Candidates Keep Turning Down My Job Offers columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues–everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

My team has been expanding after a long period of being under-resourced and under-staffed, but the talent pool in our local area is not very deep. As a result, I usually have to conduct national searches for most positions. This means that I’ve had to work hard to identify serious applicants who would be likely to say yes if offered a position, given that we invest a lot of money during the interview process (travel and lodging expenses, etc.) and if an offer is accepted (relocation assistance). My process has three distinct stages, culminating with an in-person interview for the finalist(s), formal reference checks, and, if everything looks good, a verbal offer. Anyone who interviews with us in person is connected with a relocation firm, offered a real estate tour with a local realtor, etc. — all things that telegraph our interest in the candidate and also help them to think seriously about the practicalities of relocating to our area.

Obviously, we don’t invite out-of-town candidates to interview in person unless we already feel confident that they can do the work, would fit in well with our team and culture, and are as serious about us as we are about them. But twice in less than a year I’ve gone through this process with two separate candidates for two separate searches, only to have my offers turned down. In both instances, the candidates had expressed enthusiasm for the position and our region of the country (we’re in a diverse city with a fabulous year-round climate) and yet when I made the offers, they declined for vague “personal reasons.” If they had questions or concerns about the job or the relocation, they never voiced them, despite being given ample opportunity and encouragement to do so. Needless to say, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth — did they just want a free trip to our beautiful city? Were they trying to leverage retention offers from their current employers? Does it even matter?

What are the ethics of them accepting in-person, out-of-town interviews if they had no intention of accepting the position? Personally, I wouldn’t dream of going all the way to the reference-check/verbal offer stage when I knew I wasn’t going to accept an offer — it seems like a colossal waste of the interviewing entity’s time and resources, not to mention disingenuous.

What suggestions do you have for sussing out how serious out-of-town candidates really are? I try to be a good steward of my budget, and I’m tired of spending money, time, and energy on candidates who aren’t really serious. (As an aside, applicants are given information on things like salary and benefits early on in the process, so they know how much they’d be earning up front and can make a decision right away if compensation is the issue.)

Two rejected offers in one year isn’t a lot. Of course, it depends on how many total offers you’re making — if you only made two offers and they both got turned down, I can see why you’re worried. But it sounds like you’re doing more hiring than that, and in a context where plenty of your offers are being accepted, I wouldn’t look at this as a problem at all.

Some portion of your offers will be turned down. That’s how interviewing and hiring works!

It sounds like you’re assuming that by the time someone is flying out for a final interview, they should know whether or not they’d accept the job. But that’s not the case. Just like you don’t know whether or not you want to hire them at that point and are still doing your own assessments, candidates are doing their own assessing and reflecting as well. The point of having them out for that final in-person interview isn’t so that you can do a one-way evaluation of them; it’s so that both sides can figure out if they want to work together. Just like your decision will sometimes be no, theirs will be no sometimes too. But that doesn’t mean that it was already a no before the interview.

And there are lots of possible reasons why that could happen. They could realize once they visit your office that the culture or energy there isn’t for them. They could find they don’t love the dynamic they have with the hiring manager or others they’d be working with. They could spend time getting to know your city and realize they don’t want to move there after all. They could decide to pursue a different job that they’re more excited about, or could have multiple offers to consider, or simply decide they could earn more somewhere else. They could just conclude that the job isn’t right for them once they’ve finished the full process. The “personal reasons” they cited to you could be true — they could be dealing with a sudden family health crisis, or a divorce, or all sorts of other things.

People turn down offers. It’s a normal thing that happens.

It’s true that if someone knows for sure that they wouldn’t accept a job, they shouldn’t fly out on your dime. But there’s nothing to indicate that that’s what’s happening here.

What you can do, though, is to take a look at what might change for people in between their pre-interview enthusiasm and their post-interview lack of interest. Is there something about your culture that people are seeing in-person and being turned off by, and if so, can you be more transparent about it ahead of time so people can self-select out if it’s not right for them? Same thing if they’re getting turned off by a difficult boss or cranky team or something else that they’re only seeing once they arrive for the final interview. You also might ask candidates who turn down your offers for feedback.

But truly, you can do everything right and be an excellent place to work, and some of your offers will still get turned down by sincere candidates, because that’s just how hiring goes. You probably understand how it’s true on the other side — that your intentions with a candidate can be utterly sincere and you still might decide in the end not to hire them — and it really does work both ways.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to [email protected].

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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