How to handle an exploding job offer

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Depending on who you listen to, 'exploding offers', or job offers that are retracted unless a candidate accepts them quickly, are either common at investment banks, or very rare.

Some, such as Goldman Sachs, say they do not use them. Others say they employ the strategy all the time. The head of graduate recruitment at one US bank said: 'All banks are becoming more ruthless about persuading people to join. Exploding offers are part of that process.'

Exactly what constitutes an exploding offer is open to dispute. Time limits on accepting job offers are inevitable: positions cannot be held open indefinitely. However very short deadlines, which coerce candidates into accepting one offer before they can consider alternatives, are used by employers with great effect.

Some business schools define exploding offers as anything left open for less than a month. Janet Bacastow, a financial services careers counsellor at London Business School, said it asks employers approaching MBA students to keep full time offers open for at least four weeks.

'If a student comes to us and says they are being put under a lot of pressure to make up their mind quickly, we steer employers in the direction of the code. Banks know it exists.'

Undergraduates can also try to invoke this. But they are more vulnerable. David Ainscough, a careers adviser at Cambridge University, said it is not unusual for investment banks to issue exploding offers for graduate trainees. He said the average duration of such offers is two weeks, but it can be less if banks' recruiters are being pressurised by line managers who want a student to accept.

To deal with exploding offers, students should make sure they are talking to several banks at the same time. They can then ask interested employers to speed up their decision on whether to make an offer (a sort of exploding offer in reverse).

Requests for an exploding offer to be extended often meet with flat refusal. A bank might say: 'Twenty people want this job, so you must decide now.' One way round this is to accept subject to some condition to be met later, such as a mutually acceptable starting date.

Ainscough said exploding offers are sometimes issued to summer interns at end of their internship. These offers typically expire in October, before the milk round begins. 'Successful interns often don't have a chance to meet with any other banks and work out whether they would prefer to work somewhere else,' he said.

One MBA student at London Business School said he issued exploding offers during his previous career as a banker: 'Offers would typically expire after four or five days. We would say to people, 'We've got an offer for you. These are they key terms; let's arrange a time for you to come into the office and sign your contract.'

A student at Cambridge said she received an offer with a short deadline from a US asset management firm in Germany. 'I was put under a lot of pressure to accept within the week, without even seeing the contract.'

She accepted. But the head of graduate recruitment at one London-based bank said undergraduates should stand their ground. 'It's about strength of character. If you're a 22-year-old and it's the first time it's happened to you, you won't know what to do. But most banks are prepared to be flexible.'

Felix Lai, a student at Cambridge University, said: 'In my opinion, exploding offers should not be allowed at all. It takes away the student's freedom to explore all their options.

'The best universities in America already ban exploding offers, in exchange for allowing companies to conduct recruitment on campus.'

Faye Farrant, a recruitment executive at Bank of America in London, said: 'We usually allow two weeks (in the UK) , but it is generally negotiable. Our feeling is that people should have time to make a choice.'

If a candidate is wavering and appears to be in contact with other banks, Farrant said Bank of America will try to sway their decision in other ways. 'We try to put them in touch with senior bankers or someone else who has been through the graduate process.'

Extra pay is rarely offered as an inducement at the graduate level, said Farrant.

Lesley Wilkinson, head of recruitment at Citigroup, said the bank does a lot to 'help' wavering candidates decide. 'We don't ask people to decide by tomorrow evening, but we put a lot of resources behind helping them to come to the right decision. We provide quite a lot of data on our company and allow them to meet with senior people.'

Lee Thacker, a headhunter at the Whitney Group in London, said banks can get very nervous if it looks like a desired candidate is going to pull out. 'Most written offers in an investment bank have a 14-day limit, but this might change to one or two days if they think someone is about to go off to a competitor.'

Thacker said candidates should not confess to rival offers. Instead, they should come up with plausible reasons why they cannot accept in the specified period. These include: 'I am performing very detailed due diligence. I want to be sure of this career move, because I expect to spend the next 10 years working for you;' and 'I need to consult my mentor, who is skiing and won't be back until next month'.

Undergraduates who receive exploding offers should not be surprised, said Thacker. 'Banks are aggressive institutions and you are getting into an aggressive world. That is what it will be like when you join.'

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