Ask the Headhunter: I think my employer cheated me on salary
In this special Making Sen$e edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.
Question: I interviewed for a part-time job and it went so well that they called me an hour later to offer me the job. Before I accepted, I verbally negotiated a higher hourly rate than was offered in the job posting and was pleasantly surprised by their final offer, which I accepted.
The next day, they emailed an offer letter that included a monthly salary instead of the hourly rate they agreed to. I was so excited to accept the position that I did not catch the difference when I signed the letter and started the job. They set the monthly salary based on four weeks per month instead of 4.333 weeks per month (or instead of the standard 2,080/1,040 hours per year for FT/PT jobs). The error means I am now making $200/month, or $2.30/hour, or $2,400/year, less than the original hourly rate they verbally offered in our negotiations that I accepted.
It took me a month to catch the mistake. When I brought it to the attention of my managers, they looked into it. About a week later, they called me in for a meeting and said they were very sorry. They admit they made a calculation mistake when submitting my position to payroll, but the department directors (the "higher ups") were now telling my managers that they would not allow my salary to be adjusted to the original higher rate offered.
My managers said they were told that the rate I was verbally offered was too high for the type of position I was hired for and that their "hands were tied by bureaucracy." So now I'm stuck making a significantly lower rate than I expected and agreed to.
Was that original verbal rate that was offered binding in any way, especially if my managers (who hired me) admit that is the rate they offered and meant to pay me? I know I made a mistake too in not checking the math in the offer letter and am kicking myself for it now.
Nick Corcodilos: I'm sorry to hear you thought you were getting one deal, but got stuck with another. There are several issues here. Let's tackle them one at a time.
Does it really matter at this point?
First, you should find out whether the state you work in is an "employment at will" state. If it is, your company can fire you "at will" at any time for any reason or no reason. Think about this and you'll realize that it doesn't matter whether a job offer is binding. They could correct the offer if required by law and fire you five minutes (or 30 seconds) later.
Read agreements carefully
As you've noted, this is on you, because you read and signed the offer. Few people actually read agreements and contracts — they skim and sign. This is not prudent. If the value of a contract or agreement is high, it's always worth reading every word. My further advice is, wait a day before you sign anything. See if any issues percolate in your mind in the meantime. Don't be in a rush. I never sign on the spot, especially if there's an emotional component to the matter — and getting a job offer (especially one you really want) is certainly an emotional experience. That's when we make mistakes.
Get it in writing
I give you credit for negotiating a better deal than was offered. Not all people are capable of that. But until a deal is in writing and signed, it's not successful, and it's not real — mainly because what's in writing supersedes anything said orally. Now, a good lawyer might be able to get an oral agreement enforced, but that can be costly. It's up to you whether you want to get legal advice and/or representation.
Your managers are jerks
Your bosses agreed to pay a rate that "was way too high?" This one is on them. Unfortunately, this happens too often during hiring. One level of management doesn't know or approve of what another level is doing. That's a company to run from — it's a sure sign of poor management.
Don't wait another month to let this sink in: Your bosses are jerks. They admitted the error — good for them. But real responsibility means eating the cost if they gave their word. They should have corrected their error, although I don't believe they are bound to do so legally. Again, this is something for a lawyer if you want to pursue it.
The hiring managers are jerks because they should have verified the pay increase before making a commitment to you, and the higher level managers are jerks, because they aren't backing up the managers that report to them. When the chips are down, a good company shows integrity — it doesn't make excuses.
Your employer is a bureaucracy
If your bosses' hands are "tied by bureaucracy," why are they working there? It means they lack authority to do their jobs. Getting out of a promise by saying your organization is a bureaucracy is to admit your organization is not worth working for.
While I'm not a lawyer and this is not legal advice, I don't think the oral offer the managers made is binding, because you signed a different offer afterwards. That's on you. But it doesn't mean what this company has done is excusable. I don't think your choice now has anything to do with what's binding or legal. Your choice now is a judgment: Are these the kinds of people you want to keep working with?
That's not a rhetorical question.
You made a mistake, and they made a mistake. I could argue that you should keep the job, because you accepted it as it was written. I could also argue they should raise your pay to what they promised — it's how they induced you to take the job.
But at the end of the day, your new employer is making excuses: It's the bureaucracy's fault, the higher offer was never really approved to begin with, the higher-ups are saying no, and the hiring managers are not in control.
You must judge for yourself given your circumstances, and you must learn a lesson about oral and written agreements. But I think you must also decide whether these are people you want to keep working with.
If you decide to leave, my advice is to do what they're now doing — smile, be agreeable, pretend everything's hunky-dory — and start a quiet but diligent search for a better employer. If you're going to leave, I recommend "Parting Company: How to leave your job" — it'll help you manage your transition and keep you out of further trouble. Take a look at some tips from the book here: "Protect yourself from exploding job offers."
Dear Readers: Who is at fault here — the reader or the employer? Have you ever been taken in by a job offer that wasn't what you agreed to? What is your advice to this reader?
Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth "how to" PDF books are available on his website: "How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you," "Keep Your Salary Under Wraps," "How Can I Change Careers?" and "Fearless Job Hunting."
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