Multiple Choice

James Bradbrook is Vacancy Co-ordinator for the Career Zone. 

You’ve fired off several applications, smashed the interviews and assessment centres and you’ve had a job offer from Umbrella Corporation. It’s not necessarily your first choice, but it’s not too bad and you haven’t heard back from that marketing job you were hoping to get with  Weyland-Yutani.

Having to choose between job offers is great. And confusing. And Stressful. But great.
Photo by Letizia Bordoni on Unsplash

Umbrella are wanting to hear back from you, so you accept their job offer. After all, you think, you can always pull out if Weyland-Yutani come up trumps, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.

What does the law say?

Contracts of employment are just that: contracts! Like all contracts, they signify all parties’ acceptance of mutual rights and obligations and there are penalties for failing to fulfil them.

When an employer makes you an offer, they can only then withdraw it under very particular circumstances. This is why most employers will only make conditional offers, for example, the offer being subject to references. This means that if one of your referees points out that you happen to have been fired from your last job for stealing, the company can withdraw their offer perfectly legally.

If an employer makes an offer and you accept but then the company withdraws it without good reason, you would be able to sue them for breach of contract.

The same applies the other way around. If you accept an offer and then pull out, the company is perfectly entitled to insist that you fulfil the terms of the contract and, if you don’t, they can pursue you through the courts. (It is important to note that accepting an offer verbally has the same legal force as an agreement in writing – the only difference is that the latter is easier to prove.)

“If you accept an offer and then pull out, the company is perfectly entitled to insist that you fulfil the terms of the contract and, if you don’t, they can pursue you through the courts.”

Assuming the company won their action against you, the gains would be minimal because the losses would be limited to the terms of the contract that were violated.

This wouldn’t mean that your losses would be minimal. The damages you’d have to pay for the actual breach of contract itself would be insignificant compared to the risk that you’d have to pay your own legal costs, plus the company’s legal costs as well. That could easily amount to many thousands of pounds, not to mention a large part of your life being swallowed up for months or even years of legal action.

That’s really not the best way to start your new career.

Would they really try to enforce the contract or sue me?

This is difficult to determine – much would depend on the specific circumstances. However, such actions are rare.

Firstly, in terms of forcing you to honour the contract, you’d only be obligated to work out whatever notice period is specified in the contract of employment. With most graduate schemes you’d have barely started the training before you could leave quite legally.

Secondly, it is rarely in an employer’s interest to have a disinterested, unengaged employee working for them.

Thirdly, they will probably believe someone who pulls out of a contract in this way is, at best, unreliable and possibly even dishonest. Most companies don’t want that sort of person working for them.

All-in-all, it’s probably not worth their time and investment to force you to take the job, when you’re going to up and leave in weeks or months.

As for legal action, the direct losses a company could recoup from you would probably be minimal – this would depend on notice periods, training costs, etc. or any other loss the company could demonstrate arose from your breach of contract. By far, the worst scenario for you would be covering their legal costs.

The employer would have to balance the effort in staff time required to pursue an action against the concrete return. They may also wish to avoid long-term damage to their reputation that might arise from pursuing such an action.

But … if the contract is short-term or a further delay in recruitment would harm the company’s business, they might be far more insistent that you honour your commitment. Things would also greatly depend at what point you pulled out – retracting an offer a couple of days after accepting is far less to trigger action than doing so the day before you’re going to start.

In conclusion, the risk of a legal action is probably small, depending on the circumstances. This doesn’t change the fact that a risk remains – you need to think very carefully about your situation before making such a serious decision and consider taking legal advice concerning your specific circumstances.

Other possible consequences

Recruitment costs companies a lot in terms of time and money. They take the process very seriously and don’t make offers to candidates lightly. They expect candidates to act professionally and with integrity. Make no mistake: they are going to be very, very unhappy.

“So what?” you might say.

True, you may not suffer any immediate problems if you decide to pull out. But, you could well burn your bridges with that organisation completely, scuppering any chance of working with them in the future. That might not be an immediate worry, but who knows where you’ll be in five- or ten-years’ time.

The personal circles in some professions are surprisingly small. People have long memories and reputation matters, especially in occupations where honesty and integrity are vitally important, such as law and accountancy. No-one likes the players on reality TV and they don’t like them in professional life either.

“The personal circles in some professions are surprisingly small. People have long memories and reputation matters.”

And, if you’re the sort of person that cares about other people, you might want to think about this. Employers might not be willing or able to take action against you, but they can (and do) complain to us! Take it from me, it’s very uncomfortable to have an employer phone up complaining about the poor conduct of a student.

Employers also take these sorts of things into account when they’re making commercial decisions about what universities they want to work with. If they have a poor experience with an Exeter student, they might well reconsider how much they want to work with us in the future, damaging opportunity for future students.

Last, but not least, there’s the matter of your personal integrity. If you value ethical conduct in the world, from other people and organisations, then you shouldn’t be too free with your own.

So, what’s the right thing to do?

If a company makes you an offer and you’re either not sure or waiting on another offer, tell them you need time to think. You don’t need to tell them exactly why.

Most companies don’t rush their recruitment decisions and they shouldn’t expect you to either. If you feel they’re trying to pressure you into a quick decision, then that tells you something about the culture of their firm and you may need to reconsider whether they’re right for you in the first place.

Only you can decide what sort of time frame is reasonable to you, although you can’t expect a company to hold an offer open indefinitely.

Need help making a decision?