As the Washington economy barrels out of the recession, far more candidates are receiving multiple job offers.  (Yes, I know, this sounds like a wonderful problem to every job seeker who is looking for their FIRST job offer).    But it’s a real problem.  And most people have no idea what to do about it.  So they end up clutching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Here is the crux of the problem.  Timing.  You see all those wonderful job offers almost never come on the same day.  So if you are fortunate enough to be in this situation, how do you handle the first job offer while you find out if the second offer is even going to materialize?

Some people (like Nick Corcodilos) advise you to accept the first offer, and if a second offer comes along, just retract your acceptance.  I’d advise you to read both the original post and the many comments from readers.   He makes a compelling case for doing this.  His readers mostly agree.

But I disagree.  Strongly.

Retracting your acceptance will needlessly damage your hard-won professional reputation.  Nick’s readers seem to think of it as “just business” but every hiring manager I know feels lied to, betrayed and is actively hostile to anyone who retracts an acceptance.  And I agree with them. If you do this to one of my clients, we’ll never represent you again.  I can tell you from experience that hiring managers have a very long memory for this particular behavior.

You see, when you accept a job offer, you set in motion a chain of events.  Your new boss sends rejection letters to everyone else who applied for the job.  They announce it internally.  They pull down the ads and close out the posting.   When you retract, you don’t just burn your bridge with that employer, you burned their bridge to everyone else they were considering.   You made them look bad to their boss.  Don’t, for a second, think that this is not personal.  It is.  You can debate the ethics all day with Nick, but in the meantime, your professional reputation is in tatters and several people feel you lied to them.

There are far better ways to handle the situation.  Like honesty.

You can be upfront with your situation.  You can explain that you are taking your search very seriously – you don’t look for a job very often and you want to explore all your options.  You have a lot of irons in the fire and your search will involve several employers.  If one employer is closing in on an offer quickly, just let them know that you may not be in a position to accept right away.   (Smart employers, and ALL search firms, will ask you about your other interview activity.  They will ask you when you are available to start should an offer be extended.  That is a good time to be candid.)

Once an offer is on the table, you can almost always negotiate for at least a week.  Simply say you want to make a fully informed decision and want to be fair to everyone involved.   But long before an offer is on the table, you can let your other potential employers know that you are in second or third round interviews elsewhere.   If they are serious about you, they will let you know where you stand.  Most small firms will speed up the interview process to accomodate a top candidate.  In my experience, this candor will serve you well about 90% of the time.  In the rare cases where managers get huffy about it, you either have a very inexperienced manager, or someone whose ego needs a reality check.  (And both are good to know before you accept a job with them!)

Bottom line:  when job seekers are candid with us, we can almost always find a way to make the timing work out for everyone involved.

So before you lay flame to your reputation, I urge you to give candor a try.  Next you might want to read this post on how to turn down a job offer.