Ask the Headhunter: Is this job offer for real?

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 had a phone interview with a hiring manager, then did some sample work. The manager said it was all great, and in a follow-up phone call we discussed my salary expectations and timeline. They invited me to meet them and I flew coast-to-coast for interviews with several people. Two days later, I got a phone call and I was offered the position.

It is now a week later. The job has been reposted, and instead of a written offer I received an e-mail explaining that they are interviewing one more person, and they asked for another week to get back to me.

It sounds to me that they are stringing me along, while waiting for another candidate to accept their offer, or maybe having somebody already starting and covering their tracks. What do you think?

Nick Corcodilos: I think you're probably right. They may really like you, but as their #2 or #3 candidate. They may be keeping you warm.

In today's market, many employers feel they can just keep interviewing candidates because the job boards tell them there are millions to choose from. "Just keep looking!" In the meantime, savvy people like you realize what's going on — and disappear to take another opportunity while the employer wallows in indecision.

Putting good candidates on hold is actually a common practice and by itself doesn't indicate a problem. (See "Pop Quiz: Can an employer take back a job offer?") It's just business. What is a problem is that they offered you a job, at least orally, and then welshed. Of course, a company is free to do that, but this should enter into your calculus about them. If it really bothers you that they are behaving this way, take it into account if they come back with a written offer.

Consider these three job offer gotchas:

Do you really have an offer?

Until a company gives you a written, bona fide offer, you really have no offer. (See "Get it in writing.") While I believe an oral offer should be as good as a written one, and that a person's word is their bond, this is business, and business is ultimately done in writing. When pressed, people and companies act in their self-interest. It seems this employer encountered a (possibly) better candidate, and is exercising its right to stretch out this process. I don't like it any more than you do. The takeaway is simple: Don't treat a job offer as real until you have it in writing.

Job seekers do it, too

Job seekers do what this employer has done. It cuts both ways. They change their minds when a better job offer comes along and they suddenly rescind their acceptance of a job. There's a price to be paid for this, in a person's reputation and credibility. The alternative is to stick to your promise and forego a better job or compensation. There is no easy way out. In this case, the employer is putting its reputation at risk but seems willing to do so.

Everyone wants to keep their options open

Most employers select first, second and third candidates and make offers down the line until one accepts. The employer doesn't want to be left in the lurch if #1 or #2 declines. So, prudent employers keep other candidates "warm" until the new hire shows up for work. Otherwise, they have to start the process all over again. It's why I tell job seekers to keep their own options open until they actually start a job. (See "There is no sure thing.") An employer might terminate you — even on your first day. It's not likely, but do you want to be left in the lurch? (See "Don't get fired Day #1.")

I know this all smacks of low-down, sneaky business. To the party on the receiving end, it stinks. And that's why I said you should take this company's behavior into account. (This experience might even affect how you negotiate any offer they might ultimately give you. See "How to decide how much you want.") I'm not saying you should walk away — just that you should proceed with open eyes. I've placed second-ranked candidates before and it's worked out fine. But as I said, I don't like that this employer issued an oral offer and is now putting you off.

If something I've pointed out is helpful to you, I'm glad. Use your best judgment and do the best you can in this situation! In any case, congrats on at least getting an oral offer. My best advice is to keep pursuing other jobs while you wait on this one, because two can play this game.

Dear Readers: What would you do in this situation? Is the employer at all justified about what it has done? What should the job seeker do next?

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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