Q: After two successful interviews with a professional association, the director of human resources called me to say they wanted to offer me the position, and that her assistant would call me to make the final offer because she had to go to a conference. Sure enough, the assistant called to offer the job, and I accepted. We discussed the salary, and I told her I would be giving my job a two-week notice the next day. She said I would be expected to start work on the first possible day because they needed me right away. She congratulated me and said she would send me some papers in the mail.
I resigned from my job.
Four days later, the human resources director called to discuss the salary. I couldn't understand it because I thought we had already agreed on the amount. I agreed to meet with her. But when we met, she told me that three other people were up for the position and that they would make a decision within a few days. I was in shock. I'd been told I was hired.
Now I know I won't be hired there. My employer, fortunately, has allowed me to stay while I look for another job, but I'll need to leave now. What can be done? I want these people to pay.
A: Ouch! Here's a similar tale:
Q: I was hired by a security company that performs security for a cruise line. When I was hired, I was told to resign from my previous job because they needed me to start working the next day. They issued me uniforms, a company ID and an employee handbook, and gave me 10 hours of special training.
A few hours before I was to start, I received a phone call telling me not to go because the contract the security company had with the cruise line had been placed on hold. They aren't sure how long this might last. Now I'm without a job because the company lied to me. Is there anything I can do about it?
A: That's really rough. And it's a practice that seems to be on the rise, particularly among companies undergoing restructuring or management turbulence.
''They can want a position one day and then they change their mind and don't want it the next day,'' said Jan Greenwood, vice president of A.T. Kearney, a management consulting and executive recruitment firm in Alexandria, Va.
This happens most frequently to young people and lower-level workers, Greenwood said; less often to older workers and executives, who are more adept at spotting signs of trouble.
They're also more likely to demand written agreements known as job-offer letters, which include a written offer of employment, job requirements, salary, expected work hours, and a schedule for salary and performance reviews. The letter should be hand-signed by the hiring supervisor and sent by mail or delivery service, not via e-mail, to ensure everybody understands it's a serious legal commitment, Greenwood said. The prospective worker should also sign it, make copies and send a copy to the employer. Both parties should keep a copy for their records.
''Never quit your job until you have a written offer in hand from the other company,'' said Greenwood, ''It's a basic rule of thumb.''
A verbal job offer generally isn't binding, said employment lawyer John Canoni: ''An oral contract isn't worth the paper it isn't written on.''
For most workers, the question of recourse is murky. Sometimes employees can sue for damages if they can prove they suffered serious financial damage.
In 1997, a New York manager was wooed to become a manager at a consulting company with a history of abruptly firing workers, according to Canoni. The manager demanded, and received, a job-offer letter to give himself more job security. He was terminated two months later. But because the company's letter had promised him a ''guaranteed recoverable draw of $120,000'' for the next two years, the man sued to get the quarter-million dollars he believed he was owed. In December, a New York appellate court ruled that his breach-of-contract lawsuit could proceed to trial.
For that reason, Canoni, who mainly represents employers, advises companies to draft these agreements cautiously so they don't open themselves up to future liability.
But workers who threaten prospective employers can find it hazardous. Greenwood said some employers have been known to hire the workers and then ''reorganize,'' laying the worker off -- a practice that would be completely legal.
''They can play hardball, too,'' she said.
Greenwood suggested the workers make an end run around human resources, raising the issue politely but firmly with the hiring supervisor, who may be unaware of what occurred. She said the worker should acknowledge that changes may have occurred but ask the company to fulfill its pledge of employment, perhaps in another position.
If it doesn't work, ''rush back to the previous employer and try to recapture your job,'' she said.
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