how honest are employers about reasons for rescinding a job offer?

A reader writes:

How honest are companies about their reasons for rescinding a job offer? I applied at a large multi-national company, ran through 3 interviews, and ended with the HR recruiter sending me an email that they were waiting on my background check to complete and that she was going to call me the next day with the intent of making an offer.

Here I am thinking I have this in the bag. Next day, no call. So I email, with no response to the email. Crickets. During this time of silence, one of my references lets me know they had called her for a reference check. So I convince myself that they’re just finishing up references before officially making me offer. Of course, I become frantically anxious and I finally break down and leave her a voicemail three business days after the initial email. I get a call back and she tells me she spoke with the hiring manager and that they are restructuring the position, the position duties and they’re not sure if they’re hiring for said position anymore. She tells me I should take the other job (one that I had already turned down!) that I was offered instead of waiting for them to get their ducks in a row. Good luck and that was it. Completely written off. Um, what?

After having a few days to cool down, I guess that’s all good and fine, I understand a tight economy and changing business needs, but I checked online and the job was re-listed! The exact same description of job duties, wording has not been changed. I know I have a clean background, my references were excellent and I definitely hit it off with the hiring manager, so I am a little confused. Was it really a restructuring or did they just have a change of heart? Can you shed some light into the possible reasons for rescinding a job offer?

Okay, first of all, there is no job offer until you have the formal offer in writing. Someone telling you they intend to make you an offer? Not an offer. Someone saying they’re just waiting for a few final pieces and then they’ll put together an offer? Not an offer.  There is no job offer until you have a formal job offer in writing. Never, ever count on it based on someone’s word, and definitely never turn down another job on the promise of another offer forthcoming.

Why? Because things change. Budgets get frozen, last-minute candidates emerge, references can raise concerns (even if you think they won’t), positions get restructured, the person who was supposed to just rubber-stamp the decision gets more involved, minds can change. And lots more that I’m not thinking of here.

As for what happened in your situation, there are a few possibilities:

1. They told you the truth. They’re restructuring the position. It’s not reflected in the job ad, because the changes are less about the job itself and more about who they want to fill it. They’re now looking for someone with more experience in X or more of an orientation toward Y. You’d think this would be reflected in the ad, but it’s not always, particularly if it’s more about soft skills. (See examples 2 and 3 in this post.)

2. They didn’t tell you the truth. They simply changed their mind about you, and it was easier for them to fall back on “restructuring the position” than to tell you that your attitude makes them uneasy, or they saw something about you online that gave them pause, or a reference raised red flags, or a better candidate emerged at the last minute. (At this stage, they should tell you the truth, but the reality is that many employers won’t.)

3. Your references aren’t as good as you think they are. Or they are perfectly good, but just not what this hiring manager was looking for. A good reference-checker isn’t just going through a perfunctory checklist about whether you were punctual and didn’t embezzle; she’s asking probing, thoughtful questions about your strengths, your weaknesses, how you operate, what kind of management you do best with, and so forth. So you could have perfectly lovely references, but their answers just weren’t quite in line with what the employer wants for this job. In other words, when done well, references aren’t just about being “a good worker” or not; they’re much more nuanced than that and are about your fit for this particular job in this particular culture. Even the greatest employee isn’t going to be the right fit everywhere.

4. The reposted ad that you saw was a mistake. Say, for instance, that they have an HR assistant who keeps all job ads fresh until the position has been filled. She’s junior enough that she hasn’t yet heard about the decision to restructure the job, and so she went ahead and reposted the ad when she saw it was about to expire, or when she saw that it had fallen to the bottom of the site’s listings, or whatever. In this scenario, they were 100% truthful with you and you’re reading something in to the reposted ad that’s not correct.

So you’ve got a bunch of possibilities here and no real way to know which one it is. That’s why the biggest message to take away is the one we started with:  Never assume you have a job offer  until you really do.

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