So you just got an offer for a great internship that you’d really love to take, but you already accepted an internship a few months ago from another company and they are expecting you to start in May. It was a good company, decent pay, and you felt some pressure to commit at the time because it was the only/best offer you had and they weren’t going to keep the position open forever. Can you renege on (back out of) your acceptance of the first offer? Should you?
It’s not illegal, but it’s also not without consequences.
Going back on your commitment to join a particular employer, even as an intern, is something companies take very seriously. It is considered unprofessional and unethical because you are not keeping your word, essentially breaking the foundation for trust. You most certainly will “burn a bridge” and miss out on future opportunities to be hired for paying positions by that company. The company will be put in a difficult decision to either extend an offer to the runner up they already turned down (and who probably accepted another offer) or to start the recruiting process all over again in the final hour.
On campus, your school may have certain consequences depending on how the internship was obtained. If it was on campus recruiting (OCR), they can ban you from future job fairs, resume workshops, and career resources. Even if you didn’t get your internship through OCR, some companies may contact your school, who could still impose sanctions because they feel that students reneging on accepted offers harms the school’s reputation with employers they count on for donations and student placement.
Finally, you have a personal reputation to uphold. You may think that the only person who knows is company A, but recruiters talk, people change companies, and you’d be surprised at the potential harm down the road in your chosen industry. If you worked with a recruiter, internal or external, they won’t be willing to put their own reputation on the line for you again. Additionally, internal recruiters can move to other companies, causing you issues down the line should that person be working for a company you want to work at. There are plenty of cases where candidates have lost both offers due to people who knew about the situation talking. At the end of the day, you have to decide if your word matters and if that is a personal value you want to uphold.
Prevention is key to avoiding an ethical dilemma.
The trend of reneging offers is becoming increasingly more common, mostly due in part to a competing marketplace for talent. Companies are contributing to the problem by moving dates up sooner and sooner, and some pressure candidates to accept offers even up to a year before. However, leading employers understand that top talent has choices and will respect and work with you through exploring those options, within a reasonable timeframe, provided you are open and communicate.
Let the company know that you haven’t finished hearing back from all of the companies that you’ve interviewed with, and you want to make an informed decision, but that you are interested in working there. If you don’t really intend on accepting their offer, release it to someone who really wants it. Stay in communication and jointly agree on a date that you will get back to them. Without the communication, they will assume you don’t really want to work there and give the offer to another candidate. Alternatively, if you drag it out unnecessarily but ultimately end up joining, you show that you aren’t that excited and could cause an awkward situation when you start.
Know what is important to you about an internship and be able to vet out opportunities up front. If an internship is missing a “must have” on your list or shows any reg flags, don’t waste their time or yours. If you’re truly excited and it really is what you want, trust your gut, commit, and stick with it. Your intuition is usually right.
As for return offers, your best bet is not to accept them to begin with, unless you are 100% sure you want to work there post graduate. You won’t be the same person you are in one year from now, and it’s probable that what you want from an internship will be different too. While this may not seem logical at first, you most certainly will have other offers next year and the purpose of interning is to gain broad experience. If you already interned with a company, give another a try. You don’t know what you don’t know, and this is the best time in your life to unapologetically try new things.
If you do renege, be as professional as possible.
If after careful consideration, you do decide to renege your original offer, be as professional about it as possible. Let them know as soon as you can, so they can start working on a backup plan. Write a letter explaining the situation and apologize for the inconvenience you have caused. This will minimize your reputational risk. You can even recommend a replacement, which they surely will appreciate. Under any circumstances, do NOT wait to no show on the first day.
Don’t renege and still win.
You still really wanted to accept that new/better offer, but you’ve decided it isn’t worth the risk. Both the current employer and the prospective one will thank you. You can write a letter to the prospective employer and let them know that unfortunately you have already committed to another company, but that you would like to be confirmed or considered next year for an internship/full time position. They will understand and respect this, and most importantly they will respect you. You will build good will with the new company and open a door for future positions, while protecting your reputation with the current one. At the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do.