In the October 30, 2018 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader recounts her experience with a small-business owner and how he plays games with job offers.


job offersI just came across some of your articles when trying to research my job offer being rescinded (Behind the scenes of a rescinded job offer, Job offer rescinded after I quit my job). A lot of what you wrote resonated with me and made me feel much better about my experience today.

I interviewed for a high level position at a smaller company, so I was talking to the owner directly. Here are the key facts about the compensation:

  1. The offer was at the bottom of the salary range discussed during my interview process.
  2. The owner said I could make it up with a large bonus, but that they didn’t have a structure for how bonuses worked. If the company was doing well I’d get all or part of the bonus, but it was at his discretion.
  3. I asked if he was flexible on the base pay at all, and I brought up the industry average (which was a lot higher) and my experience level and what I could bring to the table.
  4. He first said he was flexible on the base pay and even said that what he was paying me didn’t matter to him, but he didn’t actually budge and said this was a good offer he was making me.
  5. He said I needed to trust that I would be getting the bonus and at the end of the day my pay would be much higher.

I said I was still very interested and excited about the role. I explained that I would really like to review the details of the whole package, including the benefits, in case I had any questions. It’s a small company and there were some non-standard things they were doing with benefits, like providing some kind of stipend for your cell phone and other things, but no 401(k).

Here’s how that discussion went:

  1. I asked if he could send the complete offer in writing so that I go over all of it to make sure I understood everything, and then confirm my positive response.
  2. He asked how long I needed to review it.
  3. I asked if I could get it to him before Friday (this was on a Tuesday).
  4. He sounded disappointed. He said that wasn’t the response he was expecting but he would still send over the offer in writing.
  5. He said he had other candidates that he needed to inform who weren’t getting the job and it was not fair to them to make them wait 2-3 days until he got a confirmation from me.
  6. I asked him if he had a timeline in mind that would work better for him, so he said Thursday morning.
  7. I said okay.

That evening, I got an e-mail saying he was rescinding the offer. He said he wanted someone who was so excited about joining his company that they are prepared and anxious to accept the offer when it’s made verbally.

He said that he felt I lacked passion for his company and that he didn’t want anyone there who was not passionate about his brand.

I wrote him back a professional response thanking him for everything.

I felt very validated when I found your articles because you explain that employers often make verbal offers because they are merely fishing for a reaction, not actually making a bona fide offer. That’s exactly what this was.

The job is an analytical one, so I was surprised that they would expect an instant, seat-of-the-pants response when they were looking for a detail-oriented, analytical person!

When I told my friends what happened, they fell into two camps. All my friends who work at various levels in corporate environments (including HR) thought I did nothing wrong. Two of my friends who both own small companies agreed with the owner and said they, too, would have rescinded the offer because they felt it was insulting to not immediately accept the verbal offer. They said that asking for the offer in writing showed I lacked trust. This of course goes against everything I know and believe.

I see what happened as a red flag for how I may be treated in the future. I’m at a bad job now but I don’t want to go to another bad job. I’m interested in this divide between large companies and small business owners, and I thought you would be, too.

Are the negotiating rules really different for small companies versus larger ones? Or are the small business owners I’ve described just outliers? Thanks for your comments.

Nick’s Reply

I think you dodged a bullet. Your story is important because it highlights a raft of games employers play with job offers.

Are these problems particular to small companies? While I can’t offer data to support this, my experience suggests small business owners are far more likely to play these games than managers in larger companies. I think business owners tend to be far more autocratic than their peers in companies that have many owners or investors.

Strike One

Let’s look at the facts you presented above — #6 through #9. This business owner decided to extend an offer after you satisfactorily negotiated a more-than-reasonable decision deadline. He made a verbal agreement with you about the deadline. Then he reneged on what he agreed to.

That’s strike one against him. It tells us he can’t be trusted.

Strike Two

You prudently asked for details of the offer in writing. He hedged, then agreed. Then he reneged and never provided anything in writing. I think he never had any intention of giving you a written offer.

This is different from merely agreeing to a decision timeline. This is about reneging on putting terms in writing. Do you think he does business deals on a simple handshake, without anything in writing? That’s a rhetorical question but, of course, he may in fact do deals with nothing in writing.

Either way, that’s strike two.

Strike Three

After tactful questions from you about the salary and bonus structure (#1 – #5), he refused to commit to anything concrete. He wants you to trust him, but he doesn’t trust you. He uses a double standard.

The old rule about “trust but verify” is why we put agreements in writing. I’ll repeat: This guy had no intention of putting anything in writing. “Trust me” means “No.”

Strike three.

Strike Four

The egregious management error this employer committed was to judge you unworthy because you failed to instantly display passion and a sucker’s excitement for an incomplete, dishonest job offer. He lost a potentially great hire.

If a strike four could be counted, that’s it.

If he wants to hire a foolish employee, he’s talking to the wrong person. If he’s looking for a thoughtless worker whose decision-making process is marked by a lack of prudence and due diligence, he should absolutely move on to another candidate he can lie to and hire on the spot.

The lessons from this game

It’s a good sign when an employer engages in a negotiation with a job applicant on compensation, on the terms of the job, and even on when a decision is due. It suggests you’ll be working for a boss who values your input and your circumspection, and who wants to make working together a win-win experience.

It’s a bad sign when an employer plays games.

You’ve taken the trouble to share your experience in very useful detail, revealing the many games employers play with job offers. This guy is bold enough to play them all at once — then to blame you for catching him.

Lies employers tell you about job offers

These are some of the lies employers tell, presented as a sort of “dictionary.” Here’s what unworthy employers will do in the hiring process:

  1. Salary Range. Establish a salary range to set ground rules for proceeding with interviews, then they pretend the low end is going to impress you.
  2. Good Offer. Tell you it’s a good offer without showing you exactly what the offer is.
  3. Competitive. Refer to “competitive” pay and benefits but never to precise sums or specific benefits.
  4. Bonus Structure. Refer to contingent forms of pay — like bonuses and commissions — but do not define objective, measurable, agreed-upon criteria that you must meet to earn those bonuses.
  5. Flexible. Say they are flexible on pay, but make no explicit compromises or concessions about pay.
  6. Industry Standard. Talk about industry-standard or average pay, but don’t define what that is or cite the sources of those numbers.
  7. Opportunity. Suggest that what this deal is really all about is a great opportunity for you, and that pay isn’t really the issue to them, when it clearly is because they won’t negotiate pay with you candidly.
  8. Trust. Tell you to trust them to pay you fairly, but will not define the compensation deal objectively in writing — or trust you to review their offer.
  9. Terms. Want you to agree to accept a job offer immediately based only on a few points — and “don’t worry about the rest of the details,” or what lawyers refer to as “terms.”
  10. Job Offer. Want you to commit to a deal verbally, while they balk about putting it in writing with their signature on it.
  11. Decision. Agree to give you two days to review a written offer they haven’t given you yet, then renege because you insulted them by not deciding instantly.
  12. Qualified. Judge how qualified you are for the job by whether you’re “excited” and “passionate” enough to accept on the spot.
  13. Commitment. Negotiate terms and make commitments then violate them.

These are all lies unworthy employers tell job applicants they try to take advantage of. The words in the little “dictionary” above actually mean something to good employers — and you’ll see that instantly in a good employer’s behavior.

Never work with jerks

You should never go to work for employers who play these job-offer games. You’d regret it because they’d behave the same way day-to-day. They’re jerks.

I think you’ve identified at least three people you should never work with — including your friends who said you insulted the employer and displayed a lack of trust. Don’t doubt your judgement – it has certainly served you well here.

Whether you’re talking to a big or small company, the approach and questions you relied on here will tell you all you need to know about an employer.

From the details you shared, I see a prudent, honest, forthright, responsible professional who treats others the way she wishes to be treated. I see no fault in anything you said or did during the hiring process. In fact, I compliment you for doing everything right – it all combined to help you dodge a bullet.

On to the next! Find a company that deserves a good hire.

My only suggestion is to carefully check a company’s and manager’s references before you invest your time interviewing there. You might find this useful: 5 rules to test for the best job opportunities.

What lies have you heard employers tell job applicants? What would you add to the dictionary above? What else should job seekers look out for in the throes of getting a job offer? What details do you insist on having in a written job offer?

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  1. From experience, any company that has to resort to strong arm tactics like these are generally not worth it.

    If their offer was any good, they would be more than happy to share any and all information with you and give you ample time to stew over it.

    This sort of thing strikes me as the old car sales man trick of “This price is only good right now and I have other people looking at these cars.” If only your car was priced appropriately in the first place….

    • PS – Oh, and….

      “The egregious management error this employer committed was to judge you unworthy because you failed to instantly display passion and a sucker’s excitement for an incomplete, dishonest job offer.”

      Let me know when my bank will accept “Excitement” for my mortgage payment and when the grocery store will accept “Passion” at the check out.

      • Speaking to your Used Car “have other people looking at these cars” analogy, I’ve never heard of anyone saying that they have several other candidates and it’s rude to make them wait 2-3 extra days to hear back that they weren’t getting the job.

        When I was reading this I thought why would a boss put the candidate receiving an offer in a position where they owe anything to the other candidates? I realize now it’s that same psychological scarcity tactic. Bad behavior aside, that sticks out as one of the stranger parts of how he acted.

        • Rachel – Completely agree about the candidate “owing” something to the other candidates. And experience tells me that this guy probably never followed up with those other candidates, other than to perhaps make an offer to the next in line.

        • I don’t quite get what you’re saying here.

          I’ve had hiring manager play the whole “exploding offer” thing with me on at least 2 occasions. One told me that he had deadlines so he needed to move quickly and have someone in a seat and had other people in line if I recall correctly. I was interviewing with at least 2 other companies at the time, which ended up being better choices if I had been offered a job.

          There should be nothing wrong with taking up to a week to make a decision depending on the circumstances. Usually, in my experience, if someone wants to play these games:

          * It’s because their offer/company sucks. If it was half decent, they would have no problem with you taking your time because the offer/company can speak for itself. Even if you were to shop the offer around, no one could beat it.

          * The company suffers from poor management and planning. They aren’t paying fairly (see above) so people can easily leave or are sitting on things until the last second then are like “oh crap, we need to hire someone”

    • @David: I love your car salesman quote. It’s apt!

    • “This price is only good right now and I have other people looking at these cars.”

      Well, since I suppose also car dealers want to make money, why not sell the car to them, then?

  2. I think this loosey-goosey approach is probably more common among small companies. The boss man is usually the owner, and he tends to be too involved in the day-to-day running of the business, rather than enjoying his time and freedom by entrusting things to a reliable plant manager or similar person.

    Bosses like this are so used to being in control, and you see that in the hiring process as well – it’s often his way or the highway. My theory is that this control issue is a symptom that manifests itself in virtually all facets of the company, from its dealings with its employees to its dealings with its vendors, and even in how it treats its clients.

    • I agree wholeheartedly here. Based on the narrative, this owner displays all of the telltale signs of being a chronic micromanager, which suggests that his company is neither a leader in its industry nor a highly-coveted employer in its geographic market.

    • That’s what I meant by “You should never go to work for employers who play these job-offer games. You’d regret it because they’d behave the same way day-to-day.”

      What you see is what you get.

  3. “He said I needed to trust that I would be getting the bonus”

    As a business owner, I doubt he does business with just a handshake and “trust” that someone will pay their bill without signing a contract. It’s a business and he should expect all his employees to know he’s willing to back up his words in writing. My guess is the owner was either too lazy or just not willing to commit to anything by putting it in writing. It was a good resolution and learning experience.

  4. The person who would take a job under these circumstances either lacks self confidence or has been out of work for a long time. I have taken jobs under less than ideal circumstances like this – and usually found something better later.

    This sounds like an employer who manages by fear.

    • “I have taken jobs under less than ideal circumstances like this – and usually found something better later.”

      I’ve accepted a job when I was unemployed and basically found something better within six months.

      Here’s the kickers:

      They had plagiarized the job advert from a competitor in town. They only changed the intro paragraph for obvious reasons. The rest of it was the same, character for character.

      Upon my resignation, they posted the same job advert and they left it up for 4 months. They tweaked the title once, likely because no one would take the job as advertised, especially when one considered the pay they were offering. It sounded like they had eventually distributed my work to others at the company. Think of the irony here: They had the advert up almost as long as I was there.

      The guy that ran the office basically was counting the days to retirement while I was there. He had sold his company to another one and had agreed to stay on for 3 years to aid in the transition. He basically didn’t have any cajones to do the right thing and stand up to corporate for employee wages/benefits – all while he indulged in a posh lifestyle. It got to the point where one of my co-workers there basically had to threaten to leave to get any type of raises. Another co-worker left shortly before I and got something like a 75% raise. The CEO asked her what she was going to make, she refused to say and told him that it would just make him mad.

  5. There is but one way to change this behavior. Publish the name and the behavior and the facts of the case so that the next person knows the game. Glass door and LinkedIn via proxy are two ways to do this

    You dodged a clip of bullets here

    To the friends working in small business who think you erred? Tell them they are clueless.

    • There is something to be said about doing this, and letting the owner know. Respectfully/professionally of course.

    • “Tell them they are clueless.” Agreed!

  6. Let’s be honest. The employer wants someone who will take whatever bonus is offered because the employer wants to decide how much to keep at the end of the year. He also wants to be able to decide how much to pay based on how much he likes you, whether his spouse is mad at him that day, whether his dog pooped on the carpet during the night, or any number of arbitrary reasons.

    I once worked with a sales person who was told at a previous job that he made too much money….by the owners. Yes, the big bonus and whatnot came from a commission based on what he sold. That employer is the same as this guy.

    • Imagine the biz owner telling a customer, just pay me whatever you decide at the end of the year.

  7. OP, I think you dodged not a bullet, but a bomb! This business owner does not have his act together. I can see someone in his position being so overwhelmed that they haven’t completely thought things through. Business owners are human.

    HOWEVER… if I were that employer, I’d be pulling an all-nighter, if necessary, to design my bonus plan, etc. and to write up a decent offer letter. I’d run the draft by my lawyer and my accountant, and then I’d have a template not just for *your* offer letter, but for future hires.

    And, despite my absolute hatred of all-nighters, I’d be grateful for, and impressed by, your “forcing” me to get my ducks in a row with regards to my broken hiring process and pay/bonus structure. Because I’m a professional, and that’s how a professional handles that kind of problem.

    Your guy not only didn’t do that, he chose to be “insulted” by your very tactfully pointing out that his offer was half-baked. If he’s that un-businesslike in his other dealings, it doesn’t bode well for the future of the firm.

    • @Catherine: :-)

      All great ideas, but that owner won’t do what you suggest in a million years. He’s got enough other candidates that he can just keep on hiring and flipping employees. It’s astonishing how many businesses stay in business in spite of themselves.

      Doesn’t mean employees have to stick around and take it.

  8. The business owner appears to be an amateur at management, whatever else his qualifications are. His face-saving withdrawal of your “offer” drives that point home. Unfortunately, there seem to be many employers who simply will not negotiate with candidates – as if doing so represented some form of capitulation.

  9. This employer seems to be engaging in his personal version of the “art of the deal”. Quite the scam artist and likely thinks he’s very, very clever. Wonder what the local Better Bus. Bureau, Chamber and local competitors have on this company? IMO, you’ve been saved from a disastrous experience.

  10. Let’s put the shoe on the other foot. Say you’re the owner of a small but rapidly growing private business. This is your first business, so you’re learning on the job. The future is looking good, but you can’t predict with much precision how good or how long it’s going to take to become that way. You can’t afford (and don’t need) a full-out HR function and you’ve got too many things on your mind – shipping, accounting, sales, you name it – to have time for formalities. You need one or two key people to help bring your business to the next level. How do you make an offer to your chosen candidate?

    • Given your scenario, I would be tapping all of my resources to understand what the future might hold and how to prepare for it. If I could not commit to paying a “key” person of my business fairly, I would be better off not hiring one at all.

      If he wants an employee that is willing to ride out the good times and the bad times and earn money accordingly, he may be better off advertising the position as a partner then seek out someone whose knowledge base fills in his gaps… such as people skills.

  11. A good start is to not be an arrogant prick. People can tell the difference between a relatively inexperienced but sincere business owner, and one who throws his weight around because he’s da boss and because he can.

  12. You did everything right. Small business owners tend to take things personally which is wrong. You would have had to deal with that mindset over your tenure there. I would asked for equity and then watched for his reaction. Stupidity deserves more stupidity.

  13. My other suggestion is to publish this experience on Glassdoor and or other social media. You may feel like you want something back because he wasted your time. Outing this kind of behavior Is worth it. And I will bet you will find others that had the same result as you did because these types are arrogant enough not to learn from their mistakes

  14. The candidate dodged a bullet. If the employer behaves this shady during the courtship, just think how badly he’ll treat you once you’re married (i.e., working there).

    If he can’t predict or promise a bonus or guarantee your salary, then why is he hiring? I know–there’s enough work to justify the hire, but he doesn’t want to pay someone. Or maybe he’s bad at getting paid by his customers or clients, which means he’s donating his time and services. I wonder how much longer he’ll be in business.

  15. You go girl; I happen to know that the employer missed out on a great employee :)

  16. I made the mistake of taking a job with a startup company, and the guy turned out to be just like the one described here. Never again (and never work for a short man–the “Napolean complex” is a real thing).

    I feel like Goldilocks. Just as one bed is too hard, the other too soft, and one in the middle just right, large companies are too bureaucratic and run by HR, and startups are unproven and potentially run by micromanaging Napoleans. So where is that middle ground?

    • Possibly a mid-size company? The best job I ever had (six years tenure. Was laid off in a down sizing after a buyout by a large company) was with a company of 450 employees.
      I too have faced the same quandary. I’ve only worked for two large companies (usually have been instantly disqualified by large companies, or seldom interviewed even). Both were chocked full of individuals who, as my late father used to say, “do you have twenty years of experience, or one year twenty times over”? Good places for people to roll over, hide out at, and bide their time. Hired and retained more on looks and personality, not so much on character and abilities. I’ve worked for mostly small family owned companies, and I’ve seen toxicity that’s mind numbing. The expectations for absolute unquestionable loyalty, substandard wages and benefits, nepotism, terminating employees on a whim, narrow focus, and a host of other dysfunctional behaviors. While there may be some good “mom & pop” shops out there, I’ve found few of these little turd factories that are worthy of my respect or talents.

  17. A year ago in November, I replied to an ad (yeah, I know, scam central) for an estimating position at a small local CNC machine shop. Their business is focused on aerospace and defense work. I was called in for a series of interviews. As I’m employed, they were gracious enough to do after hours interviews. When I was asked about salary, I gave them a well researched range, which was exactly in line with what they were offering. The red flags then unfurled. Mid-way through the process, they changed the position to a shipping coordinator. I ran through a second series of interviews. I asked to do a job shadow, which they reluctantly agreed to. Being anxious to get out of my current small company hell I’m in, I foolishly ignored the red flags. I was offered the job at the low end of the scale, and I accepted. I was given a start date, and I asked for a letter of offer. They balked some (red flag). That night, at 3:00 a.m., I received an email telling me they decided “to go another route”. I dodged a bullet, but lesson learned. Any red flags pop up, no more reasoning it through, I WALK! Been burned too many times, especially by these little mom & pop poop holes.

  18. I concur wholeheartedly with the comments here about the bullets (note plural) dodged by this applicant. Rescinding a verbal offer due to someone not showing sufficient excitement seems like the epitome of shady dealing. Would this guy want you making deals for his company under such circumstances or would he want you to get things in writing? If so, then why would he expect any less on your part? That’s about as hypocritical as they come.

    As he saying goes, verbal offers are not worth the paper they are printed on…

  19. Trust is a nice thing but in business whatever is not on paper doesn’t mean a thing. I own a small business myself, but I would consider your request for written offer as a valid step towards possibly doing business together.

    It’s really simple. If you accept the verbal offer right away, it means you’re either desperate or still too green. And then, when you end up disliking the job a month later, we’ve both wasted each others time. If you instead ask for a written offer, it means you’d like to review it and think it through, because you would prefer avoiding such situation. It’s always easier to sit down at home and read through everything.

    I agree you’ve dodged a bullet there. If business owner considers your request as an insult, he’s probably sh*t anyway. Trust is not granted. It’s built over the years of working together. If he expected you to just blindly trust him, I’d say he was just looking for someone he could easily screw with.

  20. Wow you definitely dodged a bullet. I made the fatal mistake of accepting a job offer without anything written, even after I had asked. The job turned out to be a complete nightmare, the manager was a as crazy as he can be and the HR manager who ignored my request for a offer letter turned out to be a complete psychopath. She lied about almost everything. Never again, everything has to be in writing whether in an email or letter. No email than no deal.