A candidate recently came to me seeking the advice for the following situation: A few weeks after accepting a software development position with Dell, he received an offer from Microsoft as a Program Manager. This was his dream job, and his dream company, but he would have to turn it down. Or would he?

I wanted to tell him to do “the right thing” and turn down the dream offer, but I couldn’t. Why? Because, about seven years ago, I was in a nearly identical situation. And I did the so-called “wrong” thing.

In 2004, I was interviewing for an internship. I didn’t want to go back to Microsoft – three internships there was plenty. Google and Apple had both rejected me, though Apple told me that I was their “#2” candidate for this position. So, though I was pretty lukewarm on the position and would never join there fulltime, I accepted the IBM position. I had stopped all other interviews and had every intention of completing the internship.

Then, six weeks before the internship was supposed to start, I got an email from the Apple team. Their #1 candidate just reneged. Was I still available? This was my dream job. I loved the company. I loved the product. I loved the team. So I said yes.

The After Math

Here’s where I’m supposed to say that it caused some horrific impact on my career. Recruiters no longer trusted me. I got blacklisted. And ever since then I’ve regretted my decision, or something like that.

But the truth is that none of that happened.

IBM was annoyed, but they replaced me. Word didn’t get out about that awful thing I did. Even the other IBM recruiters had no idea what had happened. And why would they? It’s a huge company and one candidate reneging is just not that big of a deal.

But it was a big, big deal to me.

Should you renege?

I can’t – and won’t – advise anyone to renege. It can certainly hurt your reputation. You may be seen by others as unreliable. People who know about the situation may hesitate to recommend you to a company in the future. And, of course, there is definitely an unethical component to it. You’re breaking a promise, and a promise you made in a professional context. That’s never good.

At the same time, I do feel that much like an awesome sales person will recommend a competitor’s product if it’s clearly a better fit for you, an awesome recruiter should understand the position you’re in. This is your dream job – you don’t just walk away from it. (And, in fact, the Apple recruiter was supportive when their original candidate reneged – and would have eagerly interviewed him in the future.)

Additionally, unless the original offer was from a very small company or for a very high level position, the impact on the company probably pales in comparison to the impact on you. Is it really so wrong to renege?

Rather than the knee-jerk “ZOMG-it’s-wrong” response, think seriously here. What is so special about committing to a job offer?

So, what’s so special about this promise?

You shouldn’t promise to see a movie with friends, but then shop around for better plans. You shouldn’t get engaged if you’re not sure you want to get married. And you shouldn’t offer a friend a ride to the airport if you don’t have a car. But, sometimes your parents unexpectedly come to town, sometimes relationships fail, and sometimes cars break down. Life happens.

So let’s all move away from this absolutist “it’s always wrong” mindset and be honest: we break promises all the time and we’re okay with that. Life happens, and things come up. And sometimes that thing is your dream job. Why do we accept broken promises in other cases, but think that it’s always wrong for a job offer?

Gayle Laakmann McDowell

Gayle Laakmann McDowell is the founder / CEO of CareerCup, and the author of Cracking the Coding Interview, Cracking the PM Interview, and The Google Resume. Gayle has worked as a software engineer for Microsoft, Apple and Google. She holds a bachelor's and master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Computer Science, and an MBA from the Wharton School. She currently resides in Palo Alto, CA.

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