Yep — it seems like a nice problem to have (job offers!), but it can be really stressful to figure out how to make different employers’ timelines line up so that you end up with the job you want most, not just the one that made you an offer first. And you can only put interviewers off for so long while you’re waiting to hear back from other companies.
There are some things you can do to make it easier to navigate, though. First and foremost, when you get a job offer, tell the company that you’re very interested and ask when they need an answer by. Ideally they’ll give you a week or two, but in some situations they might only give you a few days. (That might seem unreasonable, but there can be legitimate explanations for it, like if they need to get back to a second candidate who has a deadline of their own.) If they ask how long you’ll need, rather than offering a timeline of their own, it can be risky to say you’ll need more than a week … since that generally telegraphs that you’re hoping to use that time to get a better offer somewhere else. But one week is generally considered acceptable, and if you feel you need to offer an explanation, you can say you need to “talk it through with your partner” or “run the numbers.”
Next, immediately contact any other companies that you’ve interviewed with and whose offers you’d be tempted to accept over the one you already have. Explain that the job with them would be your first choice but that you have an offer from another company that you need to respond to within X days, and ask if there’s anything they can do to work within that timeline on their side.
Upon hearing that, a hiring manager who is very interested in you will try to expedite things if they can. They won’t always be able to; they might have scheduling conflicts, decision-makers who are unavailable, or other red tape keeping them from speeding their process up. If that happens, then you have to decide whether you’re willing to turn down a sure thing (the first offer) for the possibility of a second offer that might not ever materialize. But often, a company that considers you a strong candidate will move faster when they need to, and it’s fair to ask about.
If you’re reading this and thinking, Hmmm, couldn’t I use that same strategy to get a faster answer even when I don’t really have another offer waiting? … don’t do it! Bluffing about that can leave you with no offers at all, because there’s always a risk they’ll reply, “We can’t speed things up on our side, so go ahead and accept the other offer and we’ll take you out of consideration here.”
That said, there are some occasions when you can employ this strategy a bit earlier on in the hiring process, before you have a concrete offer. If an employer seems especially interested in you and you genuinely believe you’re going to get a different offer soon, you can say something like, “Do you have a sense of your timeline for making a hire? I’m in the finalist stage with another employer, but I’m more interested in the position with you.” However, don’t use this strategy at this earlier stage unless you’ve actually seen convincing signs that they think you’re a strong candidate (for example, being told you’re one of their top candidates or hearing an unusual amount of excitement about your experience). Otherwise it can become a reason for them to focus less on you rather than more. (For example, a hiring manager might think, I’m not sure she’s quite what we’re looking for and it sounds like she’s about to accept another job anyway, so I might as well concentrate on other candidates instead. You don’t want that!)
Now, what if you can’t make the timelines line up and so you accept the first offer … and then later you get a more appealing offer from a different employer? You can back out of the first offer to accept the second one, but be aware that there can be a cost to doing that. There’s a good chance you won’t be considered for any future job with the first employer, even if you end up wanting to work with them down the road. And particularly if you’re in a small industry, people talk, and “she backed out of an offer two days before she was supposed to start and after all the other candidates had been cut loose” can harm your reputation. That said, if the second offer is clearly better for you, you need to act in your own interests. As long as you’re clear-eyed about the potential repercussions, sometimes backing out of the first offer to accept the superior one’s the decision that makes sense. (And companies act in their own interests all the time. You get to do that, too.)