When You Should Turn Down Your Dream Job (Always Get Everything in Writing)

This scenario has happened twice in my life: After a boring, ho-hum day… suddenly, I get a call or email that changed my life.

Hey Karla – I have a job for you. It’s your dream job, and you’ll get paid a stupid amount of money. Interested?
Sincerely, Someone You Admire Whose Work You Respect

You get these kinds of job through trust. In both cases, the other person already knew my work.

Trust is leaving yourself open to loss, or a willingness to separate with a resource—even though the other person could technically screw you—because of an assumption that you’ll get everything back in the end. Ways to get trust:

  • “Shadow of the past.” What people have done in the past is our best bet to their future behavior. (Pattern recognition, baby.)
  • “Shadow of the future.” If you screw this person over, it’ll come back to haunt you, so it’s better to do what you can to stay on good terms. (Academic speak: “trust is the result of a forward-thinking assessment of the costs and benefits of trustworthy behavior for the partner.)

I only knew these two men by name, meaning that my trust in them was based on their reputations, or what I already thought about them based on social information, and indirect sources of knowledge. These men had built companies, intellectual properties, and corporate/online audiences. High status institutions trusted them.

Because they had been associated with large brands, household names, and friends-of-friends, I saw no risk, whatsoever. We lacked direct experience, and I wasn’t entirely sure what was going to happen. If the trustee has a strong reputation, and if reputation is a key success factor in the trustee’s field, then the trustee has an incentive to be trustworthy in order to preserve his or her reputation.

Everything good comes through someone trusted.

Both times, the same thing happened after we discussed job terms. I asked about a contract, and was told “I really didn’t want this to get too weird or formal. You know, it’s just us. I thought this was going to be a friendly thing.”

I agreed and told others about my amazing job. To myself, I thought, wow, I’ve made it. I’m at the level where things are all about handshake deals and quiet phone conversations.

At this point, I didn’t want to be seen as uncooperative or disagreeable. In this great study, “A Two-Dimensional Model for the Study of Interpersonal Attraction,” researchers what we’ve already seen in countless other studies, as well as common sense. We’re attracted to people based on their ability to help us achieve our goals, and their likelihood of doing so—usefulness and trust.

There’s an inherently uneven power dynamic when one party offers another one a job. As much as we like to flip the script and think that employers are lucky to have us, their ability to eat does not depend on my saying yes to the agreement.

There is no level where contracts are gauche, and everything switches to handshake deals and quiet phone conversations.

People in the public eye have a leg up, but take it from me: don’t be afraid to scare potential employers away. You can’t leave a Yelp review for a public figure.

O. Schilke, M. Reimann, and Karen S. Cook. “Trust in Social Relations.” Annual Review of Sociology 47 (2021): 239–59. (pdf)

R. Matthew Montoya and Robert S. Horton. “A Two-Dimensional Model for the Study of Interpersonal Attraction.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 18, no. 1 (2014): 59-86.

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