Ask the Headhunter: Can an employer take back my job offer?

BY Nick Corcodilos  August 5, 2014 at 10:25 AM EST
Don't withdraw your outstanding job applications until two weeks into the job you've accepted, says headhunter Nick Cordcodilos. Photo by Flickr user marsmet473a.

Don’t withdraw your outstanding job applications until two weeks into the job you’ve accepted, says headhunter Nick Cordcodilos. Photo by Flickr user marsmet473a.

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979, and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

In this special Making Sense edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards, or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.


Question: I received a job offer from a large, well-known and respected company. I have a misdemeanor criminal conviction from 11 years ago. I told the headhunter about the conviction. I put it in the application before my interview. I put it in the e-application for the background check. I even discussed it with the HR person who was giving me the offer.

After discussing the conviction, she extended me a verbal offer. At the end of the call, I accepted the offer. She welcomed me to the team and said I would get all the details after the background check clears. After the phone call, I turned down a competing job offer from another company and told my headhunters that I am no longer on the job market.

Less than an hour later, the HR person called me back and said she had to withdraw the offer because my three-year probation was cleared six years ago. Since that’s less than the company’s policy permits — seven years — I am ineligible for the job. The company’s security regulations would prevent me from gaining access to their campus.

The job posting required that the applicant qualify for a government secret clearance. I was just honorably discharged from the military, where I held a secret clearance that I was able to renew after my misdemeanor conviction.

It seems quite unethical to extend an offer before assuring that the information that I provided multiple times wasn’t an issue. This should have been caught well before I got the interview. Is this legal?

Nick Corcodilos: We’ve discussed rescinded offers before, but your experience raises some new issues. (For a discussion about the legalities, please see “What To Do When Your Job Offer Is Cancelled.”) Let’s ask a few questions:

  • Did HR give you the shaft?
  • What went wrong?
  • How could this situation have been handled better?

Here’s how I see it.

HR blew it.

While it was nice of the enthusiastic HR person to give you the offer on the phone, she jumped the gun when she “welcomed you to the team.” You weren’t on the team yet, and she had no business implying you were. Someone needs to call her on the carpet.

The HR person tipped you off.

The key to this entire unfortunate episode lies in this sentence: “She welcomed me to the team and said I will get all the details after the background check clears.” That meant she made you a contingent offer. It was not bona fide. That is, it was dependent on the background check. In other words, you had no offer to act on.

You jumped the gun.

I always tell job applicants who “get an offer” to never, ever, ever resign their old job too quickly. You didn’t quit another job, but my advice is the same:

  1. Make sure you have a bona fide, written offer signed by an official of the company.
  2. Have a start date and make sure HR has scheduled your orientation meeting.
  3. If possible, talk to your new boss to ensure there’s no confusion about your being hired, and obtain all necessary documentation from the employer to confirm that you’ve been hired.
  4. Don’t turn off other opportunities or interviews until two weeks after you’ve started the new job. That’s the fail-safe in case something goes wrong.

If any of that sounds extreme, so is what happened to you. While odds are pretty good that a job offer will turn out fine, consider the enormity of the consequences if anything goes wrong. That’s why no one should do what you did. (See “There is no sure thing.”)

You did the right thing, again and again.

You disclosed, from the start and throughout the interview process, that you had a misdemeanor conviction. That takes guts, and it was the smart thing to do. The company had an obligation to be as candid with you, and to disclose its policy about hiring people convicted of crimes.

But somebody didn’t do their job.

As soon as this employer learned about your conviction, HR should have pulled out its policy book and mapped it to your situation before making you an offer. Especially because you were so candid and forthright about your problem, HR should have had the background check completed sooner.

I think the HR person should have even gone so far as to advise you not to take any other action until the check was confirmed. She should be on the hook, but you’re the one who got hurt because you rejected another job offer and notified the headhunters that you’re no longer a candidate for a job.

This company’s HR practices are also on the hook, and they need to be gutted and cleaned. Poor HR practices are what make HR executives scream, “There’s a talent shortage!” Well, here’s the talent, fresh out of the military, worthy of a job offer, but… isn’t an honorable discharge and a fresh secret clearance enough to merit more careful treatment when the company is looking at an applicant who qualifies for a secret clearance?

All employers need to take a good, hard look at their HR practices while they complain that good talent is not easy to come by.

Dear Readers: Has an employer ever given you a job offer, then rescinded it? Why? What was the reason? What did you do? What’s your take on this reader’s experience?


Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “How Can I Change Careers?”, “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

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