Companies & Industries

Always Get It in Writing


Job-seekers shouldn't hesitate to insist on seeing what is being offered in black and white. Here's the right way to handle it

Job-seekers call me to inquire: "How much time can I ask for to evaluate a job offer?" Well, how much time do you want? I'd say two or three days is standard, unless the weekend is coming, in which case you can ask for the weekend, too. "Oh my goodness," said one young man. "The recruiter balked when I asked for 24 hours."

That sounded so crazy that I had to probe. Once I got the whole story, I realized the young man wasn't asking how much time he could take to review his offer letter. He didn't have one. The recruiter, in fact, was phoning to collect his acceptance first.

This is really silly.

DODGING PAPERWORK.

When you're evaluating an offer, you need to look it over, all the parts together. You can't be expected to say "yes!" on the phone when the recruiter tells you, "We'd like to hire you as a program analyst at X salary, Y bonus, Z amount of travel, and with our standard benefits package." Whaaa? To see the entire picture, you need the offer letter.

A young friend of my sister's just got a job offer. My sister and I both looked at his letter, and had different, substantive questions regarding the structure of the bonus plan and other items. And we are management types with many years of experience. How is a young person, or any person, supposed to evaluate all the elements of a modern-day white-collar job offer over the phone?

Here's why human resources people want you to say "I accept!" before they'll put an offer on paper: They don't want to waste their time. Also, they dislike getting approval for an offer, and then having to explain a few days later, "He didn't accept." They want a guarantee ahead of time.

That isn't their privilege, however.

WHY SO STINGY?

You need time to reflect on the offer. It is perfectly reasonable, when the recruiter tells you "I can't put this in writing unless you accept now," to say: "I would love to, but I can't evaluate your offer based just on this discussion. I need to see the specifics on paper. I have that kind of mind." Then stay silent. It is okay -- in fact perfectly proper -- to force the issue.

I was puzzling over this in an online HR forum -- wondering how any recruiter or hiring manager could be so stingy with her time that she would avoid putting in writing the details of a complex job offer. One participant said, "But job offers are so dicey! You have no idea whether the person will accept. Do you want to keep putting offers in writing, only to have to rewrite them over and over as you negotiate with the candidate?"

I felt thunderstruck. Now, hold on a minute, I wrote. Do you mean to say that when you make an offer, that's the first time that you've discussed salary with the candidate -- that with a "ta-da!" flourish you present the offer for the first time?

THE "SUPPOSAL" OPTION.

Well of course, wrote back my correspondent, when else would you discuss it? We already know the candidate's salary history. He finds out what we're planning to pay him when we make the offer over the phone.

That blew me away. Maybe, when I'm old and tired of traveling, I'll open an HR academy and teach some basic things. No, no, no, I wrote back. When you make an offer, there should be no surprises. You don't jump out of a giant cake and say "Here's what we decided to offer you!" The candidate should know, before he gets your offer.

Here's how you accomplish that. Late in the interviewing process you'll offer a "supposal." A supposal consists of a conversation that goes this way: We like you, and it seems that you like us. Suppose we were to make you an offer. What would it need to look like in order for you to accept?

NO AFFRONTS.

Or you say, "Suppose we were to make you an offer for this many dollars. How would that strike you?" That's when you negotiate. Now, a supposal doesn't constitute a job offer. You will make that clear. A supposal discussion is a conversation that determines whether compensation issues will present an obstacle. This is where you iron out those details, or decide that you and your candidate aren't destined to hook up.

If you get the supposal stuff behind you before making an offer, then the offer conversation will stay short and anticlimactic. The candidate will say something like: "Yep, that's pretty much what we talked about. Sounds great on the phone -- let's get it on paper, and I'll look it over." If you, the hiring manager or HR person, can't take that as an acceptance, you might be too tightly wound.

Of course, your candidate may still negotiate with you. That's life in the big leagues. But you won't risk offending him -- or having to rewrite the offer letter a dozen times -- if you're in mind-meld mode before you draft a letter.

DESTINY WILL PREVAIL.

Now, I still think three days is a reasonable span over which to consider an offer. But with the supposal technique, a recruiter or hiring manager can rest assured that if the candidate doesn't accept, some grave error or insult on the employer's part won't have accounted for the refusal.

And to my HR friends, a reminder: Patience is a virtue. The people meant to work for you will end up with you, whether they take 10 minutes or a week to accept your offer. Go have a cup of coffee and relax.

Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive. She can be reached at liz@asklizryan.com.

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