Friday, August 03, 2007

Reversing a Job Acceptance: Is It Ethical?

Am I the only person who has an ethical problem with this scenario discussed by Fortune magazine's Anne Fisher?

Two weeks after a person accepted a job, the dream employer - who had been delaying making a selection - called with a job offer. The article centers on whether there are legal repercussions to backing out of the second job, but my objection is an ethical one. The person made a commitment to the "second choice" employer. Does that count for nothing? I think the lawyer's analysis is nothing but a huge rationalization for unethical behavior.

Consider coach John Wooden's account of how he landed at UCLA where he went on to 10 national basketball championships. UCLA wanted him but his "greatest desire" was to be the head coach of the University of Minnesota's team. At that time, he wasn't very impressed with UCLA's program. His negotiations with Minnesota, however, were bogged down on his unwillingness to accept their stipulation that he retain their current head coach as his assistant. Not wanting to be second-guessed, Wooden insisted on appointing his own assistant coach. Minnesota told him they would discuss his position and make their final decision the following Saturday. It was agreed that they would notify him at exactly 6 p.m. Wooden told UCLA of the situation.

That evening, no call came at 6:00. At 6:30, however, the UCLA athletic director called and asked for his decision on whether he would take the UCLA post. Wooden replied that since Minnesota didn't call, he guessed they didn't accept his request. He accepted the UCLA offer.

He subsequently learned that Minnesota had decided to accept his terms and had tried to call at 6:00 but their phone lines were dead due to a blizzard. Wooden later noted: "By the time service was restored again and Minnesota was able to get through to me - about 7:30 p.m. - it was too late. Fate had made the first and final call. I had already given my word to UCLA that I would be the next Bruins head basketball coach." He continued: "As much as I wished the conversation with [the UCLA athletic director] had not taken place, I couldn't go back on my word. If your word is nothing, you're not much better."

I side with Coach Wooden.


Lord said...

It might have been handled smarter, but it is all a matter of what commitment the company made to their hire. Most likely it was employment at will, termination without cause, trial basis, no contract, no severance agreement, so at that point I can't see much obligation.

Michael Wade said...


You raise an interesting point. I think one factor to consider would be the extent to which backing out of the deal could be disruptive or embarrassing to the other side. For example, if they've made a big announcement about your acceptance, your reversal would have less impact than in a situation where they wouldn't blink but would simply place another person in the job. One test would be, "If they knew of the dream job offer, would they want you to take it or would they still want you to stick with them?" In some circumstances, it will be the latter. In Wooden's case, the length and nature of the negotiations raised the expectation that once the person sais yes, then he or she would stick with the agreement.