Thursday, 7 October 2010

Dealing with difficult situations during the application process

A lot of the questions that get asked on forums or that students find particularly difficult to deal with is when a clash of some sort occurs with dates or offers.  The advice you will get will often depend on who  you are asking - the employer, the careers service, your friends, your family etc. So, I thought I would give you my honest advice as a recruiter on dealing with some of the more common scenarios that occur.

You have an offer from your second favourite company that expires this Friday and an invitation from your favourite company to attend an assessment centre next week.
The first thing I would do is check with your favourite company (I'm going to call them Company 1) and explain that you have an offer from Company 2 but that they are your preferred employer and is there any way you can attend sooner. A graduate with an offer in hand from a competitor is always of interest, and so if they can slot you into an earlier centre, or make some alternative arrangement, then they usually will.
The next consideration is whether the offer is verbal or written. If the offer is verbal, then I would just accept it. The reality is that this is not binding. It will take at least a few days for them to send out the contract and they will need to give you a week or so to look over it. By then, you should have heard back from Company 1 after the assessment centre and if you get an offer from them too, then you can decline the written contract and write a letter of explanation (more on this later).
If the offer is written and about to expire, then that is when it is trickiest. Essentially, you have 3 options:
1-call and ask for an extension on the offer
2-sign the offer but intend to renege on it if you get an offer from Company 1
3-decline the offer.

In the current market, I wouldn't advise taking option 3. A bird in the hand, etc… an offer from a company you would like to work for is not to be sniffed at.  I'd probably try option 1 and ask if you can have an extension on the offer. They will know that you have someone else that you want to work for, which isn't ideal, and unless they are feeling generous probably wont extend the deadline, but it's worth a try. They won't withdraw the offer on the basis of you asking the question. 
If they wont give you an extension, then I would go for option 2. Sign it and send it in. OK, I'm a recruiter and maybe you'd expect me to say otherwise, but the reality of the situation that you are in is that Company 2 have left you with no choice here. If the other offer from Company 1 is forthcoming, then ultimately yes, you are in a difficult situation, but I will advise below how to recover as best you can. 

You have been invited to two assessment centres on the same day 
If you are fortunate enough to get invited to multiple assessment centres, it is immensely frustrating if suddenly you find out that the date clashes for 2 (or more!) of them. Whilst many companies will have multiple assessment centres, especially for the larger programmes, the reality is that there does come a point when all the places on a programme are full. Some of the smaller specialist programmes that might take only 10-20 people will often have only 1 or 2 assessment centres a year as a number of the places are likely to be filled with last year's interns.
When faced with a situation where you have two A.C.s on the same day, try to take a logical approach. Yes, you can probably phone and move to another assessment centre date for one of them. But there is a risk that the roles will be gone in the one that you move, or they will already have a number of people from a similar background as you and will be looking to round out the programme with people from a different degree, etc.
When you have to prioritise one A.C. over the other, there are two major things to consider 1) which is the job you most want and 2) which is the A.C. you are most likely to get an offer from. If those two are one and the same, then the choice is clear. Call the other A.C. and see if it can be changed. If it can't, then you do have the option of going back to the other and changing that - but remember, you are then de-prioritising it and taking a risk that the positions will no longer be available. The earlier you can get invited to an assessment centre, the better your chances of getting a role - not least because there are more roles to be had. My advice would be go to the one that you most want, even if it means not going to the other at all. 

You have accepted an offer at Company X and then get another offer from Company Y which you would prefer
This is similar to the option above where you have accepted an offer and then want to pull out and take another.  My advice is to take the one that you really want, if you don't, you will only regret it for some time to come. But only decline the one that you have, once you have signed and accepted a written contract (not on the basis on having received a verbal offer only). 

Declining an offer you have previously accepted - Recovering the situation
Most graduates send an email or a letter. Make no mistake, we know this is because they are scared to phone and just can't face it. I understand that. It's awful. But, unfortunately it really, really is the best thing to do to ensure you eliminate collateral damage. The most difficult thing to do is actually phone up and explain what has happened, how sorry you are, etc. They will still be annoyed, but they will be a lot, lot less annoyed than if you send an email.  They will respect the fact that you made the call.

To put it in context, the reason they are annoyed is:
- that graduate will have been promised to a particular team. That team will now be without a grad. In the eyes of that team, the recruiters have 'failed' them. No one likes to fail.
- there will have been other grads that were very close to an offer, that they really liked, but you were picked over them. Just. Now they are wishing they picked 'the other guy'.
- often the induction will be planned - facebooks produced, teams allocated, FSA exams lined up, etc. Your name and details will be in all of these things, so it might well mean quite a bit of rework for them.

Follow up your call with a letter, explaining the situation, how difficult you found making a decision, enjoyed everyone that you met, that you sincerely apologise for any inconvenience caused, etc, etc. It sounds awfully grovelly, but in all honesty, it costs nothing and it makes sure that they don't hold it against you as ultimately they understand that these things happen and we all get on with it. 

In the current market, some graduates are accepting two offers and keeping them both in hand right up to the last minute incase a company pulls out. This I can also understand. However, what I would say is the longer you wait, the more likely you are to get yourself 'blacklisted' at a company for a longer period. Depending on the HR set-up at the particular company, once you are loaded onto the HR system as an employee (which could be anything from when they receive your contract back, to 2-3 weeks before you start), if you withdraw, you are then updated on the system as a 'no show'. This could then show when you later apply for experienced hire roles later in your career.  That's not to say that that definitely means they wont hire you - the longer the time that passes, the better.

Also, many graduate recruiters at different firms know each other well. I know of several situations where they have called each other and said 'we have had this person not show up - are they at your firm?'. I even know one case where a graduate had accepted the signing on bonus from several banks and then (obviously!) only showed up to one. He was found out within a day and fired from his role and blacklisted from all the major banks immediately. To be honest, that was a fairly extreme scenario - not many people are that stupid! - but I just want to demonstrate how well the recruiters know each other.

Some final advice. Don't waste hours and hours thinking what you would do if you find yourself in any of the situations above. Spend your time on activities that add real value to your CV, your interiews, your assessment centres.  If you are "lucky" enough to be in one of those situations, then you will deal with it then as best you can. There is no point worrying about them and planning for them. And to be honest, no matter how many you plan for and think through, in my experience, it is always the one scenario that you haven't thought about that is the one that eventually arises! 

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