A bird in the hand: Whether to take a job or wait for a better offer

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It's a classic dilemma that most job seekers face at least once in their lives: Should I take the job that is offered now or wait for a better one? While it would be nice if there was an easy and accurate Magic-8 Ball answer to the question — it is decidedly so, very doubtful, etc. — there is, unfortunately, rarely a clear or even 'right' path to take.

To help job seekers who may find themselves struggling to make this decision, we spoke with career management experts as well as people who have personally wrestled with this question in order to identify strategies to help you solve the dilemma and take action.

It’s a good problem to have

Nancy Ingram, president of Foot in the Door Consulting observes, “If you are being offered multiple interview opportunities in a relatively short time period, this shows that your job search strategy is working for you and that you have skills and experience that are of value to potential employers.” In other words, if you have a job offer to consider at all, it’s a good problem to have.

“Rob” is an IT professional in Alberta who recently received a job offer at the same time as another organization asked him to apply for his dream job. He made it clear to the second organization that he had an offer on the table, but ultimately had to turn down the first job before knowing whether the second organization would actually make him an offer. Ultimately, Rob did wind up getting an offer from the second organization and is now happily employed.

Unfortunately, most job searches don’t result in multiple same-day offers. Far more realistically, like in Rob's case, a job seeker may receive one job offer while waiting to hear back from other potential employers. Being able to evaluate a job offer is a critical skill for today’s professional, says Harvard Business School professor, Boris Groysburg, and yet it may be an underdeveloped skill for many people.

Map it out

It helps to have a clear understanding of where you want to be and how a potential job will contribute to your career plan. Phil Gérard, president of Gérard Consulting says job seekers sometimes think they should send out as many applications as possible so they can choose between offers but that can actually over complicate a job search. Instead, he suggests being as strategic as possible. “Ask yourself what organizations, causes and part of the sector you want to work with. Try to articulate your ultimate career goal and the role that is your ideal next step. Answering these questions helps you avoid a situation of being offered a job you don’t want.”

Ingram has clients “become really clear on what is attracting them to the position and how this position will fit in and support their career goals.” She asks her clients to rate their level of passion for the type of position and what they would get to do; their level of passion for the organization; their level of passion for the issue; the level of fit this job has with their short-term goals; and the level of fit this job has with their long-term goals. Acknowledging that some criteria may be more important to a job seeker than others, Ingram says, “this reflection exercise should give you a clearer sense on whether this current opportunity will contribute enough to the different goals and needs you have in order to pursue it.”

Interestingly, one job seeker recently commented in a Daily Muse article, “...if you don’t have a good sense of what your dream job is...consider accepting a job that may not be everything you’re looking for, but could give you good insight into things you do and don’t like about the workplace.”

Our job seeker Rob used this strategic approach after once, in a previous job search, simply taking the first job offer. “This time, I was selective about who I was applying to. Job seekers need to be picky: decide what you want, select those you want and don’t settle.”

Rob also made use of social media to build connections and spread the word about what he was looking for. Groysberg suggests job seekers also use social media to investigate potential employers, see who their colleagues are, what they say about the organization and what the organization's culture is like.

Anne Melanson, President, Bloom Non Profit Consulting Group Inc. agrees with the need to objectively map out and research a job search process. “You get in trouble when you use a random reactionary job seeking process. People are far less fearful of taking on a new position if they believe it is taking them in the right direction.”

Fear Factor

Fear is probably the biggest driver for the question of whether or not to take a job. It comes back to the old adage: a bird in the hand is worth more than two in the bush. Gérard says, “The fear is that maybe there won’t be another offer.” Rob faced this in his prior position: “I was in a panic because my wife was on maternity leave when I lost my job. We were a zero-income family so I took the first offer that came along.”

Another fear that can plague job candidates is FOMO (fear of missing out): the anxiety that arises when a person fears that something more exciting or positive is happening but that they aren’t part of it. When it comes to a job search, a candidate offered a job that isn’t their dream job may worry that as soon as they do accept the job, a better offer will materialize.

To this fear, John Lees, author of How to Get a Job You’ll Love, says, “You can’t compare to fantastical, theoretical possibilities. You need to be realistic about what is likely to come down the line.” Gérard adds, “If you’re just starting out, you can’t expect to land the coolest job with the coolest organization but if it’s a job that will help you move closer to your dream job, take it and make the best of it.”

Job seekers can also fear making a mistake. Gérard advises people to use the interview process as an opportunity to honestly assess whether an organization feels like the right environment for them, whether they can get excited about the work and whether they have a good dynamic with their potential supervisor. Melanson tells people in this dilemma: “If you’re excited about the job and can commit to at least three years, consider taking it.” But, she adds, “you can always change a job so don’t be paralyzed by the fear of taking the risk.”

Ingram reminds job seekers, “In almost all employment contracts there is a probationary period, which is meant to be a time for both the employer and employee to try each other on for fit. Either can terminate the agreement with appropriate notice within this period and this would be perfectly professional and acceptable.”

What if I need to make rent?

There’s a significant difference between fears and needs, says Melanson. “If you need to work, aren’t working and a job offer is your only option (and likely your only imminent option), you’d be foolhardy not to take it.”

Gérard advises candidates to set a specific timeline for finding their ideal next job, taking their family and financial needs into consideration. “If a job seeker hasn’t had any job offers in that period of time, they might then decide to take a more widespread approach to finding a job.”

Who you gonna call?

While figuring out whether or not to take a job is a fundamentally personal and individual decision, it helps to get advice. The challenge is that not all advice is equal. Some people — whether spouses, parents or executive search professionals — have their own interests in mind as well as those of the job seeker.

This is where making connections within the sector is particularly helpful. Melanson advises: “Look to those people whose careers you want to emulate and whose opinions you trust for advice.” She adds, “We’ve all made our mistakes in professional choices and many of us are forthright in pointing out potential landmines. Find someone with that perspective and experience who can help you figure out good questions to ask.”

The right and wrong way to turn down a job

If your gut is screaming that a job is a bad fit (even if it looks good on paper) or if conditions would be terrible or a salary would take advantage of you, all the experts we talked to suggested it would be better to respectfully decline an offer — or better yet, politely inform the organization that you would like to withdraw your name from consideration for a role before you are even offered a job.

It matters how you turn down a position in the nonprofit sector because it can be a small world and because, as someone wisely said, “You never know when you’ll need to cross that burned bridge.” In declining his job offer, Rob was careful to express gratitude for the offer and to leave the door open for future job opportunities with the organization.

It’s also important not to play games, observes Gérard who has seen people use an offer with a new organization to leverage a promotion with their current employer, and others who have accepted a job only to get a better offer and simply not show up at the first job or leave after a month. While a hiring process is confidential, he notes that this kind of behaviour could harm the job seeker later. Gérard advises “It’s all about perception and managing the process as gracefully and professionally as possible.”

There is no absolute right answer to whether or not a job seeker should take a job or risk waiting for a better opportunity, but the bottom line is that there is also a risk in taking the wrong job for the wrong reasons. As Gérard concludes, “It takes guts to turn down a job but the wrong job can move a person further from their ultimate career goal.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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