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When the Interview Process Doesn't go as Planned

Q. I had a phone interview with company, X, for position, A, that went well and resulted in an invite for an in-person interview with their executives in Denver. They made the arrangements and paid for the flight and hotel. Between the phone interview and the scheduled flight, I had an interview with Company, Y, that went really well and I was offered the job. The deadline to accept was a week before I was scheduled to fly out to Denver, so I accepted the position with Company Y. I immediately told Company X, that I was no longer interested in the position and, therefore would not be traveling to Denver. Company X then billed me for the flight. Can they do that? Am I legally responsible?

A. The company can bill you, and I would bet they sent that bill to deliver a message. They were unhappy with you pulling the plug on the interview process and not completing the step in the process as planned. However, legal and financial responsibility are not the same as inconvenience.

I consulted with Julie Moore, an attorney, certified human resources professional and founder of Employment Practices Group, a consulting firm in Wellesley that focuses on workplace issues. Given the circumstances, she doubts that any contractual liability would result based on the communications surrounding the interview process and Denver flight expenses. According to Moore, there would need to be a, “meeting of the minds,” or an understanding that the candidate would be financially responsible for the expense under certain conditions. Certainly the candidate would argue that the company could have purchased a refundable ticket rather than a non-refundable (and cheaper) ticket. “It is an unfortunate situation,” said Moore, “But one that I don’t see as creating a legal obligation on the part of the candidate to repay the company.”

As with all relationships, “Clear and unambiguous communication is key, and can minimize liabilities and unwanted aggravation when a question such as this arises,” said Moore. “If the employer wanted to have the candidate bear some financial risk,” Moore added, “It could have done so in writing by explicitly stating that the candidate was responsible for travel expenses, and perhaps add that the company would reimburse the candidate if the candidate was hired, for example.” The company’s failure to be clear about payment of expenses in this case results in the company bearing the loss.

Often deadlines can be renegotiated. If you had been interested in Company X, you might have asked if you could have the Denver meeting earlier than scheduled. You had the option of letting Company Y know you had a final meeting in an interview process scheduled, and had committed to that. There are often more choices than a job search candidate believes. If you accepted the job because it was the better of the two opportunities, that’s great, as I would not encourage you to put any offer at risk.

The professional world is small, and human resources people share experiences. A written apology for the inconvenience and costs incurred might erase a small bit of the hard feelings.

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