Why do companies hide the benefits?

In the August 7, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter wants to why an employer refuses to disclose what the employee benefits are until the offer has been accepted:

I’ve been offered a job by a very large company. The salary is fine and the job sounds good. The offer letter states that I am eligible for benefits, but it doesn’t say what the benefits are.

I asked the headhunter who was working to place me, and he said the company’s policy is not to disclose the benefits until after I’ve accepted the position. This sounds really bizarre. The headhunter has assured me that the benefits package is very good and I shouldn’t worry about it; I’ll be happy with the package.

Should I take his word for it and accept the job, or should I run the other way?

My Advice

You’ve run smack up against one of the most perturbing and ludicrous practices of many companies: They will not divulge the details of their benefits package and/or their employee policy manual until after you have started work.

Why? Honest, this is the usual answer: “Our benefits package is considered a competitive secret, and our employee manual is confidential.”

You are right to be skeptical.

They invite you to join the game, but you can’t see the rules in advance. You may make an investment in the company, but you may not see the financials. You may buy the house, but you may not do an engineering inspection first.

Did you ever ask to see a menu at a restaurant only to be denied?

Please rest assured, the company you’re dealing with is behaving stupidly. You may be tempted to run away, but don’t. Take some control of the negotiation.

Call the office of the CEO and very politely explain that you are sitting on a job offer that you’re ready to accept, but you have a question no one — including the HR department — seems able to answer to your satisfaction. Decline to say what the question is until a staff member from the CEO’s office (someone who is not in the HR department) agrees to talk with you. I’ll bet you dinner (I’ll even show you the menu) that the CEO’s office has no idea that HR withholds such basic information from potential hires.

If you get to talk with a sensible company representative, here’s How to Say It:

“I’m impressed with your company, and I’m eager to come to work with John Jones, the manager of your finance department [or whichever department]. However, I cannot accept this offer without knowing all the terms of employment. I could no more sign an employment agreement without knowing all the terms than your company could sign a contract without knowing what it was committing to. I’m sure you understand. Could you please send me your employee manual, benefits package, and any other documents that would bind me after I start the job? Once I have these, I will promptly respond. I look forward to accepting your offer, and to making a significant contribution to your business. Please don’t ask me to talk with your HR department — they have already refused to provide these basic documents. I hope I can count on your help so we can all get to work.”

Although I think a company’s refusal to disclose benefits is sufficient reason to decline an offer, I should warn you that the more serious risk lies in taking the job before you’ve seen the employee policy manual. This is where things like non-compete rules, prohibitions against moonlighting, surrender of invention rights, and other important terms are sometimes hidden.

If you balk at these rules after you’ve started the job, your only option is to quit — without the freedom of being able to fall back on your old job. Moreover, be aware that those rules may still apply after you quit. A job offer is a contract, and certain terms of that contract may survive your resignation or termination. Get it all in writing. A company’s employee manual is usually incorporated by reference into a job offer. When you accept one, you accept the other. But don’t stop there: Beware the cause clause.

Be very careful. Question authority. Question such policies. They stink, and there’s good reason to say so. You risk getting the company upset, but as I asked earlier, would you agree to pay for a meal at a restaurant before you know what’s on the menu? (In some European restaurants, they go a step further and graciously invite you into the kitchen where you can see how the food is prepared and check out the bubbling pots for yourself, before you even sit down!)

Not all companies have such policies about benefits information. I discourage you from signing a contract (a job offer) from a company that will not divulge everything you need to know. I’d tell the headhunter you have your own policy: I need to know what the entire offer is — including the benefits.

Have you ever taken a job without knowing the employee benefits? Have you encountered a “gotcha” too late? What else do you need to know before quitting your old job to accept a new offer?

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How to negotiate salary through a headhunter

In the July 24, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter wants to know how to get the best compensation deal through a headhunter:

What can I expect from a recruiter when I’m negotiating salary and compensation? After all, doesn’t he work for the hiring company?

My Advice

This question is so common that I include an entire section about it in the PDF book, How to How to Work with Headhunters … and how to make headhunters work for you. This advice is from Section 4: Talking Money.

To understand a headhunter’s motivations for negotiating your compensation, you must understand the headhunter’s job.

How to help the headhunter help you

Before there’s any chance to negotiate, the headhunter’s real challenge is to get a company and candidate to agree they want to work together. This has nothing to do with money. It’s all about the people, the company, and the job. That’s why it’s crucial for you to decide whether you actually want the job (as long as the terms can be worked out).

Saying you want the job doesn’t mean you’ve accepted the offer, but it sets the headhunter loose to get you a deal you’ll accept. It helps you win the headhunter’s cooperation, because half the battle is won. There’s nothing for the headhunter to negotiate unless you let him know you want the job.

Once your motivation to take the job is settled, the headhunter can get to work on the financial terms. Even though the headhunter works for the employer, he earns no fee unless he can work out terms that are satisfactory to you.

Be ready to express what you want

This is where many job candidates blow it. They don’t want to express what they want. They believe that if they don’t state what they want, they might magically get more. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Take note: If you have an offer, the employer has already put a number on the table. It’s decision time for you. If you can’t decide what you want, you can’t make the headhunter work for you. You must arm him with specific instructions. At this stage the headhunter will advise you what’s reasonable to negotiate with the employer — but he will do the negotiating on your behalf with his client.

So, be frank, but don’t be ridiculous. Tell the headhunter what offer you would accept. If the headhunter thinks your terms are nuts, he’ll tell you, but don’t hold it against him. He won’t go back to his client with an unreasonable request. But he’s not likely to drop-kick you out of the deal, either. He may try to convince you to take the offer as it stands. Or, if he thinks there’s some wiggle room in the offer, he will try to negotiate with you and with his client for a compromise.

Know where you fit in the negotiations

The headhunter’s position as the middleman makes it easier for you to work out the terms without jeopardizing the offer altogether. He wants to get the deal done as much as you do.

The client pays the headhunter, but the headhunter needs your cooperation, so he’ll work with you to set reasonable terms for your acceptance. The client gets the hire. You get a job you want on favorable terms. The headhunter gets his fee. All three parties must work together.

Of course, this all assumes you’re dealing with a good headhunter, but that’s another question, covered in another section of the book, Section 1: Understanding Headhunters. You’ll also learn more in the book about exactly why this approach to negotiating with a headhunter helps him negotiate a better deal for you. (Needless to say, the headhunter could be a she.)

What’s your experience been with headhunters? Did you get the deal you wanted? How did the headhunter handle the negotiations between you and the employer? How did you protect your interests?

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My employer withheld my pay

In the July 3, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a 20% bonus disappears:

When I was hired, my offer letter included the promise of an annual 20% bonus. Recently I was transferred internally, but there was no notice of a change in my compensation deal. Bonus time came around but neither my old or new department budgeted for my bonus. I’ve been making monthly appeals to my boss, who keeps getting the runaround from Accounting. It turns out that no one else at my level gets bonuses. To make matters worse, the company was acquired and all our jobs are up in the air.

Is there any way I can get the bonus I’m due? The amount is substantial. This sounded too good to be true when I got the offer letter, but there it is in black and white: 20%.

My Advice

I don’t ordinarily tackle questions that require legal advice, but there’s also a matter of principle here. It seems the company is breaking a simple agreement and it’s worth discussing how to deal with that. However, my advice is not legal; for that you’ll need an attorney.

Since your offer letter promised an annual 20% bonus in writing, and since you got no other written notice to the contrary, then I think the company has an obligation to pony up the money. While a company may have the right to reassign you to a different job or department, I don’t believe it’s got the right to withhold compensation.

If your boss is “getting the runaround from Accounting,” that’s not your problem. Accounting doesn’t decide whether you’ll be paid; your employer does. This passing of the buck suggests that who’s getting the runaround is you.

Given the circumstances, I’d pursue this quickly and create a document trail. If you get laid off before you put the issue on the table, it’s going to be harder to resolve it.

Take this to the highest level HR manager you can. Put a copy of your offer letter on the desk and politely ask what the problem is. (Keep the original under lock and key.) The difficulty is that you’ve waited a long time since the bonus was due, but that doesn’t excuse your employer. I’d also ask HR for a written statement about the company’s position on the matter — build that document trail.

Listen to what the HR manager has to say. If there’s no resolution within a week, send a certified letter (with proof of receipt) to HR outlining the situation, and copy the letter to your attorney. Do not say anything accusatory in the letter: Be purely factual and request your bonus.

It’s unfortunate that you need help to get paid what you were promised. But my expectation is that this is going to require the help of an attorney. When your boss blames Accounting for not paying you, you can blame your attorney for any awkwardness, too.

By the way: Don’t let the idea of turning to lawyer make you uncomfortable. A good lawyer will work with you to control legal costs, and to develop a strategy for collection that avoids spending more than the recovery would be worth. Start with a consultation to help you decide what your best options are, and to estimate the costs.

Ever get paid less than you were promised? Was it in writing? What did you do to recover the money?

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Pop Quiz: Can an employer take back a job offer?

In the June 5, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a guy gets honorably discharged from the military, carries a secret clearance, but has a misdemeanor conviction from 2003 for which he’s done probation. He gets a job offer. Then the nightmare begins:

Today I received a job offer from a large, well-known and respected company. I have a misdemeanor criminal conviction from 2003. I told the headhunter about the conviction. I put it in the application before my interview. I put it in the e-application for the background check. I even discussed it with the HR person that was giving me the offer.

After discussing the conviction, she extended me a verbal offer. At the end of the call, I accepted the offer. She welcomed me to the team and said I will get all the details after the background check clears. After the phone call, I turned down a competing job offer from another company and told my headhunters that I am no longer on the job market.

Less than an hour later, the HR person called me back and said she has to withdraw the offer because my three-year probation was cleared in 2006. Since that’s less than the company’s policy permits — seven years — I am ineligible for the job. The company’s security regulations would prevent me from gaining access to their campus.

The job posting required that the applicant must qualify for a government secret clearance. I was just honorably discharged from the military, where I held a secret clearance that I was able to renew after my misdemenor conviction.

It seems quite unethical to extend an offer prior to assuring that the information that I provided multiple times wasn’t an issue. This should have been caught well before I got the interview. Is this legal?

My Advice

This sounds like you got the shaft, but it’s a bit more complicated, based on the information you’ve provided.

I published your story in this week’s Ask The Headhunter e-mail newsletter, but I did not publish my advice and comments because I wanted to challenge our community to figure this one out. I asked subscribers to think about your story, and then come to the blog ready to post their take on it.

  • Did HR give this job applicant the shaft?
  • What went wrong?
  • How could this situation have been handled better?

Here’s how I see it.

HR blew it.

While it was nice of the enthusiastic HR lady to give you the offer on the phone, she jumped the gun when she “welcomed you to the team.” You weren’t on the team yet, and she had no business implying you were. Someone needs to call her on the carpet.

The HR lady tipped you off.

The key to this entire unfortunate episode lies in this sentence: “She welcomed me to the team and said I will get all the details after the background check clears.” That meant she made you a contingent offer. It was not bona fide. That is, it was dependent on the background check. In other words, you had no offer to act on.

You jumped the gun.

I always tell job applicants who “get an offer,” to never, ever, ever resign their old job, or turn off other opportunities, until they’ve been on the new job for two weeks. Sounds kind of extreme, eh? Yah, well, so’s what happened to you. While odds are pretty good that a job offer will turn out fine, the enormity of the consequences if anything goes wrong is why no one should do what you did. [Correction: My bad on a poor turn of phrase that confuses two issues — when to turn off other job opportunities and when to resign your old job. Please see my comment about this below.]

Before even orally accepting the offer, you should have waited for a bona fide offer in writing, signed by an official of the company.

Before setting aside other opportunities (because there is no sure thing), you should have completed the company orientation, met your new boss, started the job, and ensured nothing goofy was going on at your new job. I’ve seen many people quit new jobs within the first two weeks. It takes that long to… well… make sure nothing’s goofy. You don’t want to be out on the street with nowhere to go if the new job goes south. (Likewise, an employer should not stop recruiting and interviewing just because a candidate accepts its offer.)

You did the right thing, again and again.

You disclosed, from the start and throughout the interview process, that you had a misdemeanor conviction. That takes guts, and it was the smart thing to do. The company had an obligation to be as candid with you, and to disclose its policy about hiring people convicted of crimes. It had no excuse for not detailing its policies once you made your disclosures.

Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer's Full AttentionDo all employers behave like this? Absolutely not. It’s up to you to find the right employers and to know how to get their attention — because lousy employers aren’t worth your time or aggravation! Learn how to:

  • Stop walking blind on the job hunt!
  • Pick worthy companies.
  • Test the company. Is it a Mickey Mouse operation?
  • Recognize and beat age discrimination. (Or is it your own anxiety?)
  • Deal with a bad reference. Don’t get torpedoed!
  • Investigate privately-held companies — Here’s the secret!
  • And more!

Don’t waste your time with the wrong employers! These methods are all in
Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention

But somebody didn’t do their job.

As soon as this employer learned about your conviction, HR should have pulled out its policy book and mapped it to your situation before making you an offer. The HR lady explained the policy clearly to you — too late!

What bunch of numbnuts knows it’s got a policy issue from the start, but ignores the implications of its policy? Especially because you were so candid and forthright about your problem, HR should have had the background check completed far sooner, and should have inquired about the dates of your conviction, sentence, and the resolution.

(I’m waiting for someone to suggest that, for legal reasons, the background check could not be done until you accepted the offer. That would be a good trick — accepting an offer for a job that company policy prohibits you from accepting.)

Who’s on the hook now?

I think the HR lady is on the hook. She should have made it crystal clear to you that the job offer was not yet bona fide, and that it was contingent on the background check. I think she should have even gone so far as to advise you not to take any other action until the check was confirmed. She blew it. She should be on the hook, but you’re the one who got hurt.

You’re on the hook because you rejected another (more bona fide?) job offer, and notified the headhunters that you’re no longer a candidate for a job.

Most important, this company’s HR practices are on the hook, and they need to be gutted and cleaned.

Fearless Job Hunting, Book 4: Overcome Human Resources ObstaclesThere’s no way to beat HR, is there? Sure there is! Learn how to recognize and overcome these HR obstacles:

  • HR demands too much private information, like your salary history. But two can play this game!
  • HR throws a “behavioral interview” at you.
  • Online job application forms — learn to get past them.
  • HR gets between you and the decision maker. Learn how to go straight to the hiring manager!
  • The HR rejection letter: Why you should reject it!
  • And more!

HR isn’t as tough as you think! You’ll find myth-busting answers in
Fearless Job Hunting, Book 4: Overcome Human Resources Obstacles

Doubling HR Costs: Time to change company practices.

Poor HR practices are what make HR executives scream that, “There’s a talent shortage!” Well, here’s the talent, fresh out of the military, worthy of a job offer, but… Aren’t an honorable discharge and a fresh secret clearance enough to merit more careful treatment when the company is looking at an applicant who qualifies for a secret clearance?

Now where’s the talent shortage? In HR.

HR spent a lot of company money to process this hire — only to stumble at the last minute. Now HR will spend the money again on another candidate. HR costs just doubled in this case. I wonder what the board of directors would have to say? Because HR will sweep the mistake under the rug, along with all the other good candidates HR lost because:

  • An otherwise excellent applicant’s keywords “didn’t match;”
  • A wise applicant didn’t want to disclose her salary history;
  • A highly motivated applicant dared to contact the hiring manager directly;
  • HR interviewed the engineering applicant but doesn’t understand engineering;
  • The applicant seems a bit old;
  • The applicant refused to meet with HR until he first interviewed with the hiring manager;
  • And on and on… through the myriad wasteful practices we discuss on this forum that cost companies good hires every day…

It’s time for this company — and many companies — to take a good, hard look at HR practices because good talent is not easy to come by.

Whose bad?

That offer was no offer, so give it back! Has an employer ever given you a job offer, then rescinded it? Why? What was the reason? What did you do? What’s your take on this reader’s experience?

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The employer that rejected me made a mistake!

In the October 25, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job candidate explains that an employer made a mistake when it hired another applicant. He wants advice about how to help the employer rectify the mistake. Don’t laugh — it’s easy to get caught in this trap of frustration.

I recently made a lateral move to a large firm in a different state. Here is the problem: I was originally interviewed for the Senior Vice President (SVP) job, but the executive recruiter thought I didn’t have the right experience. So she recommended me for the next level down, the Vice President (VP) job. The client offered me a good package for the VP job, and I took it.

The same recruiter then brought in several other candidates for the SVP position. They gave the job to a person from a big firm in a different industry, who has less experience than me (three years versus my seven years), and who was unemployed for one year. Overall, he’s far less qualified than me, in my opinion. But now I’m reporting to him.

What do I do? I’m tempted to call the recruiter who brought me to the client and tell her that she screwed up. I also want to tell the head of HR (who interviewed me) about this situation, but I’m not sure what to say. That is, how can they rectify this situation? Any thoughts?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

My Advice

Wow — time out! You can’t “rectify” a company’s hiring decision that you disagree with, because it’s their choice. I know you’re frustrated, but please step back and look at this calmly.

If you were to approach the company or the recruiter about this, you would come across as presumptuous and arrogant. You have no idea what their reasons are for the choice they made, or what criteria they used to select an SVP. You are not the decision maker, nor do you have any place in the decision process. Please be very careful. It’s easy to feel that someone else has made a huge mistake — but it’s not your place to suggest that they rectify it.

I think the reason you don’t know what to say about this is that you realize it would be inappropriate to say anything.

This is actually a common problem among job hunters at all levels. Some of the smartest people I’ve known get a twitch when they feel usurped by a competitor. The twitch is unjustified, but they make themselves suffer deeply, convinced they’re right and that the employer is wrong — even when they lack information about why a decision was made. They really believe they must — and can — “rectify” the employer’s “mistake.” It’s painful to be rejected, but I think the best cure is to accept the truth behind a profound quote from author Vladimir Nabokov: “You are not I; therein lies the irreparable calamity.”

Though we should learn what we can from rejection, in the end it’s often about the differences between people, not about errors or failures. No offense intended, but the decision you need to make is whether you want to work for this company and whether you will be content with the VP job.

Please think about this carefully. If your behavior betrays your frustration, it could contribute to failure on the job. You accepted the VP job, and I assume you had good reasons for doing so. Part of your job is to work closely with your new boss, the SVP. If you harbor serious reservations about this, you should consider resigning. Otherwise, make a commitment to having a good working relationship, because your employer is not about to give you the SVP’s job.

Ah, the pain of rejection! And the pain of getting over it. Have you ever gotten bogged down in resentment over a lost job opportunity? How’d you get past it?

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Readers’ Forum: How to Turn Down a Job Offer

In the April 12, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how to turn down a job offer while maintaining a good long-term relationship with the employer. Is that so hard to imagine?

I have been pretty lucky and currently have a few job offers on the table. All the offers sound like good opportunities, and while I’d like to work for all of them, I’d probably violate labor laws and my own sanity if I actually did! Is there a right way to turn down offers? That is, so I can maintain my relationships with those I turn down, should I want to reconsider working for that boss or employer in the future?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

The best way to turn down an offer is to call the hiring manager directly (not the human resources department). Don’t just send an e-mail. Say thank you, but then demonstrate your respect to earn respect back. This is where valuable long-term relationships start. (Why don’t HR departments get this?)

How to Say It
When you talk with the manager, try this: “It means a lot to me that you’ve asked me to come work with you. I’ve been fortunate to receive several offers, and I’m taking the one where the work is the closest match to my objectives. Unfortunately, that’s not your company. This was a difficult decision, because you’re someone I’d like to work with, if not now, sometime in the future. With your permission, I’d like to stay in touch. In fact, if it’s not presumptuous, I’d like to recommend someone to you who I think would be a good candidate for this job… and I’d be glad to put you in touch….”

If you’re really impressed with the manager (Why else would you want to stay in touch, right?), recommending someone else is a nice consolation prize, and it shows how much you think of the manager. Just make sure the referral is a good one.

What if you haven’t got a referral to offer? There’s an alternative How to Say It suggestion in the newsletter that could nurture a new professional friendship. Sign up for your own free subscription, and get more tips in upcoming newsletters!

Here’s another: If the job is related to sales or marketing, offer a lead on a possible new customer, if you can. Introduce the manager to another manager that he or she might do business with. Give something back to demonstrate your respect. That’s where relationships start. Then follow up — it’s up to you to stay in touch. If you can do something for the manager in the near future, do it.

That’s how to stay close. That’s how you cultivate future opportunities.

When an employer rejects you, it’s usually with a little note that says, “Thanks for interviewing with us. Go suck rocks.” After investing money and time getting to know you, fools waste their investment and insult you. Building a network of good contacts means saying “No” with class, and with the intent to build new relationships anyway.

How do you turn down job offers? Does your method pay off?


Finesse: The secret sauce of recruiting

In the March 21, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a manager complains about losing a candidate to another employer, and blames the headhunter. Was the manager in too much of a hurry?

I used a headhunter to help me fill a position in my group, but it didn’t turn out well. The good news is that the headhunter found us a great candidate, and we made a good offer. But after some back and forth, the candidate decided to take a job at another company. This was our #1 candidate. I stopped working with the headhunter after that because I was pretty upset. Now I’m wondering, did I shoot myself in the foot?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

What I’m about to tell you is a story out of the ordinary. But it reveals the importance of cultivating relationships, staying in touch with people, and reading between the lines.

I had a client that made an offer to a candidate I found. As in your situation, the candidate turned the offer down, and took a job at another company. I thought the candidate had made the wrong choice, so I didn’t walk away from the deal. I applied some finesse.

I put my client on hold as the next week played itself out, and I left my candidate alone as he got oriented at his new company. Then I called the candidate at work, and asked him some detailed questions about “how’s it going?”

Knowing more than he did about the company he’d joined, I was not surprised to learn things weren’t perfect. I let him talk. He’d had no one to talk to about his first week, and now he gave vent to his disappointment. I just listened. He soon made it clear that he was unhappy with his choice… [The rest of this advice is in the newsletter. Want more? Subscribe to the free newsletter, which will tell you more each week.]

…And then I gently pounced. “I think you could have another shot at that, if you want.”

He wanted. What I then explained to him was that I had not disclosed to my client that he had taken another job. The offer was still active. He accepted it and spent several happy years with the company.

Someone might accuse me of not fulfilling my obligation to my client, because I didn’t disclose that the candidate had accepted another job… My obligation to my client was to find and deliver the best candidates I could. And I did. It just took a little longer in this case, because some finesse (and a bit of gambling) was necessary.

A bit of discretion on my part got the job filled. That was the secret sauce. (It’s just another insight about How to Work with Headhunters.) In a recent blog comment, reader Chris Walker (a training and placement specialist himself) shares a related experience:

“I have had 2 clients in the past year who were hired after being rejected because the new hire didn’t work out, one just 2 weeks after her rejection letter. That’s why candidates should always send a thank you in response to a rejection.”

When you’re the job candidate, remember that There is no sure thing. Don’t move so quickly to turn off other opportunities, even if you’ve accepted a job offer… My client got the candidate “because the new job didn’t work out…”

…Sometimes patience and a bit of diplomacy can get you where you want to go. Don’t let job boards and high-speed decision making deter you. Slow down, think, and exhibit some finesse, because even “final decisions” are subject to change.

Did you ever get rejected (whether you’re an employer or job hunter), and still make the deal happen? How did you turn No into Yes?


Readers’ Comments: Did I really agree to that?

In the February 22, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader worries about employers that bury little bombs in job offers that might get the new employee fired…

I read about an employee who sued after her company fired her for refusal to sign its new two-year non-compete agreement. She was fired for “non-compliance with company policy.” The court reaffirmed an old decision from California that an employer cannot lawfully require the signing of a non-compete agreement as a condition of continued employment, but I don’t know whether she has actually won her case. This raises the bigger question: How can people protect themselves against these kinds of surprise “attacks” from their own employers?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

Was it really a surprise? Or did she in fact agree to sign a non-compete agreement (NCA) when she accepted the job? According to your story, she wasn’t fired for refusing to sign the NCA, but for failing to comply with company policy. That’s key.

Your story reveals one of the big gotchas that people don’t think about when they accept a job offer. Most job offers include words along these lines: “By accepting this offer you agree to abide by the rules of the company’s employee policy manual… If you don’t, that’s grounds for dismissal.”

Thus, when you accept the terms in a job offer letter, you’re agreeing to additional terms defined in other company documents. How’s that possible? It’s called incorporation by reference. The offer letter references the policy manual, thus the policy manual is incorporated into the job offer—and so are its terms.

…My guess is that this is the essence of the court case you’ve described. She may have naively agreed to sign an NCA when she took the job. That may be why the company’s position is that she’s not in compliance with company policy.

So, what does this mean to the happy-go-lucky job hunter who gets a headache trying to understand a job offer? It means caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware. It’s up to you to understand what you’re agreeing to. A few tips:

First, read the offer carefully. (Or, back up a step. Make sure you have the job offer in writing.) [Details are in the newsletter. If I give you everything here, you’ll never sign up!]

Second, ask for all documents incorporated by reference in the offer. [More in the newsletter.]

Third, before you sign the offer, ask to see all documents you will be expected to sign after you accept the offer. [More in the newsletter. You’ll love it.]

I’m not a lawyer, and this is obviously not legal advice. It’s common sense based on experience. Remember that the company hired a lawyer to write all those documents. You are about to commit to a salary deal ($50,000? $150,000? More?). You’re at a disadvantage if you don’t have your own lawyer review the details of the deal.

(The flip side of this advice about offer letters is about employment contracts. If a company doesn’t give you a contract, maybe you should ask for one: Employment Contracts: Everyone needs promise protection. While such contracts are usually reserved only for executives, Bernie Dietz’s article makes a powerful argument that everyone should have a written employment contract.)

When you accept a job offer, you’re agreeing to live under the company’s rules. Have you seen the rules? Do you understand them? Don’t be so eager to accept the salary that you ignore the other components of the offer. Don’t wind up asking your lawyer after the fact, Did I really agree to that?

Oh, no! Getting a job offer is very exciting, especially if you decide to accept it. But sometimes, there are little bombs hidden in that offer, and in the documents you must sign before you start the job. Today’s Q&A is about such an explosion: The NCA. Have you ever been burned by terms in a job offer that you didn’t notice when you accepted it? How did you deal with it?


Readers’ Comments: How to negotiate with a headhunter

In the January 18, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader gets a job offer through a headhunter, and asks how to negotiate for a higher salary:

I got an offer today! The headhunter called me with the offer, and I told him I’d think about it and get back with him. I’d like to ask for $5k more, but I’m not very good at negotiating—and I have no idea how to negotiate with a headhunter who stands between me and the employer. Any suggestions? 

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

The key is to know how headhunters think. They want one thing: to close the deal. (While some headhunters may pressure you to accept an offer without negotiation, a good headhunter will go to bat for you, if he thinks that what you want is reasonable.)

What headhunters don’t like is a wishy-washy candidate. They want to know exactly what you want. They may not always be able to get it for you, but if it’s reasonable, they will try to satisfy you (and the employer) to get the deal closed. Too often, a candidate who is facing an offer will balk, but not because the money isn’t right. He may hesitate because he’s not sure he wants the job itself. You must be honest with yourself, and with the headhunter, on this point. If the job itself is the problem, discuss this candidly with the headhunter. Otherwise, you could send him off spinning his wheels trying to get you more money, when you’re not even sure you want the job.

This is a key thing to understand about headhunters. A good one will work hard for you, but only if he’s sure you’re ready to take the job. Otherwise, why bother? If the problem is the job, then negotiate a different position. Give the headhunter clear directions.

If you’re sure you want the job, then make things black and white for this headhunter, and he’ll respect you for it. So here’s what to do:

How to Say It
Tell the headhunter: “This is an offer that I’d have to take some time to think about. I’m not sure I’d accept it. If it were $5k more, however, I’d accept it on the spot. In fact, if you can get the offer raised by $5k, you don’t even need to call me back. You can tell them I accept. So, tell me, what do you think?”

When you arm a headhunter with a firm number that will guarantee your acceptance, you give him great power to close the deal. Make that commitment to him, and you’ll quickly find out whether the extra bucks are possible. Then it’s all up to the headhunter—and his client.

Negotiating with headhunters — and getting them to negotiate for you — is different from negotiating directly with an employer. This edition of the newsletter is actually an edited excerpt from How to Work with Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you.

HTWWHs includes lots of additional insights and tips to give you an insider’s edge on how to negotiate successfully with a good headhunter:

  • Split the 2 parts of an offer to your advantage: The job and the terms
  • How to negotiate the terms and the job itself
  • Additional How to Say It tips to give you an added edge
  • The truth about whether the headhunter’s fee affects your offer
  • How to ask for higher compensation that costs the employer less
  • The one thing that can kill salary negotiations and your credibility
  • The headhunter’s secret: What to put on the table to win big

And that’s just one section (7 pages) of the 130-page How to Work with Headhunters…, including 62 myth-busting answers for fearless job hunters. Why stop here?

Are headhunters difficult to negotiate with? Yah, sometimes they are. But, if you find them difficult, odds are good you’re not dealing with a good headhunter. The hacks want a quick buck. The best headhunters want a valuable addition to their network. They will hear you out, and try to help you if they can. Because one happy placement is worth many good referrals in the future… which is what good headhunters really want.

What’s your experience been with headhunters? Not just the worst, but the best? Please share your cautions, advice and stories. Most important — what can others do to negotiate the best deal through a headhunter?


Readers’ Forum: How much should I pay a new hire?

In the December 7, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, an employer asks how to set the salary for a job offer.

I’m an employer, and I need some information on the average salary I should expect to pay an experienced (5-10 years), degreed individual to manage part of my software company. I am looking for someone who can take over and manage with little or no supervision. How do I set a salary on this?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

No salary database describes your position, or the particular manager you want to hire. You might find some data that appear to be relevant, but just one factor could throw off your entire calculus and lead you to make a terrible mistake.

I know that you need to set a range for your budget, but why not think about this person’s salary in a new way that might attract the best candidates? (Why would you want to focus on average salary? Do you want an average hire?)

Ask yourself, Is my hiring strategy to limit my costs, or to boost my profits? That is, are you willing to pay more to get more? This requires some analysis that few employers consider.

How much added profit could a candidate add to my business? In the interview, ask candidates to discuss their abilities in those terms. How would they increase your profits by 10%? Decrease your costs by 15%? Create products that increase market share by 20%?

Then, pay based on added profit.

(You say you can’t calculate profit for a particular position? Well, then your business plan is totally screwed. But don’t feel too badly — few employers have any idea how a single job contributes to profit. Think about that: How can anyone run a company rationally if they don’t know how each job contributes to the bottom line? My suspicion is that this problem is a fundamental cause of business failure.) 

A candidate who can answer those questions in a compelling way may be worth more than the market—or any salary survey—suggests. So, think out of the box. Turn your interviews into working meetings where you and the candidate roll up your sleeves and tackle ways to improve the job to make it more profitable.

This sort of interview turns into a business planning session…

(If you’re a job candidate, don’t let salary surveys limit your job negotiations, either.)

Maybe HR told you there’s $X in the budget for the job you want to fill. Maybe you checked the industry averages and set the salary range accordingly. Maybe you picked a number out of a hat.

Maybe you have no idea how the job is supposed to contribute to your bottom line!

Which is it? How do managers decide what salary to offer a new hire? Let’s talk dollars. How do you think they should do it?