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updated: 7/15/2012 6:43 AM

Work advice: Handling the delicate dances of acceptance, rejection

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Q: I am a college junior. I was applying for internships and had only heard back from one place. They told me the position was mine if I wanted it. I said, "OK, sounds good." A couple of days ago, another workplace called me -- one I am more interested in. I have an interview with them next week.

1. Is that bad? Did I technically already "commit" to the first internship?

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2. When I am applying for jobs, what if the perfect opportunity comes after I've accepted another offer? Is there anytime when you can't bail?

A: Your realistic odds of legal repercussions are slim (for a paying job) to none (for an unpaid gig), from what Ober Kaler employment lawyer Sharon Snyder tells me. But bailing on an offer you've accepted is generally bad form. And don't be surprised if your school hears about it.

As I see it, everyone should be allowed a single "get out of job free" card to be used when a once-in-a-career opportunity pops up at an inopportune time. Are you sure you want to play that card before your career has even passed "Go"?

Or, using an even more dated metaphor: Weighing job offers is a delicate dance. You must do what's best for you while stepping on as few toes as possible. Thus, you should always request a few days to consider -- and use that time to follow up on your other leads.

Next time, keep some space open on that dance card. This time? I'd recommend you dance with the one that bring you.

Q: I am the chairman of an academic department that hires two or three people per year. After the successful candidate has accepted, I call the other candidates to tell them. However, they are often in places (such as the classroom or the library) where cellphone use is not allowed. May I leave a message with the news? I know it's wrong to break up via phone message, but I also don't want unsuccessful candidates to think, on hearing a message asking them to call, that I am going to offer them a job.

A: Bless you for not wanting to string anyone along. But I think it's appropriate -- in fact, kindest -- to leave a message simply stating that you've decided to go with someone else and you appreciate their interest. You could invite them to call you back with questions, although that might lead to painful debriefings: "It's my resume, isn't it? I knew I used the wrong font!"

In the future, when you hold interviews, tell candidates upfront that you'll leave a message with your decision if you can't reach them in person. Otherwise, all you owe them is kindness, courtesy and consideration. (Also applies to dating.)

• Karla L. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.

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