Declining a job offer after inking the contract

In a post I missed last week called “Things that should go without saying, but obviously do not,” Flavia writes:

After signing a contract to accept a tenure-track job, you should not subsequently back out.

I now know of two people who have done this. And seriously, dudes, what’s so hard to figure out? If you weren’t sold on the institution, you shouldn’t have accepted the offer. If you were waiting to hear from another school where you had a campus visit, you should have told the offering institution that, and asked for more time. But if you thought you were out of the running someplace else, and then they came knocking–or if a fancier job appeared in the spring job list and you applied anyway–you kinda suck.

(My apologies to Flavia for copying and pasting her entire post–I thought that the whole thing was quoteworthy.) 

I can certainly understand that a hiring department that thought its work was done and a tenure line filled in January or February would be irritated beyond measure if they were informed in March, April, or May (or later?) that in fact “their new hire” had decided to take another job instead.  I’ve seen it happen.  (And for the record, it wasn’t me!  Sadly, I’ve never been offered more than one job at a time, or even within a span of several months.)

But–do we really want to hire people who don’t want to work with us?  Do we really want to hire only people who have no other options?  Sometimes other searches take longer, or they fail and have to bring in a whole new slate of candidates.  Just f’r’instance, my university is terrible about spousal/partner employment these days, and we’re just far enough from Denver (about a 70 minute drive to most places, even if you’re driving the posted 75 MPH!) that this is a major hassle for most people with partners or families.  And as much as I like it here, I recognize that my partner was lucky to find a job in the area.  Some of my colleages’ partners have had to retrain for a new career, or they’re still struggling to patch together a living.  Baa Ram U. does nothing for us, so why should we be surprised that people with partners find it difficult to say “yes” to our job offers?

When this happened in my department a few years ago, some of my colleagues were hot under the collar and talking about suing for breach of contract, about “making” someone teach for a year in our department because ze had signed a contract in February but then got a better job offer in April.  The Dean of our college, who is also an attorney as well as a Ph.D., informed us that there was no recourse–the university was unwilling to spend the resources to “make” anyone do anything.  (This was interesting news–the idea that our contracts are only one-way obligations on the part of the university.  Of course, they might also be worthless in terms of securing anyone’s future behavior, which is interesting considering their role in the tenure and promotion process, but I digress. . . )

Even if Baa Ram U. were willing to go after a new Assistant Professor for breach of contract, did we really want a resentful colleague around even if for just one year?  Because it seems to me that we’d be getting much less than we were paying for.  Tenure-track people make more money than lecturers or adjuncts because we pay them to do more than teach.  We pay them to engage 50% of the time in scholarship and service, none of which would be doing us any good in the short or the long run.  (I certainly wouldn’t expect anyone who was only here and gone to engage in any worthwhile service.)  So how much good could hir presence do for us?  It seemed like a better deal all the way around to re-open the search and hire someone else either to 1) fill the tenure-track position, or 2) hire a full-time lecturer to cover the intended courses, plus a few more.

I don’t blame the person in question for leaving us behind for a better job that also offered better partner employment options.  One of the things that I think speaks well of my department is that the people who leave us leave for much better jobs–for example, my former colleagues have gone to Toronto, Chicago, Utah, and Berkeley.  It stinks to be left behind, but it would stink even more if my department were a career-ending stop at the end of the line.  At least, that’s how I console myself–we get great people, but we just don’t have the resources to hang onto some of them. 

It’s better than never getting great people in the first place, isn’t it?

78 thoughts on “Declining a job offer after inking the contract

  1. I’m late to the conversation, but I just want to add that I agree with the main points that Historiann and Z have made, in particular. I sympathize with the search committees and departments who get jerked around, especially if it ends in the loss of a line or a total failed search (although really a failed search is a failed search, whether it fails in January or April, whether it’s a reneged contract or the top candidates just decline). (And rightly or wrongly, many departments are unwilling or feel they are unable to go down a list past 1-3, even sometimes 2, if #1 says no.) I’ve been on search committees; I’ve experienced that side of those situations. And I completely agree with the comment (by Z?) about superstars vs new assistants. It’s true that there are some in academia who have many options and offers – they are the select golden children (the majority of whom are obviously white men) and they often game the system to get as much as they can. I’ve seen people who think that a good job at a flagship state with a 2-2 still isn’t ‘good enough’ for them because they don’t like the location or it’s not prestigious enough. It makes me grit my teeth, too. (Although honestly, would you really recommend that someone NOT take a job at Yale/Princeton/Michigan if they stumbled into one?) But the majority of us are just trying to do the best we can. It’s hard for me to talk about sometimes, I admit, because I’m one of those poor schlobs who lives hundred and hundreds of miles away from her partner; we’ve been commuting for years and years, have tried negotiating every which way and would do almost anything to end our situation. It’s never worked. University says: We don’t have the money for a spousal accommodation. Then department x wants to hire a Senior Person with a Partner – suddenly, pots and pots of money appear as if from nowhere! As CPP notes, assistant professors are very often treated as expendable & no one is looking after their interests, and if you (anyone) expects the university to have your best interests at heart then you are living in a fantasy land, no matter how well-intention and fabulous your department/chair/colleagues might be. Especially in this climate of furloughs and freezes and skyrocketing insurance costs and rising teaching loads. Sometimes departments or administrators act as though the negotiations are personal, or as though the employee *owes them something*, or they get offended if the candidate is angling for a better situation for hirself, more $$ etc (as someone who has experienced a university rescinding an offer in what I can only describe as a fit of pique I can attend that this does happen, though it is very rare). But we are professionals and we have to look out for our professional lives and futures, as well as our personal lives. The university powers that be are not going to do that for us. I’ve been pushed into considering all kinds of things, and now I definitely think that I would go back on a signed contract if I got a position that promised to resolve my commuting situation. Ethics are important to me. I don’t think reneging is unethical. I think it’s not preferable, and should be avoided at all costs. But a lot of universities tighten the time frame in which to make a decision (and threaten to expire the offer if you don’t make it within the frame – I’ve heard of as little as 24 hours) in an effort to force a candidate’s hand.

    (I apologize if I got a little ranty. I thought about editing, then decided to let it be.)


  2. Polisciprof: that’s what I’ve always heard–that a candidate will get a “reputation.” But I’ve never actually heard anyone gossiped about this way, which makes me think that 1) backing out of a signed contract doesn’t actually happen that often, and/or 2) it’s not that big of a deal.

    I will say that applying for a late-advertised job after accepting one is dodgy. Flavia’s original post mentioned this as a possibility, which I didn’t address. My post was motivated by an experience with a candidate who was just offered a job ze had applied for in the regular cycle at a very late date, after accepting our offer. Maybe she withdrew from the search, maybe she didn’t–I agree with those who say candidates should check in with any searches in which they’re still theoretically active to see where they are and/or to withdraw from the search once they’ve accepted a job. But–I won’t condemn someone for holding out hope for a “dream job.”

    Mary Anne Mohanraj and jim above are right. Why so much anger at a (theoretical) job candidate who actually had choices? To repeat jim’s comment, “candidates should not be held responsible for the pathologies of the process.”


  3. I agree with rustomite — scroll back a long ways. It’s a business, get over it. As for the notion that somehow leaving a signed deal for a better one will follow one throughout their career, please. Collective memories are short, life goes on, faculty have classes to teach, papers to write, groceries to buy, stuff to do. Only someone with way too much time on their hands is going to seriously hold this kind of grudge. And as for the candidate who bails, hell, why should they care about the department they dumped? They got what they wanted.


  4. I had a good friend who once backed out of a job after having negotiated and signed the acceptance letter. It was a tough choice and obviously less than ideal, but there was also no question the second offer (which arrived quite late) was a better match for hir career path.

    It seems to me that institutions have no loyalty to the individual. So I am always skeptical that we should be giving loyalty to them.


  5. There are three parties here: the candidate, the university (which as GayProf says has no loyalty to the individual, and to which the individual doesn’t owe a thing) and the hiring department, which is part of the institution but is made up of individuals. When I am one of these people in the hiring department, and someone does something like this to us, I get annoyed, we all do. It’s really inconvenient. We had a failed search once bcause the candidate had a book about the come out and negotiated for hire with tenure, it took us months to go through that process and then the candidate turned around and used our tenured offer to get early tenure from hir previous institution. Were we pissed off? Yes. Would any one of us have done the same thing in hir place? Probably.

    It’s a job, and the job seeker has to do what ze has to do, but it would be good if ze would keep in mind that the hiring department is composed of individuals with their own concerns, like finding the best possible colleague before the university pulls the funding. If they have treated you well, try to treat them with the maximum of courtesy that’s compatible with what you need to do.

    In the early 90s I was offered a position at Large Urban University. I had a fellowship for the coming year and I asked if my start date could be postponed by a year and if I could have the fellowship paid via the university so I would be eligible for health insurance. They frowned. It turned out that Really Famous Historian had recently been in the same situation with them, and after the fellowship year had taken another position. I think I was more annoyed at hir than they were, because ze had ruined it for me–but ultimately I persuaded them of my sincerity and they let me have the year and the benefits.


  6. I agree completely with Ruth. As I said at my place, I’m a little frustrated by how this conversation seems to be becoming one about how theoretical future bad behavior on the part of an institution (not that we know anything about any such behavior by the actual hiring institution — but we know that many institution do behave badly!) excuses unethical behavior by individuals to other individuals.

    No question: a job candidate should get all the information he or she can about the health of the hiring institution, the state budget, etc. And there’s nothing wrong with making a decision to decline a job (though ideally before signing a contract) if his or her information or spidey-sense is saying, “run away!”

    But to me that’s a separate issue and a separate conversation. I believe that a job candidate has a personal, ethical obligation to the specific department and specific individuals he or she interacted with — the people who hosted and went out to dinner with him or her, and are very much hoping that he or she will come. We shouldn’t fetishize good behavior for its own sake, but the presumption should always be in favor of treating courteously the actual people who have treated you courteously.


  7. @Flavia: I agree that we should always treat people courteously, but for me that argument is a bit of a red herring. My point about the situation is this: while there might be situations in which the candidate who has signed a contract and reneges is behaving in a – let’s call it – douchey manner, there are also other circumstances in which the candidate’s behavior, while regrettable and disappointing to a search committee or a department, reflects real professional or personal pressures and needs on the part of the candidate. In the latter case, I do not believe it is unethical or discourteous to issue a “take back” on a signed contract. Obviously it is a less-than-ideal situation, and the person hired has every obligation to end the situation as quickly as possible. For me, it *is* possible to turn down a job, even after signing, in a courteous way. I would feel very badly if I did such a thing, but I would also not make a decision on which the future of my career and family might hinge based on whether or not some people took me out to dinner and were nice to me. I don’t mean to sound sarcastic – I understand this takes effort, and the people in question should not be treated rudely. But the presupposition here seems to be that the candidate in this situation acts always in bad faith, and I don’t think that’s how all those scenarios play out.


  8. Until actually hired and in the position, the members of the department are not “individuals.” They are part of the institution. Period. Sure, we go to dinner and chit-chat and act all friendly, Gemutlichkeit abounds, but that’s all just a part of the dance we dance to get the job — presumably on both sides of the hired/want-to-be-hired dividing line. Having dinner with candidates, hosting them, etc., umm, that’s part of the job description of those already hired, albeit a weird part for sure. Some here are making this personal when it isn’t personal at all.

    I agree that we shouldn’t fetishize good behavior for its own sake, as the poster above says. And I further agree that there should always be a presumption in favor of treating courteously the actual people who have treated you courteously. But all that means is that if and when a candidate calls to tell you they’ve taken a better offer, they should do it courteously. Maybe even throw in a heartfelt apology.

    All of this said, and at the risk verging on a rant, do you folks have any real idea of just how NOT-courteous the hiring process really is?


  9. Not courteous, it sure isn’t. It really is business, not a tea party, and all aspects of academic life are actually more collegial and pleasant when people recognize this.

    I agree strongly with Comrade PhysioProf’s comments in particular. I really don’t think anyone should turn down a good opportunity just to make my life more convenient, or my department’s. I’ve also never met a graduate student / assistant professor that wasn’t acting in good faith on these matters – even when they have (also) acted in self protective ways.

    As I say, I have often seen institutions fucke over new hires, and superstars or alleged superstars fucke over departments and institutions.

    Look, it’s March. If the candidate we’ve made an offer to turns us down or changes hir mind later, we won’t be able to hire now very easily.

    We could lose the line. We’d have to fight for it back, and then go through another search process, I know. But I can fucken handle it.


  10. P.S. Just because I hosted someone and took them to dinner and was nice to them, does not mean they owe me their life.
    What they owe me is a thank-you note and general professional courtesy. I repeat, that and that only – not their life.


  11. You know, I think I have to agree with Flavia here. I should also admit that, as an adjunct, I totally dumped on a department. Kinda. And they were great about it. But I think that that’s because it was an agreement to teach two adjunct classes, and I let them know as soon as I got a call for a late season interview for a FT visiting position. And I let them know as soon as I got the job. And I agreed to teach one of the two sections, because they couldn’t find someone to teach the night class. The department chair wasn’t thrilled, but she said I’d be an idiot not to take a two-year position.

    I am not thrilled with the fact that SLAC gives a week to decide. It sucks big time. On the other hand, by the time we are told we can search (the board meets pretty late), and that HR gets an ad into the places *they* think they should advertise, and then the search committees raise hell to get the ads looking like they should and in the right places, we are pretty late in the season.

    None of that is the candidate’s fault. And i do have some sympathy for someone who signs because they feel pressured to do so, even though they still have interviews set up. In those cases, as long as everybody is up front about their other options, I don’t even mind people reneging (much) if they find something that looks better. But I think it’s a real problem if we deny that a decision like the one Flavia describes has repercussions that affect a lot of people, often for many years.


  12. Yes – I don’t think anyone doesn’t know the correct behavior and the reasons why it is correct.

    I’m just interested in the exceptions, and in the way in which the burden for doing right is placed on the junior candidates – who often have the fewest options, the least information, and so on.

    Also, every time I’ve hired allegedly To Save A Line, it hasn’t been the best possible move in retrospect. So I sometimes think I may have fetishized line saving unnecessarily sometimes.

    And, I am sort of blase at this point. I’m a faculty brat and I have also worked in several places, so I have seen a lot of shenanigans. The most destructive of these aren’t reneging assistant professor hires.

    Re candidate maneuverings hurting other candidates, I am not sure that’s how it works in a macro sense. It’s the markets and the administrative timelines that cause the real trouble.


  13. Re candidate maneuverings hurting other candidates, I am not sure that’s how it works in a macro sense.

    It’s the same exact divisive bullshitte as “you were laid off from your factory jobbe because public employees are lazy union slobbes”.


  14. I’d like to throw another log on the fire here — what about search committees/universities that deliberately accelerate their search timelines so that candidates have to accept or decline a job in, say, November? Although I recognize that there are legitimate reasons why a university might prefer to have a search closed by the end of the fall semester, I’m sure at least some are motivated by the notion that they can snap up candidates more quickly and easily if they just get there first. This is — at least as far as I’m able to judge these things — an increasingly common strategy. Does that change/complicate anyone’s opinion re: contract breach? It does for me. I’m not sure I would look unfavorably on a person who reneged on a contract that had been forced on them in this manner, and I certainly don’t think I would blacklist them from any fellowships/searches as a result of that decision. But I do seem to be in the minority!


  15. Please, all, bear with my extended out-of-field metaphor:

    New law school graduates on the job market have a range of options:

    1) traditional big law firm hiring (accomplished on a highly structured universal timetable, with many hiring rules in place for both students and firms)

    2) ad hoc hiring process for small- and mid-sized firms

    3) public agency or nonprofit entry-level hiring

    4) judicial clerkship

    5) academic fellowship

    6) clinical or public interest fellowship

    Hiring for all of these positions, like any other employment, is done by an offer, followed by an acceptance. In other words, a contract.

    In NEARLY ALL of these positions, the process is (as you might imagine) done on paper with physical signatures.

    Because these are future attorneys, backing out of one’s contract is highly frowned upon.

    If you break your contract? As a lawyer? With a law firm? Nothing happens to you. At all.

    ALL of these jobs are still considered negotiable and a change of plans is not a horrible ordeal if circumstances are exigent enough, or the job offer one receives is of sufficient “extra” prestige.

    Except one.

    There is only ONE job you can accept as an attorney — not coincidentally, one that is almost exclusively pursued by baby lawyers — where you will lose significant professional credibility if you turn around and reject the offer: #4 up there – judicial clerkship. Because you turned your back on God, baby.

    So, a logic game:

    if judges are like God,

    and you can’t turn down a judge’s offer without “repercussions,”

    and you can’t withdraw acceptance of an academic offer without “repercussions” from certain faculty,

    what does this say about the self-image of those particular potentially-retributive faculty?

    Because I have to say, no matter how important one particular academic department might be, imagining it as weightier than:
    one of the world’s largest law firms plus
    one of the most crucial nonprofit service providers plus
    a state or federal government agency plus
    a LEGAL academic department plus
    an community legal fellowship honors program committee
    …is pretty funny.

    But now I know the rule:

    Only God, jurists, and tenured faculty have the right to sit in judgment of early-career professionals for seeking their own best interests!


  16. @CPP – word.

    @Meghan – I don’t know, I think it really depends. It’s sort of like early decision college admissions – you settle for less than what you could potentially get, so as to be sure of having something that is at least reasonable.

    Re blacklisting — I think that’s an urban legend. Yes, if you’re a really prominent job candidate and you try to play Princeton and Duke off against each other or something like that, people will talk.

    At my first job, the junior faculty were under the impression that leaving at all (i.e. get a job offer elsewhere in March, and resign there) was breach of contract. They seemed to think we were indentured servants.
    I don’t know where they learned this.


  17. The smarter departments at less-prestigious institutions do their searches, make their offers much earlier in the hiring season than the norm, and project strong “take it or leave it, right now” positions. This is so that they have a chance of hiring the more desirable candidates who have a good chance of securing better jobbes, but might take the early offer out of fear that they won’t get something better and then will be left with nothing. I was in this position during my own junior faculty jobbe search, and had to make second visits with PhysioWife in tow to places that I had almost zero chance of accepting their offer, just to keep the offers open and maintain my negotiating position. I ended up ultimately with an offer I was very happy with (from a prestigious institution that was way *late* in the hiring season with their interviews and offer), but I had little choice but to drag out the process. Conversely, we just had a candidate decline our invitation to interview for an assistant professor search we are currently running, because she had taken an offer at another (much less prestigious) institution. This is all part of the gamesmanship, and I am glad I didn’t let those less-desirable places bully me with their early offers.


  18. But CPP–what’s “smart” about a department that tried to bully you into taking a job when it didn’t work? (Granted, it may have worked in the other case you noted.) I’ve heard of History departments doing this, but they usually get bunged up because their top candidates (like you in your story) know they have other options, so they end up dragging the process into the tradition timeframe anyway.

    Color me unconvinced that this is “smart.” I think searches run best when everyone’s clear what their other options are and it’s all on the table.


  19. @atty anony I am with you on this.

    Once again, I do understand how inconvenient it will be if the person we just made an offer to accepts and renegs. It is extra inconvenient at my institution, in fact, since we can only seek authorization to bring in ONE candidate at a time.

    I still say all the deference to everyone’s needs but their own that is so strongly recommended to graduate students and assistant professors — in a context in which jobs are scarcer and research/teaching requirements are higher than before, and in which institutions have less and less loyalty to faculty — is misplaced.

    The person we hire will have moving expenses to pay and will also need first, last, and security deposit on an apartment. That means they must lay out maybe $5K in cash just to get here. We can then turn around and lay them off with 3 months’ notice.

    I just lack the chutzpah to tell someone to take us on those kinds of terms if they get a better deal.


    And speaking of ethics and morality: my main department does not like the fact that I am willing to answer nitty gritty questions from job candidates — as in about things like precise procedures and costs here for processing green cards — truthfully and in as much detail as is desired. I’ve seen people be vague and even deceptive at interviews, and then surprised when the candidate either doesn’t take the job or renegs when they find out they have been misinformed at the interview.


  20. Sometimes–but most of the time departments in my field when they try to hire in the preseason they end up dragged into the usual season.

    A friend of mine was once up for a job he was told was going to make an “early hire.” He was OK with it and would have taken it if offered, I think, but they offered the job to someone else in December before Xmas, and that person wanted to wait to hear what hir other options were, so ze didn’t end up making up her mind until late January or early Feb. (Ze took the job.)

    I guess the lesson is, make the hire and stick to your deadlines. But trying to hire “early” and then refusing to make a decision when a candidate dithers is pretty silly, in my view. (Or better yet, just go along with the usual timeline and give up the “early hire” fantasy.)


  21. I’m waiting for my cat who looks like your cat to come home, and you’re my top referrer right now (!) so I am distracting myself with this.

    On candidate strategies and for their sake, I guess I’d say this: there are weak and strong ways to handle these shoals. Weak is to try to be underhanded. Strong is to be up front, but not put your own best interests second.

    I was socialized to think in terms of survival, politeness, deference, as opposed to thinking: I’ve got an interesting research program, how can I best nurture it? I think it’s possible to do the latter without being jerk-ly about it.


  22. A two body problem will always trump any job offer etiquette, period. If you want the candidate, offer their spouse a job too.

    There isn’t much reason for backing out aside from a two body problem, even superstar candidates only get a few job offers. If you’re so brilliant that you’re weighing offers from Harvard and MIT, well maybe people won’t mind you being an asshole. For everyone else, you must demonstrate that you’re a useful and pleasant member of a department.


  23. While it is a totally wrong move on the candidate part to back out on a signed contract in the “last minute”, it is even worst of hir to come, put a notice for resignation and then leave 3 months later. Although not ideal, the candidate may actually doing the department a “favor” by cutting their lost at the first place, saving the already limited department’s resources and monies.


  24. Great point. I agree: it’s better not to come at all rather than let a uni spend all of that moving money & startup funds on someone who’s going to resign and leave anyway. Better to save the money and re-do the hire later.


  25. I came to this message board while pondering what i might do if I received job offers for the end of my pre-tenure sabbatical year next year. My current R2 employment contact states that I must return to campus for one year after being awarded a sabbatical. I was wondering if that was binding. I see now that it is highly improbable that any effort would be made to enforce it, unless I have an especially spiteful dean or department chair.

    I must say, however.. Since I was searching for legal advice, I was very surprised to find far more discussion of what amounts, essentially, to professional etiquette. To be sure, any community of colleagues benefits from good manners.

    Nevertheless, in this instance, some of those advancing their notion of what constitutes “good form” exhibit a sharp deficit of empathy and an apparent lack of awareness how their attitudes serve to maintain unhealthy institutional practices. The academic job market is dire. Given that the jobs only come about once every few years, how can we not expect every candidate to apply for any and everything, take whatever he/she can get and not even let on to potential employers that their institution is really not at all the kind of place he/she wants to be. Have any of those speaking out against those who would back-out of a contract, experienced what it is like to try to survive on adjunct “salaries?” Have they experienced what it means to have to wait another year? Look. The more and more we in the academy oversupply the job market and undersupply the jobs (and salaries), the less right we have to demand “respect” from the job candidates whose desperation we rely on to supply even the lowest-ranking institutions with overqualified faculty.

    I strongly encourage far less brow-beating on the part of those of us who are employed – particularly those out there who are tenured – however, unhappy you may be with your committee and its ability to retain the candidates you really want. Is it not possible that in a better job market, they wouldn’t bother applying to your position in the first place?


  26. Dears,

    I have same situation at the moment, i already tender my resignation to my current employer and already agreed and signed LOI to show my intention to new company. But at the meantime my current company want me to stay because he want me to help him for project that just awarded to us.

    any sample letter please??




  27. Vince: I’d say do what you want in the time you have before starting your new job. If you want to work for your soon-to-be former employer on this new project up until the moment you’re supposed to report for work at your new job, then do it. If you’d rather have some time off, then don’t.


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