Gets, Regrets, and Good Decisions: Jobs I’ve Said No To

by Stephanie Stern

I did a slew of informational interviews right after college, because I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do except that it could be “something related to the environment.” To my surprise, one of these interviews led to a job offer. Even though I didn’t know what kind of job wanted, I knew I didn’t want this job. It was an environmental compliance job and I’d be poring through tedious documents and learning the nuances of the California Environmental Quality Act.

“But honey,” my mom pleaded, “you just need a job.”

My friend Lessie had a similar experience: an offer to work in the approximate field she wanted, but with a weird office environment. She was offered the job and said no without any hesitation. For the both of us, rejecting these opportunities was easy — not because we had better things lined up, but because we were still young and hopeful. Luckily, we both landed better jobs within a few months.

There are many reasons to say no to an offer. Sometimes it’s not a good fit; the position isn’t exciting, the company culture isn’t right, or the salary is too low. Sometimes, after going through the interview process and envisioning what your life will look like in the position (that you’ve yet to accept), your real priorities become clear. I’ve had a few opportunities to say no to job offers, which I recognize is an enormous privilege, and it hasn’t always been a good thing. There are a few types of jobs that I’ve said no to:

The One that Got Away

Saying no means an opportunity passed up, with the potential for regret. I have a job that I think of as The One That Got Away. Every so often, usually on the train home after a bad day at work, I daydream about what could have been if I’d said yes to this offer.

I rejected the One That Got Away many years ago, when I was only a couple of years into my career. I was working at an energy consulting company at the time, but yearning for more creative work. The job offer was at a design and advertising company, and it held the potential for a major career shift. As I was contemplating the offer, my coworker left and I took over her responsibilities, leading a major project. I ended up saying no to the creative work, and took the promotion instead. Although things have worked out fine, every so often, I can’t help but wonder … what if?

The One I Should Have Said No To

Then there are the jobs that we wish we’d said no to. After grad school, I was underemployed and still — with several years of work experience and a masters degree — figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. I decided to try my hand at environmental mediation. I contacted a school alum and he seemed thrilled to have me help out, and had a particular project in mind.

My trek out to his inconvenient office to meet with him was unpleasant. I was running late and ran into bike problems. I was sweaty and grumpy when I arrived, but put on false cheer and got through the interview. I was too busy clinging to my last shred of agreeableness to notice what I was agreeing to. All of a sudden, I’d committed to making this trek twice a week for no pay, but the chance to see what the business was like and maybe put my name on a publication.

I cried when I got home.

I couldn’t tease apart why I was crying: I had started off in a bad mood, so it might have been nothing, or just the legitimately depressing feeling of being an unpaid intern at the age of 30. I overrode my gut and got myself to the office twice weekly, where I would sit behind a computer almost as old as me and chip away at revising a paper on a facilitated process to designate marine areas. Often, it was just me and the administrative assistant and I saw very little of what the work of mediation actually looked like.

My determination to make it work gave me enough momentum to finish a first draft of the paper. I quit after a few months. I’d learned little and had little to show, other than a firm belief that my gut had really known best.

The Big Opportunity

Recently, someone I used to work with called. “I’ll cut to the chase, are you happy at your job?” she asked. She wanted me to join her growing company. It was a thrilling opportunity with the potential to own part of the business and have a say in the kind of new work we took on, and one that made my palms sweat and my stomach queasy.

After the debacle with the mediator, I knew to give my gut some say in decision. After thinking it through, and talking the ears off of many friends and family members, I said no. It was clear to me that this was a great opportunity to help grow a new organization. It was exciting and full of potential, but could easily overrun my life. My gut was telling me that this job wasn’t where I wanted to pour my time and mental energy.

Weighing this offer against my current job has made me appreciate what I have. That was three weeks ago, and since then, my work has been more interesting, I’ve felt more grateful to be here, and felt more confident in myself.

Saying no to a job can feel empowering: you are wanted, but also in charge of your own fate. Of course, saying no should be considering carefully, and done politely. You don’t want to burn bridges with people in your field since, really, you never know when people are going to pop back up.

Make sure to thank your rejected employer, let them know that you were excited about some part of the offer (like working with them, or being a part of the organization), but that you need to decline. Some explanation is good, but it can be minimal — “I’ve decided this isn’t the right time in my career for this opportunity” or “There are still opportunities at my current position that I want to explore.” If it’s true, it’s nice to say that you’d like to work with them again in the future.

Readers — what jobs have you said no to? Any regrets or good stories?

“The Grindstone” is a series about how we work today by Billfold writers Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern. Looking for advice? Want to see a specific issue covered in the future? You can email them here.

Steph Stern works in energy and environmental policy in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about careers and life choices at Small Answers (or follow on Twitter: @smallanswers).

Photo: Kevin Dooley