Why I Turned Down A Job, Even When I Desperately Needed One

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Most millennials I know who work a 9-to-5 job — regardless of how repetitive or un-glamorous it is — are just grateful to be employed, because for every one of us that graduated college and found work within a reasonable amount of time, there are many others who are still bouncing from interview to interview, exhausting every connection they have to find employment with a steady income. We’ve heard (and sometimes, lived) the stories of young adults moving back home as the pressure of student loan payments loomed on the horizon. As job seekers, these circumstances have made us more compassionate toward our peers, and more respectful of our experiences navigating a complicated job market. But our struggles have also had the unfortunate side-effect of creating a generation of insecure young professionals who spend more time thinking about the jobs they can get, rather than the ones they really want.

Some time ago I came across a position in my field that sounded promising. By all appearances, the job seemed like a natural progression in my career path, so I put in an application and was thrilled when I got a call from the company’s HR department. Through a few chats with HR, I learned a bit more about the company and was informed, “We’re not Google here. We’re not a flip flops and jeans, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of place,” and that “We like hierarchy. We believe that the CEO should have his own office separate from the clerical workers.” These statements might not be a problem for some, but they struck a nerve with me. The time I’ve spent working in an office environment has taught me that culture can be every bit as impactful on your success and happiness at work as salary or opportunities to advance. The thought of working at a company that so proudly put its CEO on a pedestal required me to really step back and think.

“But it’s a job,” that shaky, self-doubting voice in my head reminded me. “It’s a job that might actually want you of all people. This is one that didn’t reject you, and you should be grateful.” So I ignored the fact that the company culture seemed like the brainchild of Donald Trump, and went to the first interview. It was hard not to be taken aback when even the office’s waiting room looked like a fancy grandmother’s Versailles-inspired sitting room, but I powered through and gave it my best. Even after being presented with information about the company’s generous benefits package, I couldn’t shake that feeling that I wouldn’t be happy there. After thinking it over for a couple days, and ignoring every instinct in my head telling me not to, I sent an email to the HR rep I had been working with and politely requested that he no longer consider me for the role. I was courteous and told him the truth, thanking him profusely for the opportunity.

I was both proud of myself and terrified as I hit send. I had never turned away a job opportunity before — usually employers are the ones rejecting me. It felt insane, impulsive, and smug. Perhaps hindsight will reveal passing up that opportunity was a huge mistake, but making that decision for myself  was unbelievably empowering. It reminded me that in my career, even when it feels like recruiters and chipper HR reps hold all the cards, I’m ultimately in control of my future.

Whether you’ve just started a job search or you’re looking for a new opportunity, chances are you’re carrying a lot more baggage with you to your interviews than just a few extra copies of your resumé. Perhaps it’s the student loan debt that seemed less threatening when it was an imaginary sum on Sallie Mae’s ledger. Maybe it’s the burden of expectation, of wanting to make your Baby Boomer parents proud, using measures of success that haven’t evolved with the job market or cost of living. Some of us are still trying to reconcile the simplicity of Life, the board game, with life, the reality.

More than once in my career, I’ve experienced the sense of urgency (and impending doom) that comes from wanting to move on to different, bigger, or better things. There will always be circumstances when a bad work environment or a changed financial situation can create circumstances where finding a new job needs to happen ASAP. But too often millennials (myself included) spend more time debating whether to swipe left or swipe right on Tinder than they do considering the pros and cons of a job.

We scroll through job postings, dividing up our applications using the Millennial’s Arithmetic: Apply to three positions we think we have a chance of getting, to every one role that we’re actually excited about. When one of the middling three actually contacts us, we try to smother our doubts about the location or lackluster benefits with a carefully fluffed happily ever after. We convince ourselves that this job we were once ambivalent about is the only next step on the path to success.

Don’t get me wrong, you can’t always judge a position or a company just by its description or even a first interview, but too many of us working millennials are inclined to ignore our instincts because we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re desperate, out of options, and that we should be lucky that any company might be willing to hire us. That’s a damaging mentality to have when looking for a job. It creates a situation where employers can unwittingly take advantage of you because you’re not being an advocate for yourself. If you think your resumé is a joke and that you have no real skills, how can you negotiate the salary you deserve? If you don’t think you have worth as an individual employee, what are the chances of finding your place at an organization that truly values its people?

Make no mistake; there is a time for paying your dues and making the best of jobs with weird office politics and daily responsibilities that cramp your style and cripple you creativity. Every single one of us has had, or will have, one of those jobs in our lifetimes, but there’s a difference between taking a less-than-desirable job because you know it serves your larger career goals, and signing up for a shitty 9-to-5 because you think that’s the best you can do, or that it’s all you deserve. Maybe your Ultimate Dream Job isn’t going to the next thing on your LinkedIn profile, but we should never talk ourselves into taking the job that we know isn’t going to make us happy, or get us any closer to our career objectives.

There’s a certain privilege to being picky about your work, but as job seekers, we should never think so little of our professional worth that we believe we’re only good enough to work where someone will hire us. There’s a difference between having an ego and knowing that you have value, that your experience brings something to the table, and that your skills are more than just bullet points on your resumé. Sometimes feeling crazy, worried, and sick about passing up an opportunity leads you to a better one. There aren’t a finite amount of big breaks in this world, and even though job searching can be as humbling as it is intimidating, being wisely selective is worth it in the end, because we’ve all worked way too hard to settle.

Katie Hoffman is a writer living in the Chicagoland area. She writes the blog Sass & Balderdash and is on Instagram and Twitter.

Image via Pexels

  • You hit the nail on the head with this: “there’s a difference between taking a less-than-desirable job because you know it serves your larger career goals, and signing up for a shitty 9-to-5 because you think that’s the best you can do, or that it’s all you deserve.” But there’s often a fine line between the two that makes it hard to distinguish which is which, especially when it’s hard to tell what exactly the future holds. I turned down a job a few weeks ago that I thought would fit into my larger career goals because it just instinctively felt wrong in my gut. I should have just gone with my gut from the get-go instead of trying to rationalize for over a year only to ultimately turn it down.

    • Katie Hoffman

      It’s torture. It’s a constant tug of war with “This might make me more money!” and “This looks good on my resume!” and “This is what I really enjoy!” And the other not-so-nice part is at the time, taking a particular job might have been your best option given the circumstances that you were in, but we don’t usually remember that kind of stuff in hindsight.

  • Caitlyn Sanderson

    AMEN.

  • Jackie Onorato

    This is great, but I always think that you should at least take the interview even if you don’t think you’d accept. It’s always good for practice and you never know what you may learn. You could have affirmed your suspicions or found that the HR person was just being ridiculous and the hiring manager, the person you would be working for, was helpful and supportive. You just can’t tell enough from the phone interview.

    • Katie Hoffman

      Hey Jackie,
      Saw your comment and wanted to respond, because I totally agree with you. I think there’s many a good opportunity to miss out on if you base your entire perception of an organization on one conversation with someone who might just be having a bad day. I think it’s important to have a balance between being open-minded and playing devil’s advocate and checking Glassdoor and trusting your gut.

      • Jackie Onorato

        Glassdoor is great! Definitely worth the five minutes of writing a fake review you have to give to get decent access. I always use Glassdoor as a trend indicator. If there are suddenly a string of bad reviews from recently departed employees around the same time it’s a decent indicator of the health and culture of the company.

  • So relevant as I just walked out mid-interview today.

  • Eloise

    The “We’re not Google here” line made me laugh. Because Google is such a notorious failure, of course…