A reader needs a reality check about job offers, in the July 28, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

How important is getting the job offer in writing? And specifically what should I look for when I receive it? Thanks.

Nick’s Reply

job offer in writingJob applicants are often so grateful to get an offer that they cast prudence aside and put their future in jeopardy. Don’t succumb to the thrill of an incomplete job offer. I would never, ever accept an offer I didn’t have in writing, and I’d certainly never resign another job to accept it. Any company that declines to put it in writing is trouble.

Is the job offer in writing?

A purely oral offer of a job puts you in a bad spot. If the terms expressed to you don’t match what you find when you start work, you’ll have little to rely on. Good luck arguing your case without anything to prove it.

Now, an employer can rescind even a written job offer. We’ve discussed this elsewhere. But this is not just a matter of the offer being bona fide; that is, for real. The more likely problem you’ll face if you don’t insist on a job offer in writing is that the details of the deal could deviate significantly from what you thought you agreed to. For example:

  • The offer the manager expressed to you was for the job of Marketing Manager, but the business cards issued to you list you as Marketing Representative.
  • The offer was for “$75,000?” But your bi-weekly paycheck is for $2,790.
  • Your new boss said, “No problem, it’s part of the offer” when you asked for three weeks’ paid vacation, but six months into the job HR says “No dice!”
  • Healthcare benefits were described as “industry standard,” but don’t include levels of coverage you’ve always had.

Either you get the job offer in writing, or you’ll probably be disappointed.

What to look for in a written job offer

“Contract” jobs

Getting a job offer in writing is all the more critical when you’re being offered a “contract” job through a third party. These firms demand your agreement on compensation before they disclose the employer or what the job is. Be careful!

Always insist on a written offer letter before you take an action you cannot undo, for example, quitting another job for this new one.

Here’s a short list of just some of the key things to look for in your written job offer:

  • Does it include all the terms that were agreed to in your discussions?
  • Is the job title what you understand it to be?
  • Does it include a firm start date?
  • Does it refer to other documents, like the company’s benefits plan and employee policy manual? (You’ll want copies of any documents incorporated by reference.)
  • Does the “fine print” include surprises that were not discussed, like a non-compete agreement that might restrict you from pursuing jobs with other companies in your field and industry?
  • Is the compensation explicitly and clearly stated?
  • Do any promised bonuses, commissions or incentives include a clear, objective definition of what they’re based on? (A bonus might seem generous until you realize it’s not achievable.)
  • The offer should state who your supervisor will be. It’s not uncommon to interview with one manager, but to report to someone you’ve never met – and can’t get along with.

There’s more, but we’ll stop here for now. (I hope readers will add to this list!)

The offer should be signed by a manager of the company, not by a headhunter or other agent. If you have it in writing, you’re in a better position to protect your interests if you need to take legal action. If an offer is made only orally, you don’t have as much leverage, though successful legal action has been taken over unwritten offers, too. (Bear in mind that I’m not an attorney, and this isn’t legal advice.)

The more complex the job offer or employment agreement, the more you should consider having a good attorney review it. Bottom line: Get it in writing.

Have you ever been burned by a job offer that wasn’t in writing? What do you insist must be included in a written job offer? How would you advise this reader?

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41 Comments
  1. I once worked with a guy who told me he showed up to the job only to be told that he was a temp to hire, not a full time hire. He was going to be working for the staffing agency that recruited him under a contract. Since they told him on the first day of work, he’d obviously already quit his last job.

    I’m guessing he didn’t have a written offer because said offer would have had to come from the staffing agency which would have alerted him…..well, that or he did have a bona fide offer but the company changed things at the last minute.

    Obviously, the company can rescind the offer at any time, but a written offer in this situation would have been nice to have had he wanted to take action for fraud on their part.

  2. 100% agree–get it in writing. You’ll see very quickly if the company makes good on its promises in the negotiation. And yes, it’s a negotiation, no matter the attitude of HR.

    As Nick mentioned this and I’ve just been through the mill on it–
    Non compete or restrictive covenants (RC) are common in competitive fields with a lot of proprietary information such as healthcare. At manager level and above, you generally will not get the job if you refuse or even try to rewrite it. Often they are extremely broad, covering company businesses you never worked in.

    However in many states they aren’t enforceable period, or enforceable only if you receive severance or salary continuance to cover the period of direct non compete. You accept the severance package, you are tied to the RC even with a change in control.

    I am not an attorney, but having just gone through it with mine, I can at least tell you what worked out for me. His advice is also to disclose the RC only if asked directly on an offer–don’t volunteer.

    One job I progressed fairly far on interviews (before I got my final separation paperwork that included the RC from the acquired company), I more than likely would have DQd on an offer because of the RC being too close to the business I would have been hired for. Fortunately, it didn’t turn into an offer as it would have been a “deep hole” that I don’t want at this stage. Another factor is that I want to work in a different part of the industry not included in the covenant.

    Flouting it–you take your chances in their finding out. Unless arranged in advance, your new employer will not indemnify you and may cut you loose fast. Keep in mind that in flouting a RC thinking you can keep it under wraps, their pockets will always be deeper than yours. You may be able to hide it under a contract with a third party but in future you’ll always have to conceal it under ‘confidential employer’ and be vague about what you did. But you do what you need to do….

    • @Dee: RCs (aka NCAs or Non-Compete Agreements) are non-negotiable in some companies, but can be negotiated with others. You don’t know until you try. I find that a very specific request for modification is the best way to approach it. That way the employer knows exactly what the request is and isn’t so concerned about opening a Pandora’s Box. In some cases HR uses an NCA blindly without having gotten legal advice — they just copy the doc from another company. In such cases, you may be able to just avoid it altogether if HR can’t or won’t bother to defend it. A lot depends on how much they want to hire you, of course!

      If you can’t avoid an NCA altogether, I think three of the key terms to negotiate are (a) the term of the NCA, (b) the geographic scope, and (c) a named list of companies you agree not to work for. 1 year should be sufficient. “Within your own state” or a certain range of miles is better than totally undefined — though geographic scope often doesn’t mean much in today’s world. The worst NCAs refer to “companies in this industry.” Far better to ask for a list of named companies.

      As you point out, flouting an NCA can cost you your new job and a lot of money, assuming the NCA is legal in your state. On the other hand, some companies chase down only egregious violators. It’s worth nosing around to find out how a company handles such cases.

      Good for you for consulting an attorney!

  3. One other thing to add to the list of items you should see in the offer:

    A list of all contingent items that must be completed: background check, physical, etc., etc. You don’t want to show up and find out that the “background check” requires you to hand over all your social media passwords. Yes, some companies do demand this. You’ll want to get all these done, and have written confirmation from the company that everything is acceptable, *before* you accept the offer and resign your current position.

    It also lets you prepare for any problems. If you got busted for graffiti at 18 and have been on the straight and narrow for the past 25 years, you don’t want to find out they’ll hold it against you only after you start the job.

    • @Chris: Thanks for opening this can of worms! We could talk all day about “gotchas” in the job offer! Along with contingent items are “documents incorporated by reference.” That is, if your offer letter says something like, “I hereby agree to abide by the employee policy manual…”, you need to obtain and read it before you sign the offer. That manual may, as you suggest, state that all employees must surrender their social media passwords to the employer. You’ve got little choice but to hand them over, quit, or get fired. While you may feel it’s your right to keep those passwords private, you signed a contract agreeing to surrender them.

      One nasty gotcha is salary history. Let’s say that when they asked what your last salary was, you fudged the number a bit in an effort to get a higher offer, and you got away with it because no one checked. You sign the offer, show up for orientation, and you are told that “per the employee policy manual” you must hand over your last 3 pay stubs. Now you’re not a candidate. You can’t say no because you already agreed by signing the offer. When you hand over those stubs which don’t support what you told the interviewer, you’re now subject to termination.

      Written job offers should be read carefully.

      • A request for salary history disclosure is illegal in many states and localities, including NY and NJ. Make sure you look up your local and state laws before disclosing. This especially applies when you are working for a foreign HQ company.

    • Handing over private social media passwords would be a dealbreaker for me. They can follow me on Twitter and see my public Facebook (locked down) and LinkedIn profile, but letting them access them and hack them? NO WAY.

      • @Dee

        Allowing someone access to one of your corporate computer accounts would almost certainly grounds for termination. Alas, some employers conveniently don’t see this as a problem when demanding passwords to your personal, non-work accounts. Allowing someone else to access one of your social media accounts may very well be a violation of the site’s Terms of Service. (Has anyone actually read those ToS that carefully?)

        What’s next: An employer demanding to have access to my home LAN? “Please allow us access through your firewall!” That would be understandable if I’m working for an employer where a high-level security clearance is required but otherwise “Nope”.

        • Back in the day I was an expatriate. When you are an expat, taxes can get complicated, to the point where tax consultants do your taxes (part of your deal). My company came up with the brilliant idea of offering to have the corporation’s tax department do them for you.
          I passed

        • If you are on high-level security clearance, your best approach is to avoid social media until you retire. Also law enforcement officers at the senior levels stay away. I know this from retired officers, current Guard enlisted, and detectives.

      • One of my most hilarious interviews was with the junior HR flack, a millennial who appeared younger than early 20’s. While not asking me for my password, she asked me to log into my Facebook account in front of her so she could view it. I calmly told her I did not HAVE a Facebook account – I simply did not have the time. She baldly called me a “fibber” (what is this – grade school?) but I invited her to search my name – I guaranteed her I was unique in the northern hemisphere. She did exactly that – surprise! No account found.

        She then looked disgusted and stated “I never met anyone who wasn’t on Facebook!” I just shrugged, and the interview ended shortly after. I was not offered the job – I guess not hip enough.

        • This is a good example of why making a fake account is sometimes a good idea. Go ahead and play their game by showing an account with no friends and maybe a cat picture or two. Then say, “See? As I said, I don’t have time for it.”

    • Here’s an interesting spin on an employer demanding login information about an employee’s social media accounts. This employer insisted that the employee promote the employer’s business on their (the employee’s) LinkedIn account.

      https://www.asktheheadhunter.com/10093/linkedin-extortion

  4. I’ve heard of things like this including that with a bonafide offer, a person relocating and walking in the door and being told that his whole department was eliminated and he did not have a job. But that was a few years ago and with a true bonafide offer it would be a quick consult with an attorney.

    Even with staffing agencies, you generally go through agreements not only with them but also with the employer, including criminal checks and drug tests. So I’m thinking this was a while back when people weren’t quite as savvy to these tricks.

    • This is a reply to Chris above.

    • @Dee, I’ve probably mentioned this here before but, years ago, I missed out on a position at a company but got a phone call from the recruiter to let me know that I’d dodged a bullet. The person they picked over me showed up for his first day of work only to find out that they’d eliminated the position. No notification to the new “hire”. That’s “At Will” employment taken to the extreme.

      • @Rick,
        Man, you we’re lucky.
        Here’s one for the record.
        Back in the early 80s, there was a big time recession in this country. I lived through it, and it paled compared to this last one of 2008-2010.
        A then young fellow I knew was out of work, but he found a job on the shop floor with an aluminum foundry in a small town in S. E. Iowa. Pay and benefits weren’t great, but newly married, and with a baby on the way, he accepted the job on a verbal from HR. They put deposits on an apartment, signed a one year lease, rented a u-haul, and uprooted 200 miles across state.
        On the Sunday night before he was to start on the following Monday morning, he received a call from HR telling him that the offer was pulled due to economic reasons. They refused to help defray the costs of the move. What a nightmare. They had to move 200 miles back to their hometown, forfeited their deposit on the apartment, and still had to pay rent for months until it was sublet.
        While I.T., accounting, engineers, teachers, managers, and such can often get an offer letter (that has little to no teeth in it), the shop floor grunts don’t get this. In fact, asking for an offer letter is an instant disqualification. I’d be hard pressed to relocate for a job, especially how unethical a lot of employers are today.

  5. I once was offered a job via a contract agency. I turned down the job because there were too many hands in the hourly rate to make it worthwhile. The client was fine but the hiring manager(s) were too busy to hire and designated the on site accounting firm to find someone for them. The accounting firm in turn had a national temp agency conduct a nationwide search on their behalf. All this for a hourly rate that was at least 40% below market. They never filled the position.

    • All too common. No one wants to make a decision so it’s handed off to a 3rd party. And it goes round and round down the drain.

      I have found that if your hire has to be passed through a committee above and below and the interviews start to nudge above mid single digits, no one, least of all the hiring manager, is in charge. That is what you see in searches that go on forever. Also a sure signal that if your job depends on approvals, you will be hard pressed to get them and you will go through the gauntlet of second guessing. Beware.

    • @Jonathan: Kinda makes you wonder why companies have HR and their own “recruiters.”

      • Another round and round that just happened to me is the job that is spec’d, listed, HR starts the long process of screening candidates for the vacancy, you’re invited back after a week for the next round, you provide availability, and the next day HR tells you that management had a meeting and decided on a “hiring pause” for the position.

        Maybe a bullet dodged (they had an interim head of marketing who maybe decided not to be, and my level was too close), it was internal politics, or something else. You wonder why they wasted the time. Have a feeling this will be happening a lot given the business environment.

  6. I want to elaborate a bit on the very likely probability of a “bona fide” offer letter received with a “contingent upon” phrase in it but a definite start date. IOW they expect you to giver notice at your current job, but you don’t have a firm offer yet (it is contingent after all) so now what?

    Many will comment “I don’t do drugs and my life is clean so no worries.” But, maybe you had a red light camera violation 3 states away you were not even notified about and now there’s a warrant out on you. Maybe a utility or medical bill SNAFU was sent to collections and you did not know. Or you had significant expenses due to a personal crisis and your FICO is not as robust as you’d like. Any of these could potentially lead to a problem and they could not exercise the contingency, and “Sorry you gave notice at your old job and moved across the country already, sucks to be you.”

    Twice in my hiring history this scenario was presented to me. I received the contingent offer letter and a start date. I wrote back (tracked mail of course) that I would be happy to comply with all the checks and testing they required, but I would then need to receive a SECOND offer letter WITHOUT the contingency and an updated start date.

    I received an unbelievably snide and biting response from HR (the hiring manager was fine with it) with the general gist of “What, you don’t trust us?” I basically wrote back that if they were willing to remove the contingency clause I would be happy to sign the offer letter that day. If not, my requirements were firm.

    A little more back and forth but they finally agreed and I received the updated offer letter in roughly a week.

    NEVER quit your old job based on a contingent offer letter.

    • Hank, that is completely appropriate and the way a good company does it. You simply request a final confirmation of the offer minus the contingencies and a confirmed date as you said. I experienced that in my last job. They were slow on the contingencies, I had a lot of paperwork that had to be completed before the start date, and my start date actually had to be moved.

  7. An offer letter wields as much muscle as a toilet paper degree from some university or predatory for profit school. Where I live, they still extend verbal offers up and down the food chain. I’ve had employers get angry, and back off from offers, simply because I requested an offer letter. This is especially true to cover details like a review with perspective merit increase after 90 days (verbally promised, but at 90 days it’s been “oh we never said this”, or “things are tight now. We’ll look at it in 6 months or a year”, or suddenly “your job is reward enough”).
    Giving notice, then the employer reneges on the offer, is something I’ve only encountered once in my 62 years of life, and I’ve worked for and with some real toxic shylocks in my day. I fortunately refused the offer without a letter, and they backed away immediately (sent me an email at 3:00 am).
    The lack of ethics, morals, and business acumen today with employers is mind numbing. It really is “trust your gut” and a roll of the dice with jobs. With employers holding the cards, and at will employment, workers have little recourse but to roll with it, and not step on employers toes too much = termination or no offer to begin with.

  8. @Hank: You are absolutely right. NEVER resign your old job just because HR at the new job told you to, especially when the new employer is still “checking you out.” That was the issue in this story:

    https://www.asktheheadhunter.com/12307/rescinded-job-offer

  9. yep, get it in writing…it makes the difference between an offer from a hiring manager…who by the way may not be totally up to speed on policy…and an offer from the corporation.

    it’s not that uncommon, for a reorg or that manager’s termination to happen before your promised start date..and the absence of a written offer from the corporation, on their letter head, means the possibility that no one knows what the hiring manager offered. Lot’s of luck convincing replacements on offer content.

    Also to Nick’s 1st point on making sure terms are met…especially where relocation is involved.

  10. As an employer, I want a new person to be happy from the start. Part of that is complete transparency about the job – not just compensation, but stuff like when health insurance starts and how much PTO they have in the first year.

    Even for our temp-to-perm lower-skill positions we provide “start sheets” ahead of time to clarify compensation, shift times, location, dress codes, etc.

    Clarity ought to benefit everyone.

    • Thank you Annette for being an ethical person, and your company supporting same. We don’t have upvotes here but I’d give you one.

  11. Everything about the way company’s handle offers isn’t negative. Here’s a positive story. I worked for a hard ball company at one time. They demanded a lot from people, And weren’t shy about throwing you under the bus if you didn’t perform. but they had this nice quirk. If someone got in harms way, ie. sick or worse, they were a role model for doing the right thing.

    For instance, we recently relocated an engineer to work in my department. A young guy. He was just settling in, not with us long, but a few months. He was a jogger. And died from heart failure. The minute the HR Manager heard, he picked up the phone, called accounting and told them “you keep those payroll checks going until I tell you otherwise. ” Next he called his widow, offered the usual condolences. Then told her we understood she got here, and that relocations are stressful in their own right & if she wished it, we’d relocate her back to where she came from. Told her to take a couple of months to think about it, her husband’s pay would not be cut off & would go to her. There’s no policy that covered this. ..I think she returned.

    This company followed a “a deal is a deal policy”. Once an offer letter hit the mail..it was golden. Touch shit about budgets etc. They never rescinded an offer.

    I also knew them to freeze a person’s layoff, when they learned his wife had tested positive for cancer.
    About a year if I recall.

    but..even so..verbals didn’t cut it. And they’d be the 1st to tell you that. Don’t do anything until you have an offer letter.

    • I wonder if this company still operates this way. It seems very ‘personal’ policy from the top and old school.

  12. During my twenties, I thought that getting a written job offer was a little silly. However, then I learned that a Ph.D. student in the Department of Chemistry at the university I worked at had received an oral job offer from a large company, which had recruited him at this university. He said “yes.” His wife quit her teaching job, because they were going to move across the country, and she was pregnant.(They also had another child.) After a few weeks, the student got a call from the person who had offered the job, saying that the job had been cut from their budget. The student had already turned down other job offers and, without an offer letter, he couldn’t do anything. He was unemployed for a long time. When I ran into him on the street one day, he said that he might have to become a lumberjack. That was about 40 years ago. I found him on Linkedin recently, and he’s doing fine now. What a rough start to a promising career.

  13. My brother was the beneficiary of one of those rescinded job offers. He had been looking for work, telephoned a former colleague, and the guy told him, “we just hired someone, but I’d rather hire you. Don’t worry about it–you’re hired, and I’ll let you know when you can start.” My brother received a written offer, which he accepted.

    He later learned that the guy who had previously been offered the job had also received a written offer, accepted it, and had given notice at his job when he got the call that the job offer was being rescinded. Despite the written offer, there was nothing he could do. Massachusetts, like the majority of states, is an at-will employment state. I remember asking my brother whether he was worried that this employer, a large, famous university, would do the same thing to him that they had done to the guy they’d hired for the job he now held. He wasn’t worried, said it would never happen to him. He knew the hiring manager, had worked with him years ago at a different employer. The other guy lacked that personal connection. I thought the behavior reflected badly; the ethical thing to do would have been to tell my brother “Sorry, but we just hired someone, and he’s starting in less than a week. I’ll keep you in mind should something else open up.”

    I used to think that written offers provided protection, but today, I’m much less trusting, much more skeptical. An ethical employer will honor an offer, while an unethical one won’t care that there’s a written offer, and at-will employment means they can get away with it.

  14. This was his first management job and I was his first hire. The hiring manager had just been promoted into that position from, presumably, the job I would be backfilling. There may have been other unfilled positions as well; he was understaffed and had a sense of urgency. I accepted the position but clarified that I would give notice once all contingencies were out of the way.

    HR loitered at sending the offer letter. Then HR was leisurely about scheduling a drug test. The delays stretched out to about a month. Eventually all was taken care of and I hired on. But our rapport suffered a mild lack of affinity because I still had two weeks on the previous job to complete. When I left that department years later for an internal promotion, the manager who had wanted me to give premature or zero notice now pushed for a one month transition so he could backfill.

    In retrospect, perhaps I should have seen as a red flag the sense that I was being blamed rather than HR.

  15. This post struck a chord with me. Luckily I’ve never been burned but have had to pull out the agreement to remind my hiring manager or more importantly my new manager the terms of my employment.

    Remember it a business deal and anything can happen after your start date. HR was always cautious in what they would allow in an agreement letter to include the term agreement versus contract. They insisted on parity and fairness in language and nothing out of the ordinary. Baloney, be specific. You’re not ordinary.

  16. Amazing number of useful replies. Forgive me if the following repeats some or all of what has already been shared separately so far.
    1) Keep a copy of the “cover” (envelope) that has an indicia on it proving by law the offer was (ideally) transmitted by USPS.

    2 ) Bonafide signature of the authorized officer of the prospective employer firm or organization. The offer is legit.

    3) Did you reply, offering corrections to the understanding is the reply sent by certified or registered USPS (mail)? (If I were a serious employer I would also use registered mail).

    4) Would not hurt to have a qualified and licensed attorney read and comment to you privately about the content of the confirmed offer. Are there “weasel” words that should be challenged? No time to be timid.

    5) There’s more here to consider of course. My final thought is: In the USA unless you have filled out and have accepted by your new employer a W-4 form, you are not yet officially employed and “on the payroll”. If ADP or equivalent handles payroll, do have a receipt from the payroll producer, you are still not employed.

    6) Sorry this is scary stuff, but most adults who have had more than one job in the USA, knows there are unscrupulous individuals who willingly will screw you over just when you least expect it leaving you “high and dry” if you prematurely elected to resign from your former job OR, OR your prematurely told every other prospective employer interested in you, “I have a new job”. Maybe not.

    • @Stephen: Most people would never press an employer to follow prudent procedures. The reason: they’re terrified that the employer will be offended and withdraw the offer.

      The rejoinder to that is, if they really want and need you, they will negotiate/cooperate on at least some of your points, if only to demonstrate respect. A company that would pull an offer (or be offended) is hiring automatons and really doesn’t care what’s good for you.

      • Nick so well said for one and all and me. Adult persistence. You soon find out the “nature” or “folklore” of the employer based on your final, final negotiation, which in reality is never to later to ASK as the new hire gets “settled” in to do her best work.

        • Stephen and Nick: you are absolutely right. To summarize:

          ** Think of the offer process as the final part of the interview, where you observe how they operate. The point that Nick and many of the posters above have made is that you have more leverage at this point than you think, and that it’s also a test of your smarts and their policies/procedures.

          **If they treat you like the stuff you scrape off your shoe on the way in, when you’re all fired up for the ‘honeymoon’, think of how they’ll treat you later on, when things get into the routine or something goes sounh. And also there is always how you’ll be treated on the day you leave.

          In the investment and VC world, it’s called ‘due diligence’ and many deals have gone sideways because DD turns up too much questionable stuff perpetrated by the management.

  17. More and more this is done by email. Certified mail is also incredibly slow and often mishandled. If you go this route insist on priority mail.

    I did not know re the W-4. How do you even get an accepted copy?

    • Based on my recent separation experience and full consultation with an attorney, any and all documentation transmitted electronically has the force of being formally delivered. Keep personal copies of all documents AND print them out for your files.

      There are certain documents that need formal printing and signatures (e.g. releases). Use priority mail and track.
      Keep copies of your email trails on PDF.
      Also if you’re going on COBRA, do not take them up on their offer on opting in via online. Do it with your check/s by priority mail.

      And print out your tracking.

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