Joel Spolsky on Tech’s Hiring Season: Beware the Exploding Offer

explosion Joel Spolsky on Techs Hiring Season: Beware the Exploding Offer

Like Steve Ballmer on a bad day.

Thanksgiving marks the start of tech’s most intense hiring season, as promising computer science students start looking for summer jobs and internships. Software veteran Joel Spolsky was kind enough to let us print some of his thoughts on how to avoid getting stuck at your second choice. The original post appears on his blog, here.

If you’re a college student applying for jobs or summer internships, you’re at something of a disadvantage when it comes to negotiation. That’s because the recruiter does these negotiations for a living, while you’re probably doing it for the first time.

I want to warn you about one trick that’s very common with on-campus recruiters: the cynical “exploding offer.”

Here’s what happens. You get invited to interview at a good company. There’s an on-campus interview; maybe you even fly off to the company HQ for another round of interviews and cocktails. You ace the interview, of course. They make you an offer.

“That sounds great,” you say.

“So, when can you let us know?”

“Well,” you tell them, “I have another interview coming up in January. So I’ll let you know right after that.”

“Oh,” they say. “That might be a problem. We really have to know by December 31st. Can you let us know by December 31st?”

Tada! The magnificent “exploding offer.”

Here’s what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, well, that’s a good company, not my first choice, but still a good offer, and I’d hate to lose this opportunity. And you don’t know for sure if your number one choice would even hire you. So you accept the offer at your second-choice company and never go to any other interviews.

And now, you lost out. You’re going to spend several years of your life in some cold dark cubicle with a crazy boss who couldn’t program a twenty out of an ATM, while some recruiter somewhere gets a $1000 bonus because she was better at negotiating than you were.

Career counselors know this, and almost universally prohibit it. Every campus recruiting center has rules requiring every company that recruits on campus to give students a reasonable amount of time to make a decision and consider other offers.

The trouble is, the recruiters at the second-rate companies don’t give a shit. They know that you’re a college kid and you don’t want to mess things up with your first real job and you’re not going to call them on it. They know that they’re a second-rate company: good enough, but nobody’s dream job, and they know that they can’t get first-rate students unless they use pressure tactics like exploding offers.

And the worst thing that career centers can do is kick them off campus. Big whoop. So they hold their recruiting sessions and interviews in a hotel next to the campus instead of at the career center.

Here’s your strategy, as a student, to make sure you get the job you want.

1. Schedule your interviews as close together as possible.

2. If you get an exploding offer from a company that’s not your first choice, push back. Say, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to be able to give you an answer until January 14th. I hope that’s OK.” Almost any company, when pressed, will give you a chance to compare offers. Don’t worry about burning bridges or pissing anyone off. Trust me on this one: there’s not a single hiring manager in the world who wants to hire you but would get mad just because you’re considering other offers. It actually works the other way. When they realize you’re in demand, they’ll want you more.

In the rare case that they don’t accept that, accept the exploding offer at the last minute, but go to the other interviews anyway. Don’t cash any signing bonus checks, don’t sign anything, just accept the offer verbally. If you get a better offer later, call back the slimy company and tell them you changed your mind. Look, Microsoft hires thousands of college kids every year. If one of them doesn’t show up I think they’ll survive. Anyway, since we instituted that 13th amendment thing, they can’t force you to work for them.

If you do find yourself forced to renege on an offer, be classy about it. Don’t do this unless you are absolutely forced to because they literally refused to give you a chance to hear from your first choice company. And let them know right away you’re not going to take the offer, so they have a chance to fill the position with someone else.

Campus recruiters count on student’s high ethical standards. Almost all students think, “gosh, I promised I’ll go work for them, and I’m going to keep my promise.” And that’s great, that’s a commendable attitude. Definitely. But unethical recruiters that don’t care about your future and don’t want you to compare different companies are going to take advantage of your ethics so they can get their bonus. And that’s just not fair.


  1. Ah things I wish someone told me back in the day. A+

  2. Michał Grzemowski says:

    Like there are no ethical standards or rules when it comes to love, there are also none in HR. Healthy cynicism and selfishness are the way to go. Think Dilbert – some companies are literally dilbertish, others pretend a little better.

    PS. Sorry – English is not my first language.

  3. germcdonald says:

    @ Fs Publishing indeed, great post cheers.

  4. germcdonald says:

    @ Fs Publishing indeed, great post cheers.

  5. Juds says:

    You might want to amend your post to point out that companies want to give out limited offers because they need to hire a certain number of people. If decisions get pushed out past the end of the year, they aren’t left with much to choose from. Don’t be surprised if you say “I need until Jan 30” and the company says that they can’t guarantee your position after Dec 31. By you telling them that, they know that they aren’t your first choice.

  6. SomeGuy says:

    Great stuff.  I believe in having high ethical standards, but after dealing with so many slimy people in the last 20 years in the business world … I’ve seen to many good people do stupid things because some sociopath was able to manipulate their sense of morality and values, that now I think there are a few cases, such as this, where it is ok to go back on your word.  Hitler would have been thrown out of power by the Germans if the Nazis weren’t so good at manipulating citizen’s sense of duty toward God and country.

  7. ryantate says:

    A post on ethics that fails to disclose it was originally written three years ago. Come on Ben. There’s some value in Joel’s old post but it’s wrong to obscure its age.

  8. Visitor says:

    “Trust me on this one: there’s not a single hiring manager in the world who wants to hire you but would get mad just because you’re considering other offers. ”
    I don’t believe that to be true. A hiring manager wants to feel confident that an employee is not only skilled and are a good match for the job, but that they *want* to work there. If a hiring managers makes a good offer, they could view it as a negative that the employee still wants to shop around. (It would be a mistake on the part of the hiring manager, but it does happen.)

  9. Hero Antagonist says:

    C’mon. Hiring a tech out of college who’s never held a real job before is like hiring a 12-year-old. There’s no added value there, and nothing to suggest they deserve special treatment.

    1. Neuralwarp says:


  10. Cory Dolphin says:

    I can relate, after the recent hiring season with @Google:twitter  and @microsoft:twitter . I found being completely honest with the recruiters to be a very profitable endeavor– it not only allowed me to engage the recruiters to help find positions in which I would be happier, but allowed me to think and learn more about my roles at different companies. 

    To all those going through the process, be clear about what you want, you are probably brilliant and talented and it is just a matter of finding the right spot!

    I must applaud both recruiting teams, who were really amazing in the process, both essentially responded by asking what it was that the other companies were doing that made them more interesting/ that would make them more interesting : “Is there anything (other company’s name here) could do to win you over?”. 

  11. Guest says:

    And I used to trust Joel’s advice once upon a time

  12. Is it common for companies to ask who else you’re interviewing with? That happened recently with me, but I had never experienced it before…

  13. As a former university recruiter at Microsoft, I see some great ideas here and some need for clarification, too. Joel’s concept of holding recruiters to a higher ethical standard is spot on, but don’t sacrifice your morals to hold them to a higher standard. 

    First off: I don’t speak on behalf of Microsoft, so the legions of lawyers can stop reading here. 

    I can assure you that every Microsoft recruiter is deathly afraid of getting the company kicked off of any campus. Additionally, all recruiters know about your specific campus rules.

    It should be noted that reneging on a company costs them thousands of dollars. One shouldn’t read Joel’s post and think it’s okay to renege on a company. It’s unethical. Period. Microsoft will not let you interview if you’ve accepted an offer with another company. They don’t want to put you in a situation where you have to be unethical with another company. So, Joel’s advice could actually PREVENT you from getting your dream job. 

    I can personally tell you that I would not work for or with a company that used “exploding offers” as a tactic and I wouldn’t hire an employee that reneged on another offer to come work for me. The knife cuts both ways. Hold your recruiter AND yourself to a higher standard. 

    Here’s my advice:

    1. If you ever get what seems like an “exploding offer”, you should first politely remind them of your university’s rules. (Note: I’ve forgotten to check the university rules before setting a deadline….it happens). To a man and woman, they will be sure and work within the rules (at MSFT at least). And stick to your guns on this one.

    2. If the company you are working with does not listen to you. DO NOT ACCEPT THE OFFER YET! Go to your careers center and talk with a counselor. They will take note of the unethical recruiter and typically help you work with the company. 

    3. Remember to respect the rules of your university as well. You should be able to compare offers, but your university has rules that spell out what a “reasonable” amount of time is to consider an offer (typically 2 weeks). If you’re interviewing with several companies, tell each of the companies that you have an offer and they will typically work with you to expedite the process. 

    4. Remember: If a recruiter gives you a 2 or 3 week deadline and that is within the rules of your university, THAT IS NOT AN EXPLODING OFFER and you still need to respect the business process. I once had a candidate that wanted a 2 month deadline because their dream company still hadn’t responded with an interview request. This candidate’s university set rules that said that they had to be given at least a 3 week deadline. I gave him 4 weeks to think about it and to give the other company time to respond (and 4 weeks is plenty of time to do that, as a company will typically expedite the process if you have an offer). He kept pushing for another month, because the other company hadn’t responded. He had no respect for the company that had given the offer and that showed. BE RESPECTFUL….especially if the company is respecting you. 

    Summary: Hold others to a higher standard. Hold yourself to a higher standard. Expect respect. Be respectful. Note: This also holds true for life. 

  14. Managers want  action takers and action coders,not call you backers!
    If you want the job take it~right now because it,s a right now world!

  15. Neuralwarp says:

    If an employer can sack you at will – in the UK they can do that without giving a reason if you’ve held a post for less than 3 months – then  I think the same moral standard should apply to employees. If you get a better offer, just take it. The burden is on the 1st employer to make the job rewarding enough to keep you interested.