Ask an Ethicist: Can I turn down an accepted internship offer for a better one?

January 08, 2016

In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, Ask an Ethicist, aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website

Question: I pushed myself to apply to top companies for my summer internship. I was so excited to get an offer from Company A that I accepted the internship immediately fearing I might not get another offer. However, I just received an internship offer from Company B, which is my top choice. I would much rather work at Company B, but I’m concerned reneging on the original accepted offer from Company A could hurt future opportunities. Can I change my mind? I have not started working at Company A yet. 

The ethicist responds: It is important to understand that all of your decisions will affect your future in one way or another. Starting with your internships, you are building a network of connections that will help to develop your future career path. Beginning this journey with a negative action like reneging on an internship offer could create a bad reputation for you from the start. Let’s be honest. Will this company be interested in you in the future? Maybe, maybe not. Are recruiters communicating to each other about situations like this? Some are, some are not. There are many factors that play into this. Your goal is to create a professional image and avoid anything that could damage it.

When an offer is made and then accepted there is a direct understanding (most likely in writing) that your search has ended, and you have committed to this particular organization. Of course you were excited to get an offer from a top company and no one can blame you for accepting so quickly. This is a good learning moment for all of us. It is important to take your time when making big decisions. Take at least a week to review an internship or job offer, contact the other sites you applied to for an update, research the company and weigh your options.

In your situation, the decision is yours. However, it is important to weigh the pros and cons and understand that by changing your mind, the door may close on ever working for this company again. It is also important to remember that you are a representative of Penn State and your decision just might have a negative impact for future Penn Staters applying to this organization. There are some colleges and campuses that may have policies in place for reneging on an offer. Check with your college or campus before making this decision. If you were willing to accept the internship from Company A in the first place there must be some benefits to you. Think hard and long about the consequences and make the decision that will benefit you most in your career.

Make sure to take advantage of the resources around you in helping you to make these tough decisions! There are a variety of career development opportunities for all students on each Penn State campus including your adviser and faculty. Career Services at the Bank of America Career Services Center, at University Park, offers drop-in counseling Monday through Friday to review career-related concerns such as major/career decisions, resumes, graduate school, salary negotiations and interviewing. Mark your calendar for the upcoming Spring Career Days Feb. 9 -10.

And, the Career Enrichment Network provides career development resources to help prepare Liberal Arts students specifically for their career journeys. Liberal Arts students find valuable resources at the Network including internships, mentoring, global experiences and career coaching. Additionally, the College of the Liberal Arts will be having a Liberal Arts Career Week Jan. 18-23, 2016. This weeklong event will provide you with opportunities to develop professional skills and provide networking opportunities. For the full schedule visit the website here

Katie Wysocki is assistant director of the Career Enrichment Network in the College of the Liberal Arts. Previously she served as career counselor and employer specialist at Penn State Brandywine.

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"Ask an Ethicist" is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute or Penn State. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. Read the full disclaimer.

  • A headshot of Katie Wysocki
    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated May 19, 2016