What happens if you accept a job offer but then change your mind? Can you just quit or not show up for work? In some cases, you may have legal obligations to your future employer. And, even if you don’t, it’s best to handle the situation as professionally as possible.
If You’re an At-Will Employee
In nearly all states, the default rule is that employment relationships are "at will." This means that your employer may fire you at any time, for any reason that is not illegal (such as discrimination based on race or gender). Likewise, you are generally free to quit your job at any time and for any reason. This includes quitting before you even show up for your first day of work.
Even if you’re not legally obligated to show up to work or give your employer notice, it’s generally considered courteous to do so. Believe it or not, the employer has already invested time and money in you, by interviewing and selecting you for the position. Depending on how close you are to your start date, the employer may also have prepared training for you, put you on payroll, and arranged for you to receive employment benefits, like health insurance. And, of course, the employer has probably already turned down other qualified candidates, who may or may not still be available to take the job.
You should give your employer as much notice as possible, be honest about your decision, and apologize for the inconvenience. Handling the situation in a professional manner will keep your reputation intact and leave open the possibility of applying with that employer in the future.
If You Have an Employment Contract
If you have an employment contract, you are not considered an at-will employee. Employment contracts are often written, but they can also be formed orally—for example, if you make certain promises to an employer in person. If your contract requires you to work for a certain amount of time, or to give a certain amount of notice before quitting, you will need to comply with the terms of the agreement.
Before you renege on the job, check your employment contract carefully to see if it restricts your ability to leave early. For example, if your written contract requires you to stay with the company for a year, you will be obligated to do so. Or, if your contract requires you to give the employer two weeks’ notice or 30 days' notice before leaving, you will need to oblige. In either case, however, you can always talk to your employer and see if it will agree to let you out of the contract early.
If you fail to follow the terms of your employment agreement, the employer could sue you for breach of contract. The likelihood of this happening depends on how much harm your employer will suffer as a result of you leaving. For example, the employer is more likely to sue if your position is a high priority and your departure compromises a major business deal for the company. In many cases, though, employers may not be too motivated to sue—after all, they probably don’t want to keep an employee who doesn't want to be there or get a reputation for suing their own workers.
Your employment contract might contain a noncompete clause, where you promise not to work for your employer’s competitors for a certain period of time after you quit. However, the purpose behind a noncompete is to prevent you from gaining valuable knowledge on the job and then taking it to a competitor of the employer. If you haven’t even started your job yet, this is unlikely to be a problem. For more information on noncompetes, see Noncompete Contracts: Uses & Abuses.
If you signed any type of document when you were hired, or you made certain promises to the employer in person, you should talk to an attorney before you quit the job.
Questions for Your Attorney
- How much will you charge to look at my employment contract?
- Does my contract limit my ability to quit?
- How likely is my employer to sue me for breach of contract?