Your job is going nowhere and your boss leaves a lot to be desired. So, you do what any smart person would do: you start looking elsewhere and land a great position through a recruiter.

Relationships matter

Tips for success across the recruitment divide

  • Recruiters are used to clients changing their minds, said Sam Kamyar, managing director of recruitment consultancy Empiric. “But ensure that you explain the reasoning behind your decision." And, be sure to thank them for their time.
  • Good recruiters work with candidates long term. “An experienced recruitment professional... will endeavour to work with their candidates throughout their entire careers,” Kamyar said.
  • Everyone must be on the same page. Make no promises until you are absolutely sure — you don’t want to be labelled as a timewaster.
  • Take heart, it's not easy to burn bridges if you're professional and honest. And, stay in touch. When it's eventually time to move on, you'll both be thankful you did.

 Source: Sam Kamyar, managing director of recruitment consultancy Empiric

In the meantime, there’s a shakeup at your company, and everything starts to improve. The bad boss is out, and you suddenly have more responsibility and are offered more money. So how do you turn down the recruiter and new employer without burning your bridges?

Honesty is best

“Recruiters hate to lose a good candidate,” said Rachel Bitte, chief people officer at San Francisco, US-based recruitment software company Jobvite, in an email. “So your decision might sting a bit, but the best way to handle it is just to be as honest and straight-forward as possible.”

When breaking the bad news, apologise, but emphasise your loyalty, and how when a company makes positive changes, you want to be there to support that, Bitte said. “Keep your options open, and tell the recruiter you'd like to stay in touch.”  

She suggested that you think about who else you know who might be a good fit for the position that you're turning down, and recommend them to the recruiter. “If the recruiter gets a new lead out of you, they might be more willing to forgive,” she said.

It’s never a good idea to complain or bad-mouth a former employer to a recruiter or a new company.

One issue you should probably not mention is your manager, said Jeffrey Shane, president of Michigan, US-based reference checking firm Allison & Taylor Inc, in an email. It’s never a good idea to complain or bad-mouth a former employer to a recruiter or a new company.

Safe bet

“Business prospects and opportunities can fluctuate for any given company,” he said. If the recruiter and prospective new employer are reasonable, they should appreciate that potential new opportunities with a current employer — a corporate culture that the employee is already familiar with and adjusted to and a raise — are likely a safer bet than transitioning to a new organisation, Shane said.

Shane also suggested sending a thank you card to the recruiter, “both to thank them for their time and effort, and because you just might need their services on your behalf at some later date.”

Avoid the defensive

If you decide to stay in your original role, avoid putting recruiters on the defensive, said Nisha Ahluwalia, chief marketing officer of Silicon Valley-based video conferencing company Highfive, in an email. Focus your response on why you were looking to leave in the first place and why that has now changed.

Focus your response on why you were looking to leave in the first place and why that has now changed.

 “For example, explain how going through the recruiting process helped you realise you would have been making a change for the wrong reasons,” Ahluwalia said. “This demonstrates your desire to address and fix an existing problem rather than running away from it, and will leave the new company knowing how you view success: that you’d rather solve a problem than set them up for potential failure.”

Burned bridges?

At the end of the day, business is business, and making the right decision for your future when it comes to your career is more important than worrying about whether you’ve made a recruiter’s job a little more difficult.

“Some unprofessional recruiters will give you a hard time and, in certain situations, some bridges will (be) burnt,” said Neil Matthams, Singapore’s country manager for UK recruitment consultancy Empiric, in an email. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's good to know early on if someone will conduct themselves unprofessionally rather than wasting your time developing a relationship and counting on them to land you the right job.

Whereas, “good recruiters will ask you to walk through the reasons why you’re staying, why you were looking to leave in the first place and ask you to make sure that the promises you’ve been made have been actioned,” Matthams said. “If all these points are satisfied, then a good recruiter will wish you all the best and aim to develop a long-term relationship”

If you want to also protect the relationship with the new company, contact the decision maker directly and explain what happened. “The recruiter will obviously do this anyway, but nothing beats direct correspondence in these situations, and it allows you to have complete control over the message the new company receives,” Matthams said.

Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at careercoach@bbc.com.