asking questions and communicating with candidates, just as you've said.  ... I recently had an interesting scenario where a candidate accepted on the basics, and continued to negotiate on little things here and there after. We got him- it was frustrating.

Comment by Ross Clennett on January 14, 2014 at 8:19pm

@Linda - thanks for your feedback. I agree. Of course the recruiter-candidate relationship is vital, that is a given. None of my suggestions are likely to be consistently effective if the recruiter hasn't built rapport with the candidate to begin with. The point of my article is to provide suggestions as to how that relationship can be enhanced. A professional recruiter should be able to build the candidate's respect, and thereby strengthen the relationship and maximize the likelihood of a win/win/win outcome, when they act in the way I have suggested.

@keith - thanks for your feedback. I really like your suggestion of a written acknowledgement of a verbal acceptance. I'll definitely pinch that idea - thanks!

Comment by Keith D. Halperin on January 14, 2014 at 8:58pm

Thanks, Ross. Some people disagree with this approach and have decent reasons, but I was taght this and think it helps. Please keep blogging!


Comment by Steven Guine on January 15, 2014 at 12:26pm

While all of this is recruiting 101, it is a great idea to review, even for a seasoned veteran.

A recruiter who is alert will see the signs and ask more probing questions. This will reveal that the candidate has a competing offer, was using the job search as an exercise as leverage for a raise at their current company or is waiting for an offer from their number one choice.

I learned in my first year as a recruiter that the close begins with the first phone call. All subsequent contact with the candidate is part of the logical process which culminates in an offer and acceptance. When the process is followed properly, the desired (and expected) results will follow.

Human nature does not change with candidates. They betray themselves whether it is over the phone or in person. Be alert and ask questions is always the best policy.

Thanks for a great read.

Comment by Daren J. Mongello on January 15, 2014 at 5:39pm

So wouldn't it make sense to have this conversation with a prospective candidate before the sendout?

Something like: 
Dude....all I ask is that you be straight with me. If, after the X interview, you dont want the role....just tell me... and I will pull the plug. This is about YOU. I love you. I want YOU to be happy. Dont be THAT guy who turns in the "Im a pussy" routine and avoid my calls or emails because you think I cant handle what you think is bad news. This is not bad news. Cancer is bad news. You turning down an opportunity is not going to affect OUR relationship. OK? You and me? We're besties!!

And look....if its not THIS gig....it will be the next....so what ever you have to say....just say it. Be the man I think you are and WORK with me.

What do you think....Is that something you can do? (PAUSE) 
Are you SURE? (PAUSE)


Now obviously....you want to make it your own. But the point is....address potential turndowns NOW.
Make LIGHT of it ....make FUN of it....(hey...it aint cancer) ....and set up expectations BEFORE the sendout / offer.

Here's ANOTHER reason why they don't call you to reject the offer: they associate YOU with the OFFER. And that's YOUR fault. Untether YOURSELF from the JOB your pimping so candidates can be HONEST with you.  

Make sense? 

Comment by Keith D. Halperin on January 15, 2014 at 7:12pm

Another course of advice would be to *never go after anyone good enough to HAVE another offer- that'll take care of things.....


*If you're a run-of-the-mill company going after people with much-in-demand skill-sets, you may be unintentionally doing this already...

Comment by Daren J. Mongello on January 15, 2014 at 7:23pm


That's the thing that's bugging me. What if you have TWO clients waiting on offers for this candidate? 
I would imagine said candidate wouldn't disengage you, right?
Unless BOTH were inferior to a third?

I used to take it personally....like it was my fault when the candidate flaked...or didn't show on the first day....or disappeared after the 2nd week. And I would feel awful. Now? Roll with it and preclose the backup candidate. 

This is a crazy business. 

Comment by Keith D. Halperin on January 15, 2014 at 10:49pm

@ Darren: Yep. Can't speak to that any more- haven't done contingency for a long -time

Comment by Kelly Blokdijk on January 16, 2014 at 12:43am

Interesting post. Since everyone else seems to be responding from a TPR perspective, I will add a few (hypothetical) observations representing the candidate side. 

First: yeah. I'll play along to see where this goes. You are not my BFF and I am smart enough to know you are far more inclined to be calculating your potential commission from this placement than concerned about my career progression. As far as I know you have submitted other candidates to this client and have your fingers crossed that they pick any of them. 

Second: As a respectful candidate, I will compliantly answer all of your clients random interview questions as I ponder whether or not I would feel comfortable spending +/-60 hours a week with someone that wants to know what my favorite vegetable is so they can assess "how I think, solve problems and deal with ambiguous situations" FML!!!! 

Third: I didn't humor you and have no intention of playing games by waiting to see if I get an offer only to accept a counter offer from my current employer. If I subjected myself to any of the above nonsense it is because I AM ready to move along to something, somewhere new. However, that doesn't mean I will be easily enticed if I don't see significant upside compared to my current situation. Your job is to know what that looks like and make it happen. 

Fourth: Accepting or declining an offer involves a tremendous amount of emotion and evaluation. (BTW: getting an offer in writing is not an unreasonable request, it is what any prudent business person would expect). Sometimes it truly does come down to gut feel. It may be a an uneasiness with something subtle (or several red flags) along the way or a major deal-breaker due to how something in the final offer negotiation was handled. 

Finally, due to being conditioned as a candidate to not get too invested in any single opportunity, by the time things get serious is when I still wonder what happens if they really like me and make an offer, but I'm still stuck in the mode of I've shown you mine, but got gypped on seeing yours? By this point I'm going to look foolish when I admit I need more time or more information to make sure this is the right fit for me... After all I didn't get a chance to ask what kind of vegetable the hiring manager is. 

THAT is where the opportunity to develop trust and rapport comes in! Rather than take the position that your candidate is going to jerk you around at the last minute, make sure you are thinking about what they are going through during this process. 

~KB @TalentTalks 


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