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When looking for a job, how do you politely handle the situation when you have two hopeful offers (e.g. have had several interviews with both companies), and you need to say "the offer sounds great, but I'm waiting to hear back from X, as they are my first choice."

Should you lie, avoid the question, be totally honest (which makes you look bad if the first offer doesn't come through), take the second offer and then perhaps leave after X many weeks??

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Do not want to say that they are the second choice. You can certainly find ways to tell them that you are not ready to respond.

First, evaluate the first offer by itself. Be disciplined in the evaluation ... examine that offer on it's merits. Absent the alternative possibility, would you accept the offer? The company that stepped up an offered deserves some consideration ahead of the company that can't get you an answer or is stringing you along.
--> If not OK, decline.

If it is OK but you are hoping for better, things are more complex.

Is the offer FINAL?

If the offer has contingencies (i.e background check, references, etc.), a perfectly suitable response is something like "The offer is acceptable in principle, and when the contingencies are removed and the offer is finalized, I will be able to make a commitment."

Ask for more time

As Alexa noted, asking for more time is reasonable. I would not necessarily do so if you have already created significant delay for other reasons. You want to avoid the perception that you are stalling.

Don't ask for excessive time .. ask for a week at most. And once you do so, don't do it again.

Delay

See if you can find some ways to delay ... there are lots. A good one is to ask for the paperwork that you will be required to sign, and then tell them you need some time to review with counsel or an adviser. Ditto for the employee handbook and other binding documents. Ditto for the specific benefit information.

Be careful .. you only get one or two of these before it looks bad.

Note: do not NEGOTIATE in an attempt to delay. That can backfire.

"A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."

If the company with the outstanding offer demands a response and the preferred company has not offered, accept. You can always decline later or resign if a better offer comes in.

I used to think that this was bad faith, but my mind has changed due to corporate behavior in the last 15 years. The offering company feels no special obligation to you. Most companies will not hesitate to rescind the offer, cancel the position, or lay you off if they determine necessary. You owe them no special loyalty.
--> Very likely, the company stretching it out has you as their second choice and are waiting on a first choice to answer.

General notes about timing

Just as you have other opportunities in the hopper, the companies have other candidates. You do owe all them good faith. As soon as you have ruled out a company, tell them.

Include how the companies have treated you in your evaluation. Essentially, "points" for having a good process, making a decision, and acting. If a company can't make up their mind and act, or is dismissive, or doesn't return emails or phone calls, that generally means something.

Fish or cut bait.

This can't go on forever. At some point you are going to have to decide. Be aware of this. My suggestion is to bias toward the offer in hand rather than to the possible offer from another company.

  • You cut off at the end of the General notes about timing section "If a company can't" – Mr.Mindor Jul 17 '14 at 15:38
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Unless you're being aggressively poached, it's perfectly reasonable for an employer to assume that you're interviewing with multiple companies. You stand to gain nothing by telling a prospective employer they're #2. If they make you an offer, you can say something along the lines of the following:

"I appreciate the offer and am strongly going to consider it. However, I have to weigh my options since this isn't the only opportunity I've been presented with. Can you give me til (insert date) to get back to you?"

A smart recruiter/employer may pressure you to give them a response within 24 hours, in which case you should use this as leverage with the other company you're interviewing with. You can tell the second company, "Hey! I've just been made a great offer by another company. It's a good opportunity, but [insert all the reasons why 2nd company is your #1]." Ideally, this second company will accelerate their decision making process and let you know whether you have the job or not. If you do, that's great. If not, then you have the first offer to fall back on and you can accept without having offended them.

  • I agree with the 2nd paragraph. However, a recruiter pressuring me to give a response in a short amount of time is generally a turn-off for me. Unless it's my dream job, I'd generally say no and I'll keep waiting for the other companies I've applied for. I'm still open to their offer if they are willing to wait for my reply, but I will not move my whole schedule around just because one company pressured me to. (again, exceptions are to be made if this one company is the "dream" company I really really want) – Zaenille Jul 15 '14 at 4:03
  • I would like to emphasize that this is my personal opinion and of course, you can choose another way to handle said type of companies. :) – Zaenille Jul 15 '14 at 4:06
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    Good answer. Tell the #1 company that they're #1, but only tell the #2 company that they are one of several options. – Carson63000 Jul 15 '14 at 6:05
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you need to say "the offer sounds great, but I'm waiting to hear back from X, as they are my first choice."

You might choose to do so, but you never need to say that.

Should you lie, avoid the question, be totally honest (which makes you look bad if the first offer doesn't come through), take the second offer and then perhaps leave after X many weeks??

Lying is bad - it makes you a liar. You could become known professionally as a liar. That's not something I'd advise for anyone.

You might be able to avoid the question, or at least put off the answer for a period of time while the situation with your first choice resolves itself. Hopefully the time period between the first and second choice offers isn't very long.

That's what I do as a hiring manager. I always interview several candidates for a position. I usually end up with more than one who would be sufficiently qualified. So, I make an offer to the top candidate, and find ways to have the second choice wait for an offer (no longer than a week or two at most). That way, if the first choice falls through, the second choice never needs to know that she was "second".

Being totally honest might work if the company wants you badly enough. But in most cases when I've done the hiring, I'd most likely move on from you and move to my second choice. If the position is important and there isn't a huge difference between the best and next-best candidate, there's no value to me as the hiring manager to waiting around for an acceptance that might not come.

By "take the second offer and then perhaps leave after X many weeks" I assume you mean "take the offer from the second choice company, then leave after a few weeks". That's not a very nice thing to do to the company. Perhaps you don't care about them, but it could cause your professional reputation to take a hit. That's not something my personal ethics would allow me to do. Your mileage may vary.

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I'm not sure if this is your case, but in my last jobs I have asked my new employer to give me about one month before I can leave my current company (I use this time to organize and communicate pending things). So, one possibility is that you secure the current offering and start this process, then if something arises from the other company you might tell the first one about the offering (Of course, you should have tact for this). This way you might reduce the impact of your decision.

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