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Julie Q. Brush, Solutus Legal Search

No matter how eloquent, how gracious or how sincere a candidate is, the bottom-line message of “Thanks, but no thanks” to an employer after reaching the altar … stings.

In today’s uber-connected world, the savvy candidate understands this dynamic and as a result, the importance of a high quality rejection. Why? Because somewhere, somehow, someway, the odds are pretty darn good that their paths will cross sometime in the future—and when they do, the career stakes could be high.

So for those of you interested in taking your professional game to the next level, follow the nine-point roadmap below for saying sayonara with style:

Depending on the situation, the level of an employer’s disappointment and/or resentment may be too great for any warm fuzzy feelings to carry on in the near future. But over time, and once the pain diminishes it is possible to preserve and build on the positive relationships you once had … if you handle your candidacy wisely.

While the back-end messaging is important, the key to a virtuous end … is a virtuous beginning. And if you are to communicate a credible rejection and preserve a positive relationship with those whom you met during the interview process, you must build a foundation that establishes trust and your reputation as a high quality individual. So what does this mean in the context of a candidacy?

From the pop of the gun to the finish line tape—and every milestone in between, creating good relationships during the interview process means being responsive, flexible, positive, humble, accommodating … and transparentTransparent about your compensation, compensation expectations, interest level, concerns, and other opportunities. Too many candidates blow it when it comes to these issues and pursue a more opaque path—primarily driven by fear. This dynamic leaves employers feeling hoodwinked when their offer is rejected, which results in negative feelings that quash any desire to preserve the relationship. It’s a “note to self’ moment that can last forever.

If you’ve followed this advice and built a strong foundation with an employer, your parting message won’t feel like a breach and the likelihood of maintaining a positive relationship will increase. The right message will further increase the odds. Below are the key elements to creating and delivering a high quality “no”—and preserving the relationships that are important to you:

1. Communicate Your Message Real Time.

You and the employer have spent a good deal of time and effort to get to this stage of the process. The hiring manager is fatigued and hopes are high. So if you are going to reject an offer … do it real time. Talking is a far superior way to continue a rapport and inflect tone into a conversation. It is also personal—and employers appreciate the professional courtesy after a long process ends in disappointment. While a meeting is ideal, it is not realistic or necessary. A phone call is sufficient. Many candidates reject offers via email or through their recruiters. While that approach is ok, if you are seeking to maximize your chances for a positive relationship going forward, pick up the phone and discuss the rejection live. If you happen to receive voicemail, leave your name and ask for a call back. Don’t leave a message regarding your rejection.

2. Be Prepared.

Your agenda is to deliver bad news so you are going to be a bit nervous at the beginning of the conversation. And when people are nervous, they tend to ramble, sound inarticulate and say things they don’t intent to say. The message you deliver needs to clear, thoughtful and effective. So be prepared before your call. Write down what you’d like to say and then practice the message until you feel comfortable. Remember, you’re still being judged.

3. Be Honest.

Give the employer the courtesy of the real reasons you are declining his/her offer. It doesn’t mean you have to go into every minute detail, but an employer will want to know why you have turned the organization down. So be honest and you’ll win points. Example: “Jerry, it was great meeting you and your team. Company X has a terrific brand and the role was compelling. However, the position with Company Y is a bit broader and offered a reporting structure to the General Counsel as well interaction with the Board. As we discussed in my interviews, becoming a General Counsel one day is a career goal and I feel the position with Company Y is a next step that can position my career effectively.”

4. Be Specific.

The more specific your message is, the better. When on the receiving end of rejection, people always want to know … Why. Information makes them feel better—as they have more context and data. So don’t be afraid to be a little more specific. For example, what was it that you appreciated about their opportunity? The role? The culture? etc. What is it about your other options that are a better fit or more appealing at the present time? Answering the Why with some specifics will go a long way towards preserving a good relationship.

5. Be Sincere, Gracious and Appreciative.

Say thank you for the opportunity—and express your appreciation for their time, effort and interest in You. Let the employer know how much you liked everyone and enjoyed learning more about the organization. Finally, reiterate your apologies that the position wasn’t a fit at this time.

6. Ask To Stay In Touch.

If you’d like to remain in contact with the hiring manager and his/her team, ask if s/he would be open to it. Example: “Sharon, it’s been great meeting you and your team. You were all so impressive and the opportunity to work with the group was a very compelling factor for me. I know our paths will likely cross again so it would be great to stay in touch. Would you be open to that?”

7. Send Follow Up Emails.

For the other interviewers on the team, sending a gracious email is an added step that will resonate with them. Example: “Hi Elizabeth, I just spoke with Tess [Hiring Manager] and declined the offer to join Company/Law Firm. For the time being, I’ve decided to stay put at my current company. But I wanted to reach out to you as well to thank you for taking the time to get to know me in this process. I really enjoyed our meetings and look forward to staying in touch.”

8. Connect Through Social Media.

Once the dust has settled (2-4 weeks), connect through social media with those professionals with whom you want to maintain a positive/more active relationship. If sending a LinkedIn request, skip the generic message and personalize it. Example: “Tess, once again thank you for the opportunity with Company/Law Firm X. I look forward to staying in touch.”

9. Stay in Touch.

If you’d like to stay in touch in a more meaningful way, and there is an appropriate opportunity to do so, then do so. Perhaps you are referring a colleague, networking, extending an invitation to join a great legal/business group, a professional courtesy introduction, or kudos on a professional recognition. A helpful, friendly ping will help enhance the relationship  …  if not too frequent.

After a long courtship, declining an offer is never easy—for either side. So managing the rejection the right way is always recommended … whether you want to preserve a positive relationship with the employer or not. It all starts with good conduct leading up to the offer and ends with a thoughtful message to part ways. The sting may still be intense, but if you stay true to the course you’ll preserve your reputation, goodwill and the opportunity hold your head high the next time your paths do cross.

Julie Brush is the founder and author of The Lawyer Whisperer (www.thelawyerwhisperer.com), a career advice column for legal professionals, also found on LinkedIn. She is co-founder of Solutus Legal Search, a legal search/consulting boutique firm, serving as a strategic adviser to lawyers, law firms and corporations.

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