I Declined a Job Offer

I’ve been keeping myself awake at night these past few days thinking about a job offer that I declined earlier in the week. After not working for almost two years (and not interviewing in nine), I got my first offer here in Hong Kong and I declined it. I’ve had some feelings of guilt and remorse, but ultimately I know it’s the right decision, so I’m writing this down as a reminder to myself that I did the right thing (because I’m so prone to forgetting and then getting depressed again).

As I said in the one year update, I’m not going to game the system, i.e. I’m not going to say the right or politically-correct things nor am I going to send out five million resumes just so I can get a job. I’m going to be myself (as much as possible, because I admit I sometimes still fall into the “say the right thing” trap), and I’m going to only apply for jobs where I mostly meet the requirements and where I think I’ll fit in. This one was an IT support job at a primary school. I’ve always been fond of the school environment (sometimes I feel like I’m still a kid; JC would probably say that I am still a kid), I’ve enjoyed working around kids, and it would be a nice change of pace from my last job, so I went for it.

This was one of those applications where you fill out a form instead of sending in your resume. So, you have to re-type information that’s already on your resume into a web form. I spent a weekend doing that, pouring out my life story and explaining how I’ve spent the last two years going on Adventure 2012 and moving to Hong Kong. I realize that because I haven’t worked in almost two years, I have to try extra hard to convince an employer that I won’t be a risky hire.

A few days later I receive a call from the HR manager asking to set up an interview. Awesome. He says that the compensation would be relatively low (75% less than my previous job, 50% less than my market value). I’ve already said that money isn’t super important to me, plus I always knew that in absolute terms I would never make as much in Hong Kong, so I told him I was fine with it (I really was fine with it).

The next day I decide to actually go to the school and check it out (it’s usually a good idea to scope out the location of your interview so that at least one thing feels familiar on the day of). From where I live, it’s a single-transfer trip on public transportation and takes an hour without traffic. Ouch. Still, I thought it didn’t seem so bad because on the second leg I’d always get a seat and it’d be a single-seater so I could use my laptop or tablet during the commute (or that’s what I thought). Was I rationalizing already?

On Monday morning I take the same route to the school. It was a pretty bumpy ride (forget about using a laptop), and I felt relieved once I got off. I was glad that I had already done the commute once so I didn’t have another thing to worry about. Good thing too because it was a 3-on-1 interview! One little chair right in the middle with my name on it, and three interviewers getting ready to grill me.

It actually wasn’t bad because they were some pretty cool guys that I could see myself working with. We talked about teamwork, a difficult task that I have faced at work, prioritizing service requests, and even Star Trek (because Captain Picard runs a tight ship and everybody is happy to work under him). The only obvious blunder I remember is asking about holidays for my first question. I was only curious because it was a school (you know, with summer vacation and all), but it could have come off as I hadn’t even gotten the job yet and I was already concerned about holidays. It was a relatively short interview; I got the feeling that I was asking too many questions at the end, so I finished up quickly. When I walked back outside, it had only been 45 minutes. All the thinking about it over the weekend, the preparation, the commute, and just like that it was over. I was expecting more and wasn’t sure what to do. When I realized there was nothing left to do but to go home, I crossed the street to the mini-bus stop.

On the trip back a smelly lady got on and sat behind me. Actually, I don’t know if she was smelly or if her breath was smelly. Either way, I was the subject of an offensive-smell bombardment for 45 minutes, and I couldn’t open the window (sealed for the A/C). I was tired from the interview and had barely eaten anything for breakfast (my fault, of course). I was crashing from the caffeine I had earlier. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, and I had to wonder, would it be better or worse after a long day of work?

When I got back to the transfer point, I took the bus instead of the tram so I could get home faster. On the bus, one of the interviewers called me with some follow-up questions. He asked me the dreaded “where do you see yourself in 3 years?” question. I said that I wanted to live a happy and stable life. I also got into how I hadn’t worked in two years and that I’d be grateful to whoever hired me and wouldn’t jump ship, because he mentioned that one of their concerns was long-term retention. I think at that point I did say some things that I thought he wanted to hear. It was definitely different from when I was alert and ready during the interview.

Once I finally got home, I was glad to put on my normal clothes and re-energize with a nice lunch.

A couple of hours later, I received a call from the same interviewer. I got the job! Wow, that was quick. They wanted me to start in a week, and come in for a short orientation a couple of days before that. Damn. At that moment, I wanted to say yes, but I knew that it was a good idea to see the offer in writing first, so I asked for it to be emailed to me. I got the email a short while after.

Strangely, the only detail the email had in it was the monthly salary. No contract, no agreement, no work hours, no attachment. They wanted me to reply by 1600 hours the next day, less than 24 hours later. The lack of a detailed offer combined with the rush got my alarm bells going. I mean, I understood that someone had resigned and they needed someone, but at the same time the interview had been pretty quick. I had neglected to ask some important questions, such as what my specific work hours would be, who my direct supervisor would be, and whether I could look around the campus. I didn’t have enough information to make a decision, and I wondered how they could expect me to make one.

I thought about emailing them and asking them those questions, and asking for a tour of the school prior to my final decision, but it was already the end of the work day. I would have to write the email quickly. I kept composing, deleting, and composing a draft email trying to squeeze it in, but it just didn’t come out right. Being the end of the day, even if they had received my email, they probably wouldn’t respond immediately, so I decided to sleep on it.

That night, I tried to tell myself that no job is perfect and that this was a great opportunity. I could be working in a week’s time, not worrying about having to eat away at my savings anymore, not be in a single-income family anymore. That part of it was definitely appealing. But that could be said of any job. I tried to tell myself that this was a school job, that it would be less stressful and less political. But would that really be the case? From what I’ve seen of school jobs, they can be just as stressful and political as jobs in non-educational sectors. By themselves, the commute and the pay were fine. You have good commute days and bad commute days, and even on that salary we would still be earning more than what we’d spend. Together, though, the commute and the pay became a negative. I’ve talked a lot here about how time is my most important asset. Even under ideal conditions, I’d be going through two hours of travel time each day. If the pay was higher, it would have made the commute easier to swallow. If there were other parts of the job that were really appealing, it would have made the commute and the pay easier to swallow. But I didn’t have all the information, and I had to respond, fast. The question was whether I thought there was any hope of me taking that job, based on what I had seen in the interview, the commute, and the pay. If there was, then I could ask the questions and do the tour, and then decide. If there was nothing that could overcome those factors, however, then it would be best to save everyone’s time and decline.

For me the experience was like seeing a car on a website, really liking it, then going to the dealership to find out that it has an old-man style foot-activated parking brake (vs. a handbrake). You want to justify taking the car, but every time you set the parking brake, you’d be reminded that you’re driving an old-man car. You keep clicking and clicking around the website, hoping that somehow the foot-brake will magically disappear, but it doesn’t. In your heart, you know you can’t do it. It sounds kind of silly, but we all have our baselines, of what we can and cannot tolerate. You have to know what these are and be honest to yourself, and then do what you have to do.

I did what I had to do and declined the offer, thanking them for the opportunity and the learning experience.

Looking for a job can be tiring and stressful. This week I’ve been talking to my recruiter (the one I stood up back in September), and she’s been sending me job descriptions from various financial firms, and I’ve been wondering whether I did the right thing. I could have had a job in a school, helping kids, being next to kids. They really do say the funniest things and it’d probably be a blast working with them. Instead, I might be going back down the path I was on before, doing a job in a company that helps rich people get richer. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but obviously it’s not the same as working in a school. Not so obviously, is that really me and what I want to do? I wonder if I’m being overly idealistic and naive, again. This past year I’ve peeled off so many layers of my old self, getting closer to what I think is the real me. Would I be taking a step back? Is it really possible to do what you want to do in life? Or are we all doomed to a life of wage-slavery? The answer is somewhere in between, or completely outside. I’m going to keep looking for it while I do my own thing. Thank you for reading.

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