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By Alison Green / Ask a Manager
August 12, 2015
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: Is it terrible to accept a job offer and then back out? I have done some reading on this, and a lot of articles suggest it is unethical, will ruin your reputation, and essentially is a nasty thing to do. Yet no one claims it’s “unethical” if the employer does the same thing.

Here's my situation: I had a bit of a falling out with another manager in my current job. The company really needs me, so they don’t want me going anywhere, but the confrontation was pretty ugly and unacceptable to me, and it isn’t the first time, and nothing is ever done about it. So I started to look around and interview and got an offer.

However, a few things happened since I accepted. First of all, I feel like the offer letter I got was a little pushy. It stated that I would have less than two weeks of notice to give and suggested that if I did not sign the offer and agree to the terms within a day, it would be rescinded. I am really bad at confrontation, so I just signed it. But it has come to bother me that they acted that way about it.

Also, they have been contacting me to send me some reports that they want me to review before I start. I don’t mind that, although I think it is a little cheeky to assign me 200 pages of reading before I have even begun working for them. But I strongly dislike how they end emails with “let me know by the end of the day that you received this,” and if I don’t reply within a couple of hours they begin calling my cell phone. On the whole, I just have a bad feeling about it, about their pushiness and the way they have handled this.

The more I consider my current situation too, the more I realize I am throwing away something I value. Granted, the problem that drove me to this is not insignificant, but the benefits of my current position outweigh the downsides in some ways. I am one of the founders of the company, and the clients are largely my connections, so it is pretty serious that I am going.

Can I change my mind? How do I tell them? I am supposed to start in less than a week.

A: Yes, you can change your mind.

It won’t be welcome news to them, obviously, but it’s better to back out now than to end up in a job you don’t want to be in and that you’re feeling queasy about.

But should you? Well, the stuff that’s setting off alarm bells for you might indeed be harbingers of worse to come once you’re working there. People shouldn’t be pushy with offer letters, they shouldn’t push currently employed candidates to leave their jobs with less than two weeks of notice (unless it’s for a rare good reason and they explain why), they shouldn’t give you 200 pages of reading before you start, and they definitely shouldn’t expect you to answer their emails within a few hours while you’re not yet working for them.

That said, it’s also possible that this stuff doesn’t indicate serious problems there. I’d want to know more about what you observed about them before the offer stage. Did you do due diligence, talk to multiple people there, talk to anyone in your network connected to them, ask good questions, and generally work to understand what they’re like and what you’d be signing up for? If you did and you felt comfortable, I wouldn’t necessarily throw all that out now.

I’d also want to know who it is who’s sending these “respond today” emails and calling your cell if they don’t get a fast answer. Is it your soon-to-be manager, or someone else? If it’s the person who will be managing you, that would worry me a lot — that’s the sign of an unreasonable manager who doesn’t respect boundaries. But if it’s people who will be coworkers? That would worry me less (and for all we know, they’re not clear on what arrangement you have with their company). But that’s something I’d ask the person who will be managing you about.

You could call her up and say something like this: “Between now and when I start, I’m going to be really busy wrapping things up with my old position. I’m not going to have time to read the materials you sent, and I probably won’t be able to respond to emails quickly. Jane and Fergus have sent me emails asking for immediate responses a few times, and called my cell phone when I haven’t responded immediately.” Then stop and listen to the response. Is she surprised that this is happening, understand that you don’t want that, and say she’ll put a stop to it? Or does she sound put out or irked that you’re pushing back?

All in all, though, if you’ve changed your mind and no longer want to take the job, you shouldn’t take it as penance. It’s true that it’s not good to back out of job offers, but no sane employer wants a new hire who doesn’t want to be there. It’ll be a pain in the ass for them, yes, but that’s far better for them than you leaving after four months or being miserable for several years, and it’s far, far better for you than serving time in a job you don’t want, if you have other options. (I’m assuming that you know that it is an option to stay at your old job; if you’re a founder, it probably is, although that wouldn’t always be true for everyone.)

Tell them ASAP if indeed that’s your decision and apologize profusely. Assume you’ve burned that bridge. (But also know that there can be things worse than a burnt bridge.)

And then resolve that in the future you’ll pay attention to your doubts and not be pressured into accepting offers more quickly than you’re comfortable with — and forgive yourself for this one.

Q: Is it legal for my employer to force me to work during breaks? I am a minor in Indiana working at Dairy Queen. Although they let me on break, they force me to work during it. Is this legal?

A: Indiana requires that minors who work six or more hours in a shift be given one or two breaks totaling at least 30 minutes. They have to be real breaks, meaning that you don’t work during them. So no, it’s not legal if your shifts are six hours or longer.

If you were an adult, the answer would be different: Indiana doesn’t require employers to give adult employees meal or rest breaks at all, so the fact that they’re requiring you to work on a break (essentially taking away the break) would be legal — as long as they were paying for all the time you’re working. In other words, they can’t have you clock out for the break and then still do work, unless you clock back in.

It’s possible they don’t realize that the law is different for minors. I’d say this: “I just found out that state law requires minors to have 30 minutes of break time when working six hours or more. I know that’s different from adult employees. Would it be better for me to take my breaks off the premises, so that people don’t forget and ask me to do work during those periods?”

These questions are adapted from ones that originally appeared on Ask a Manager. Some have been edited for length.

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