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A good client of mine has offered me a job. The company that needs my services comes from the country which is on my list "will never work for them again, no matter what". I have been hurt very badly a few times from clients from this country, so I told myself never again will work for them even if offering me $1M.

Now, how shall I decline this in polite English without being an ass, chauvinist, racist, and so on?

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    Comments removed. Users here have a proclivity to hold conversations and arguments in comments, which isn't what comments are for. (There are currently 40 (!) deleted comments on this post.) Try The Workplace Chat; it works much better. – Monica Cellio Sep 7 '15 at 17:56
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    This could be because of slavery laws in that country, risks of being thrown in a jail, losing his passport, or other valid concerns about health and safety. This has nothing to do about being a chauvinist or anything else. – JB. Sep 8 '15 at 12:58

12 Answers 12

57

Now, how shall I decline this in polite English without being an ass, chauvinist, racist, and so on?

It's unfortunate that a few bad times has soured you so much against an entire country, but if the job requires working with/for them and you feel this strongly, then just decline the offer.

If you want to be honest, you tell the folks offering you the job something like "I'm sorry. I have been hurt very badly a few times from clients from [this country]. I told myself that I will never again will work for them, so I politely decline your job offer."

Depending on the individual you are speaking with, you still may well come across as prejudiced (a bigot? a xenophobe? an anti-XYer?). In some sense of the word, you are one. But just maybe this company will hire you and only require that you work with clients from countries that you don't dislike - assuming that's your desired outcome here.

You should decide ahead of time if what led you to feel this way about an entire country is something you would want to share with the hiring manager or not. Some interviewers would ask why you feel this way, some might not.

If you don't want to be honest, you could make up any sort of lie, I suppose. That might help you not to come across as prejudiced, but you will of course be a liar.

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    Do words like bigot, xenophobe, etc. really apply when talking about business? I'm inclined to think not. Different countries have different ways of doing business and it can sometimes be a difficult experience. – camden_kid Sep 7 '15 at 8:32
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    It also heavily depends on laws regarding the two countries. I'm much more hesitant to do business with someone from a country where there isn't much protection for an overseas contractor. – Snakes and Coffee Sep 7 '15 at 8:40
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    @camden_kid: whether the words apply depends whether that's what you're doing or not. If the reason you aren't working in country X is because that county's legal requirements/regulations are too onerous then it doesn't apply. If you refuse to work for anyone from country X because after a number of bad experiences you've reached the conclusion that people from that country aren't to be trusted, then such words may well apply. There's nothing to stop bigots doing business, so naturally the word sometimes applies when talking about business. – Steve Jessop Sep 7 '15 at 10:58
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    Business or otherwise, if your only exclusion criteria is that country, then those terms probably apply. If it was truly just a business decision, you'd evaluate each client independently. While your history with clients in that country can be part of the evaluation, there should be more to it. – cdkMoose Sep 8 '15 at 16:36
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    @camden_kid I don't think the fact that it is business makes any difference. You could just as easily replace business with social "I had some bad social experiences with people from X country and so I don't want to socialize with people from X country again." That's still bigoted... to assume that all people from one country are going to be the same. – Luke Sep 8 '15 at 16:36
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Don't explain. Don't justify yourself. People decline job opportunities all the time. It's not a big deal.

Do you think that a potential employer will tell you the truth if they decide not to hire you. Of course not. We're all human beings. We all have hidden biases. And we're all imperfect. Every employer would get sued if they'd let their employees tell the truth when they're rejecting someone. If you don't feel like telling your client the entire truth, then don't.

You have the right not to. Besides, even a truth you hold can have many layers. Justifying yourself completely to everyone is just giving your power away. It's oversharing. Trying to control exactly how that client will end up perceiving you is futile.

But if for some reason, you do try to justify yourself, try to stay away from using universal absolute quantifiers like everyone, all of them, always, or never. These kinds of quantifiers can easily antagonize people.

Along the same lines, try not to label people, you can talk about your own limited experience and your feelings, it's difficult for people to argue against feelings, and at the same time, sharing your feelings about a group of people is usually more truthful than trying to paint an entire group of people with the same absolute label.

Because when it comes down to it, we're all individuals and nobody likes to be labeled for the wrongs committed by other fellow individuals of the same gender, race, or nationality.

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    As Strunk said in his Elements of Style: "Since you are out of sympathy with cats, you may quite properly give this as a reason for not appearing at the dedicatory ceremonies of a cat hospital. But bear in mind that your opinion of cats was not sought, only your services as a speaker. Try to keep things straight." If you're not confident you can explain your rationale in a way that isn't insulting to the other party, then don't explain yourself at all. – Witiko Sep 5 '15 at 19:44
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    @PaulDraper "I'd rather not take the offer." - "Oh I see, does the timing not fit?" - "No, I'd just rather not accept." - "...". An actual explanation is only optional if you give a very vague rejection reason (i.e. little white lie) like "I don't think it would be the right fit for me." Flat out saying no and refusing to even hint at the reason would just come across as really strange if the client is even slightly interested in figuring out the reason, which most would be. – Lilienthal Sep 6 '15 at 9:49
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    @Lilienthal, I wish I could downvote my own answer for being too wishy-washy. Your last comment to PaulDraper is really the right answer in this case. – Stephan Branczyk Sep 6 '15 at 12:01
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    @HagenvonEitzen: or "my scheduled is full", "oh, that's a shame, because I also had a massive job that isn't in country XY, that I was going to recommend you for. Maybe another time". – Steve Jessop Sep 7 '15 at 11:02
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    One shouldn't lie, but one shouldn't tell everything either. – I'm not paid to think Sep 7 '15 at 12:49
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If you want to say this (which I guess you do, so your contact understands) without sounding like a bigot, focus on the country, not the client.

"I've found X country difficult to work in."

"I've found the business practices of X country difficult."

This is a valid issue in some industries. You just need to frame it right. The below is from my own experience. Does it sound bad?

We had difficulty breaking into the market in the petroleum industry in Latin America. Many oil companies there are state owned, which means they are inordinately slow and clumsy at making decisions regarding new technologies (not good if you've invested lots of time and money demonstrating your product.) In North America and Europe most large oil companies are privately owned and we were able to sell much more easily there.

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    +1 If it's not prejudice, it'll be possible to isolate the real problem in a way the "good client" will understand, like this. It could be, "X country has Y issue with contract law which past clients have exploited and I'm not in a position to reliably guard against it happening again", or, "X country has a very Y business culture, which doesn't mix well with Z aspect of how I work". If it's not possible to give a clear, specific reason like this, then it probably is an over-generalization, and the asker should think about how to find out if the would-be client is different. – user56reinstatemonica8 Sep 7 '15 at 15:07
  • Your example, however, isn't about working with people from a particular country but rather simply government policies of a particular country. That, I agree, is a completely legitimate argument that isn't based on prejudices. I'm not sure that's what the OP is talking about in their question, though. – DA. Sep 7 '15 at 17:19
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    @DA. my example isn't perfect, but frequently what people need help with on this site is to be able to turn a negative emotion (which seems unprofessional, and in this case, racist) into a reasoned business argument. The first lines I have given enable the OP to begin to open up in a professional manner about the misgivings he has about this particular country. It's easier to talk about a law or policy than to say "all people in that country are dishonest bastards" which is how the OP feels emotionally due to some bad experience, although he knows in his head it isn't really true. – Level River St Sep 7 '15 at 17:38
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All that you need to say is:

I am sorry I can not accept this client/contract/offer at this time.

If pressed for a reason:

I have some business obligations that would be in conflict if I accepted so I must decline. I wish I could explain further but I am not able to do so at this time. I am so sorry and wish I could help you.

That is all true. The client is free to assume that the conflict is some sort of contractual conflict and you do not have to explain that you have a bias against businesses from that country. This should cause minimal damage to your relationship with your existing client, and keep it open for future business.

The reason for your actual declining is no ones business and in most cases you are going to be better off keeping those reasons entirely to yourself.

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Put conditions

You cannot (politely or not) simply state "I don't want to work for someone from XY country" without sounding close minded at best, and full on racist at worst (depending on the context etc...)

You have to identify the mechanism that allowed the other party to "hurt" you, and/or the missing mechanisms which should have protected you. Once this is defined, it makes it very easy to decline with business objective reasons:

The contract/job is in this country. Very well, after former disappointing business experiences with a similar contract setup, I am afraid I can only consider working in this environment again if:

  • condition 1
  • condition 2
  • etc ...

are respected.

This way the onus is on them to either provide you the guaranties you want ... or to decline.

Sure you can even be cheeky and ask for crazy conditions which you know would be rejected, but this is not the most professional behaviour, and it can even be seen as offensive in some culture. So if you plan to decline anyway, better follow Stephan answer: just decline without explicit justification.

In any case, DO NOT simply decline stating only your dislike of doing business with/in a specific country. Either decline abruptly without justification, or detail the specific reasons which makes you not feeling safe to practice business there.


Ignore the carrot:

I have been hurt very badly a few times from clients from this country, so I told myself never again will work for them even if offering me $1M.

Then what if they offer $2M ? ... will you consider it ?

That would be looking at the wrong thing anyway. If you only look at the carrot, you do not see the man with a stick and a string holding the carrot and moving you like a puppet.

You were not hurt because they weren't offering you enough in the first place, I'm assuming (guessing) that you were hurt because you were not given what you were promised in the end, or because nothing happened according to plans and everything went belly up.

So a repeat of that scenario would definitively be hurtful, but a higher expected pay off would in no way guaranty less pain if in the end this number is just a figure with no tangible aspect (might even increase frustration actually).


Know your enemy

I worked several years in a country, culturally very far from most western ideology, but so wealthy that countless western business men come to try their luck and have a bite at what appear to be a golden apple. With time, it became a routine to see a major proportion of these go back home empty handed (some with barely a shirt to wear even after having significantly invested). Ok for a few of them this was just the result of bad management, but a significant number simply got screwed (sorry for the lack of a better word) by their mandatory local partner.

This was ~15 years ago (my very first assignment). The pattern observed was so frequent that it did make an impression on the young me, and I must admit that for a while after I left the country, I did have similar thoughts like:

I'll never work in this country or for people from this country again

but a rational train of thought (and exposure to several other business cultures) quickly turned that into:

"I'll never work in this country in the same conditions, however, provided certain safeguards are in place to limit the (now identified) risks, then it become no more risky than some transactions/jobs with other countries or business cultures"

So Know your enemy.
Remember that at list you have exposure to this specific business culture, so you know the obvious traps and pitfalls. Doing business knowing that is sometimes less risky than doing business with a new partner ... which might look appealing (yeah yeah, this one is from the same country than me, the village next door actually, and he has got a nice carrot of $2M, promised!) ... but who might still stab you in the back at the first opportunity.


An example:

Incidentally, as an example, my current company receive numerous quote requests for equipment to be shipped in a very similar country. I was impressed and terrified at the same time when my boss stood his ground and systematically asked 50% of the contract sum before we would start any manufacturing (Our products are worth ~500k$ a pop and take about 6-8 months to be produced) and the remaining 50% before we would box the products and actually ship them.

This is quite 180 degree from the classic line of business we are. In western countries it is not rare to place products directly on customer location, in "consignment", and the product is only invoiced if/when it is used.

Well, sure enough, most quotes do not receive much attention, but we do get responses. And those who respond are the one who are actually interested and didn't have a tricky scheme planned behind. At this point the discussion can be opened and there is still time to review the terms of the mutual protection if the initial ones are too strict for them (escrow accounts and other international safeguards).

In the end, the one which didn't follow up where:

  • the scammers (yep, they are in every line of business)
  • the cheap ones who think they can make the money to pay for the product with the product (Not saying that some of them are not genuinely honest, but we are not a credit facility and we don't have the capital to support these guys).
  • the massively huge number of "one man company" (or a few more) who just try to be the middle man (they see a tender somewhere so they ask quote all around in hope to be able to grab a hefty commission for just a few phone calls).

So putting these conditions was an effective way to filter a lot of the unwanted business cases, yet still remaining open to this market, and discover a few loyal and honest customers ...

  • This is an excellent answer. It addresses the real underlying problem with practical advice, and additionally solves the problem as presented (if they reject your terms, you don't need to figure out a lie or phrasing for why you can't work with them). – Matthew Read Sep 8 '15 at 16:42
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Now, how shall I decline this in polite English without being an ass, chauvinist, racist, and so on?

You can't: i.e. some people (or a lot of people) might consider you chauvinist etc. if you said that.

I don't know whether your saying that is also verging towards illegal (race discrimination).

My basic model of racism in commerce is something like as follows:

  • It would be racist (or nationalist or whatever) to say, "I don't rent to people from country X because they don't pay the rent."
  • It is reasonable to want the rent; but it is racist to assume that someone won't pay the rent because they're from country X.
  • And it would racist, even if statistically 80% of the people from country X don't in fact pay the rent.
  • The non-racist thing to do is to have some mechanism for getting the rent paid, which you apply equally to everyone no matter which country they're from.

In your example, you didn't specify in what way you've been "hurt very badly from clients". So let me imagine, just for the sake of having in example, that you were hurt by a change in the definition of the requirements, by their blaming you, and by their not paying you.

To answer your question then, the polite way to decline would be to say something like, "I'm worried that the requirements aren't well-defined, I'm worried about the communications difficulties, and I'm worried that the client won't be satisfied and won't pay for all the work."

  • While I'm sure discrimination laws vary widely by jurisdiction, I don't think you'll find many jurisdictions in which rejecting a job offer for some discriminatory reason is illegal. Also, the "you can't" answer is incorrect. You clearly can politely decline the offer by simply not explaining why you're declining it. – reirab Sep 6 '15 at 5:57
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    I'm sure all these eBay sellers who refuse to ship items to a foreign country, and especially to Nigeria, are all racists. If statistically, 80% of the people from country X don't pay the rent, then not renting to someone from the country isn't racist, but common sense. – gnasher729 Sep 6 '15 at 7:31
  • @reirab I agree it's not illegal, and it might not even be seen as bigoted, but it might be seen that way. E.g. if his business were selling cakes, and someone walked in and asked to order a cake, perhaps he shouldn't say, "we refuse to sell cakes to anyone from your country." – ChrisW Sep 6 '15 at 11:48
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    The question isn't about the law but about how to answer without being (seen as) a racist. My answer/suggestion was to express his real concern (i.e. his ultimate concern not proximate concern), which is not e.g. that they're from country X but which is e.g. that he won't get paid. – ChrisW Sep 6 '15 at 11:49
  • Companies with big data may already refuse to make business with you (at least with acceptable conditions) just because you are unlucky enough to live in a a neighbourhood that somehow got a negative stamp in their database. This happens even if you have always been a loyal customer and payed your debts and whatnot ... – Hagen von Eitzen Sep 6 '15 at 15:38
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Assuming hurt = not paid, this is perfectly fine:

I had some problems with customers from X not paying me. Since the laws in country X made it ipmpossible to sue them, I won't risk working anymore with customers from X.

If their mentality is different, e.g. all last minute, many changes and you got stressed more than in other projects, this should be understandable too.

By giving a good reason, you avoid looking racist (e.g. I don't like people from X). After all, you probably would spend your free time with them, you just don't want to do business with them, since the potential risk is higher than with other customers (from your little experience, general knowledge, ..).

Everything else might cost you future work offers if you claim different reasons.

  • "If their mentality is different" -- Like everyone from country X has the same mentality... – ChrisW Sep 7 '15 at 0:37
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    @ChrisW - yeah, like cultures exist. – Davor Sep 8 '15 at 10:55
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In this world you can never please everyone. There are many ways to politely saying “No”.

You can assess your situation and say something accordingly like “Thanks for the opportunity but I’m afraid I’m fully booked” or “This type of project isn’t my strong suit” etc. I'm not talking about giving a false reason here. And if you find it appropriate recommend someone else for the job.

In these type of situations “No” is always better than a reluctant “Yes”.

You could then thank them again for thinking of you, that way you won’t be burning any bridges either.

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There have been some strange answers here. I assume that you have some very good reasons for your refusal to work with anyone from a country. I can imagine some very good reasons; claiming that you are irrational, bigoted, racist and so on without having heard those reasons is very strange.

The best thing to do is tell the client "sorry, I have had some very bad experiences working for a company from X, or working in X, or working with people from X, and it was so bad that I won't take the slightest risk repeating that experience". If it's something that another person likely thinks to be a good reason, and not too personal, and not something that would reflect badly on you, you may tell what the reason is.

  • Strange answers, indeed. Even yours elusively points out what your comment on one of them does: Dealing with Nigerians on eBay is stupidity, not racism. Context needed, @OP. (P.S., kudos for willing to touch that one without a stick.) – Mazura Sep 7 '15 at 3:26
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    Basing a decision on a population of people based on a small subset of said people is pretty much how racism, bigotry and the like works. The other answers aren't odd at all. Asking how to be prejudiced without sounding prejudiced is actually a very odd question. Any potential hire saying they "don't work with people from X country" is simply going to sound racist or bigoted, no matter how they word it. – DA. Sep 7 '15 at 17:15
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    Ok, contractor goes to Mexico, gets kidnapped, and swears never to go back to the country again. Racist? Contractor goes to peaceful Austria, everything is perfect, he comes home and his wife has been killed in a car accident. He swears never again to go to Austria. Racist? Bigot? (And please look up the word "bigot" in the dictionary. It's definitely not bigoted. ) You are just so fixated on seeing prejudice, racism and so on that you can't imagine any other reasons. – gnasher729 Sep 7 '15 at 18:06
  • @gnasher729 those would be very odd reasons to avoid an entire nation. I agree, not racist decisions, just very poorly informed ones. But that's not what the OP asked. They explicitly stated that based on experiences with a few clients they have decided to not do business with anyone from that country. That is the very definition of prejudice. – DA. Sep 8 '15 at 14:21
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    In other words, "I had a bad experience in Mexico that makes me hesitant to return" is a lot different than saying "I had a bad experience with a few Mexicans that makes me hesitant to ever work with another Mexican" – DA. Sep 8 '15 at 14:22
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You are judging by country which is prima facie prejudicial.

However, there is more to it than that. For every objective injustice, there are available remedies. Apparently you have been either unable or unwilling to avail yourself of them. There are also insurances and/or business associations working from either your country or internationally that may cover things going wrong.

I once subcontracted for someone who worked for a company more or less run as a sidejob of some high-ranking manager who employed partly relatives. The subcontractor had been burnt a few times since their engineering was pretty bad and they basically were on the outlook for scapegoats all the time and sue-happy. They had secured contracts through personal relations that were quite well-funded and were clearly going to blow them. But they paid really well, very significantly above industry average.

The subcontractor's experience with this company was factored into his offers and he basically considered it equitable remedy. It incurred additional work and cost as every offer and delivery had to be watertight and checked and acknowledged in writing without fail. In addition there was the aggravation because of being a target for scapegoating.

Basically we were talking about recording systems to be employed in cars, and they worked with their own switching power supplies on Eurocard PCBs right next to the measuring boards. I've seen their systems crash when you switched on the neon lights in the room (cars are not exactly renowned as the cleanest source of electric power) and you could measure significant AC next to the power supply just by forming a single loop with the cables from a multimeter. The subcontractor's job was the recording subsystem.

So this was a system bound for failure and fingerpointing but inundated with money temporarily. And a certain scarcity of subcontractors still willing to work there. He crossed his t's and dotted his i's and cashed his cheques and paid his legal insurance and after all that came out ahead as planned, with his systems provably working as specified and, after initial tussles, certified as that.

The project, of course, eventually tanked after being several years overdue and the company probably went into liquidation at some point of time and its company head reverted to his main job.

The answer for you to take away here is that you can take on jobs you are sure to fail if you make sure that your payout is ensured at all steps, by advance payments at contractually ensured points of the project and taking out all proper insurances necessary to cover against a malintentioned partner.

If you factor everything in into your offer, it's not a cause for worry when it gets accepted, and it's not a cause for worry when it gets rejected.

Basically, you have conditions to adhere to when doing business in that country that have been shaped by your previous experience there. If stuff works better than expected repeatedly, you can factor those experiences into future offers conservatively, more likely than not based on who you are doing business with.

It's not everybody's idea of fun to work under circumstances felt to be hostile. If you don't find yourself able to put together a working plan where you are secure against the kind of catastrophes you did encounter so far, I do not consider it amiss to tell your prospective business partner that previous experience with that country has shown you that your business models and procedures are a bad match to doing business there and that you currently see no way but to decline.

  • The OP says - "I have been hurt very badly a few times from clients from this country". He/she is not "judging by country", he/she is judging business clients from a country. That's a big difference. – camden_kid Sep 8 '15 at 15:10
1

Just say it, don't obscure it.
Why?

  1. Your reason has value to others
  2. Some general judgements are, in fact, justified
  3. You are free to have an opinion, and are not forcing it on others (see gnasher729's answer, too)

Your client isn't the foreign company in question.
It is good if they know your requirements clearly - helps them match offers to you, not to mention it may help them avoid the same pitfalls.
If you think it feasible, leave it to them to turn the offer down (or offer to someone else, or have the terms amended) with the needed diplomacy.

Cultures / subcultures would not be identifiable entities if they had no distinctive traits. Superstitions, ingrained habits, different moralities taught as a way of life...
I would not try selling whistle-activated devices to theatre employees. I would not count on a Japanese businessperson clearly stating refusal. I would be extra wary of anything where a newly met Rom and my cash are mentioned in the same sentence.

Past experiences are a quite valid reason for making personal decisions - in many cases, they're the only form of statistics you have available.
You have detected a trend. You are not obligated to have peer-reviewed social studies to put value on it. You do not claim that is representative of the country's population, only that you consider it sufficient to reject the offer in favor of ones you are less wary of.

0

If the company is on your "never, ever again" list then it doesn't really matter if they think you are a chauvinist or a racist. So you can bluntly speak your mind. Nevertheless, if you want to sugarcoat it you could say something like "The management and workplace practices of XY country do not match my style of working. So, I will decline this offer."

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