Category Archives: reference checks

How to Handle “The Offer”

offerAlright, you have cleared all the hurdles and the company calls you and wants to tender an offer. “How should I handle this?”

Well, most of the time the person authorized to offer you a job will give a verbal offer over the phone. Basically it will be a high level summation of the offer:

  1. Job Title
  2. Base Salary
  3. Bonus Plan
  4. Anticipated Start Date

These are usually the biggest sticking points to whether an offer is accepted or not so they like to get these things agreed to “in principle” before writing out the official written offer letter. If these 4 points are agreeable to you, then you need to enthusiastically say “I conditionally accept, but would like to see the written offer and any other documents I need to sign.” If you haven’t seen a detailed benefits sheet of what the company offers and what any out of pocket costs there may be, get one because they affect your total compensation. For example, you are getting a bump in pay of $5000 per year but your health insurance is going to cost you $500 a month more, it is a net decrease in compensation of $1000 a year. Also see what the company matches for 401(k) vs. current match. Maybe any new costs that you don’t have with your current job:

  • Longer commute
  • Pay for parking or public transportation
  • New child care expenses because of new hours or longer commuting distance
  • Current employer was paying for your education and new company offers no tuition reimbursement
  • If you are relocating, relocation reimbursement and cost of living differences

There are a bunch more but these are some major ones. I know it is an old fashioned thing, but write down all the pay and cash value of current benefits on one side of a piece of paper and one for the new offer on the other, or do some excel spreadsheet comparison and see what the total compensation would come out to be. Sometimes you can live with a net decrease for the right opportunity, and sometimes not.

If these 4 major points are not agreeable, you need to discuss it right then and there. The whole “can I think about it/talk to my spouse/discuss with my dog and call you tomorrow” and then come back with new demands is a little off putting for the hiring company. If you know what you want and everything looks good or could with a minor tweak, say it then and get it finalized. The last thing you want to get into is a contentious negotiation with people you are going to be working with/for. The thing that companies will be most flexible about is start date, as long as it is reasonable. Don’t come back to them and say, “oh I forgot to tell you I am going on vacation to the Himalayas for 2 months next week.”  Sometimes there are acceptable reasons for having to be highly flexible about start dates due to circumstances beyond your control:

  • Birth of a child
  • Critically ill family member

The thing they are least flexible about is pay. You should have been on the same page as them on pay before you even got to the offer stage, so if the offer is way low, there is a mis-management of expectations on one or both sides. If it isn’t going to kill you, don’t come back and ask for another 1 or 2K in base pay a year. It looks like they gave you a fair offer and you are just trying to squeeze every dime you can. I have more than once pulled offers on people who tried to “wheel and deal.”

Alright, so let’s go on the assumption we are agreed in principle to the verbal terms of the offer. Ask them to email you a recap of the verbal offer (not an official written offer, but just a reiteration of what you discussed) to make sure there is no mis-communication on the phone as to the numbers, etc. As soon as that is done and everything matches up, get right back to them and ask for the the written offer with all the other necessary paperwork to sign:

  • Non Compete or Non Disclosure agreements (don’t sign an offer letter before reading this!!)
  • A release for a background check and what exactly is checked (credit, work history, education, criminal, drug) all of these are perfectly acceptable for an employer to investigate, with your approval.
  • Any other documents about patents or inventions that you previously claim and your continued ownership therein

Make sure that the non compete is not super-restrictive or unfair in case you should be let go or leave on your own. What they usually want to protect themselves from is you going after their competition, revealing confidential company information, recruiting their employees. This is OK and fair of them to ask you to agree to. What they CANNOT do is restrict your ability to earn a living in your chosen line of work. For instance, you sell a software product. That’s what you have done for the last 15 years. They can’t make you sign something that says you can’t go to work for a company that sells software; it is too broad of a brush to paint. They may say you can’t sell software to our clients that you learned about while working here or hire our sales people to work with you for 2 years after you leave. So make sure you read the details of the NCA or NDA. If possible ask someone who knows employment law or law in general to peruse. Most lawyers, no matter what their specialty can read any contract and interpret the legalese to ascertain its true intent.

If it has objectionable language as to any prior inventions, patents, etc. you need to discuss that. Usually they will acquiesce to your requests. Know that most companies view any inventions you came up with when you are employed by them as their ownership and usually will prevail on that if it came down to it.

On the background check, understand exactly what will be checked and how long they go back in your sordid life :-). The average time is 5-7 years. If you have been out of college for 10 years and got rounded up with a bunch of other drunken fools in Fort Lauderdale on spring break it is probably not an issue. If you have something that you feel will come up (DUI, felony conviction), get it out in the open before the check is conducted so there are no surprises and you know it won’t be a deal-breaker. Do not lie on your work history or education, most good checking companies will find it out. If it is a simple misunderstanding you will usually get a chance to explain should it come up.

As to credit checks, a lot of people ask me why companies do this and why is it their business? It actually makes good sense to run a credit check as long as there is ample opportunity for the employee to explain the negative marks. If you are going to be in a position of having access to the company’s finances or you have power to make big money decisions, an adverse credit report that states significant debt or financial hardship could make you a candidate for bribery or embezzlement. Companies have been burned many times by this so they are justified in their request to check this. What they should let you explain is the reason for debt or default on loans, etc. You lost your job, you had to leave your job to care for an ill family member, you yourself got ill and couldn’t work or had to pay for medical treatment out of your own pocket because it was not covered by health insurance. There are a lot of legitimate reasons for a bad credit report and being up front and open is the way to make it a non-issue.

Finally, the offer itself. It may seem like there is a lot of scary language within the offer itself,  but most of it is just boiler plate. In Massachusetts, where I live, it is an “employment at will” state. That means that a company can terminate you for any or no reason with or without notice. The offer letter is not an employment contract either explicit or implied unless otherwise stated in the offer or separate contract. This is normal.  Of course, if you feel a company let you go unfairly or in a discriminatory fashion, you are perfectly entitled to pursue a claim with the State. Many people say “They can axe me anytime without notice, but they want me to give 2 weeks notice. That’s not fair, is it?” Yes and no. Sometimes they feel giving notice of termination to an employee can be detrimental to the company, if it is performance related. They could cause many problems. Voluntary resignations to go to another company usually don’t cause that kind of  risk, and that’s why they ask for the 2 week notice to transition and fill your role.

Just know, they only request you give 2 weeks notice. You are under no obligation to do so but I highly recommend it. You don’t want to burn references with co-workers. In many sales positions, most companies will show you the door anyway when you give your notice – so be prepared to pack up your desk and leave your email inbox behind right then. Also know – it is completely ILLEGAL for companies to withhold your pay if you don’t give notice. Any pay you have earned cannot be withheld unless you made an agreement to pay back any signing bonuses or relocation expenses should you leave voluntarily within a stated amount of time.

Note, all these things are just “general guidelines”, every state has their own employment laws and you should know the laws of your state or consult an employment law attorney if you have questions.

I know we got into a lot of deeper subjects, but offers are important things and need to be approached with the scrutiny you would use to buy a car or house.

Next time we will discuss giving notice and how to handle counter-offers.


What is this in reference to?

referenceNice work. You nailed your interviews and are moving to the exciting offer stage. The thing that sometimes causes agita amongst job seekers is that little step in betwixt the interviews and the offer: The reference check.
Today we will discuss how to approach the reference check. First thing: Always have your group of references ready and updated if you are in the job market. Make sure they know they will be getting a call and inform them what the role is so they can be prepared to speak contextually about you.
The “rotation” or mix of people you want to have depends on what type of job you are looking for or even the type of company you may possibly be going to work for. This is my very general mix:
Individual Contributor roles:

  • 1 or 2 peers
  • 1 or 2 managers
  • Foxhole reference (I will explain later)

Management roles

  • 1 peer
  • 2 direct reports
  • 1 manager
  • Foxhole reference

Sales or consulting (heavy client-facing roles)

  • 1 or 2 managers
  • 2 clients
  • Foxhole reference

Obviously, there are many permutations you can do off these guidelines depending on your industry. But get this group set and on-board well before you even start interviewing.

So what is this Foxhole reference? Everyone has worked with someone in their career who they are extremely close to. They worked incredibly well together as if they were of one mind. They also are a person who is articulate, creative and quick thinking. This is someone who will always have your back (hence the foxhole reference.) They can adapt to whatever type of questions and personality the reference checker has and always make you look like a rock star. If you somehow forgot to contact them to give a heads-up on a potential reference check call, they would still do a great job for you. You all probably know someone like this. If not, think harder – it will come to you and get that person in the rotation.

Coaching references:

My best advice is not to do any coaching other than the heads-up info (job, company, etc) When I call a reference that the job seeker coached, it is painfully obvious.  Unless they are Meryl Streep, it is transparent they reading some sort of notes or script (or desperately trying to find your email that had their script!) These people are professional and smart they will do fine without any real coaching

“The Question”

When the “question” comes up – and we all know the “question” (areas of improvement or weaknesses), references will often figure out how to make a negative seem like a positive (“he takes his job so seriously and works so hard he doesn’t delegate enough”.) While they think they are doing you a favor, a savvy hiring manager will read that as (not a good manager, doesn’t trust their staff, didn’t train staff properly to feel comfortable delegating, doesn’t make good hiring decisions, etc.) Just tell them to be honest in all questions, avoid hyperbole as much as possible.

Let’s face it, if they are going to say something that would be a deal breaker, maybe a. they shouldn’t be on your list or b. maybe this isn’t the right job for you. Most people are smart enough to provide references who are going to say good things, so I think the process is somehow a little silly, but I suppose is somewhat necessary. Just know that this is not the only due diligence they do (aside from background checks.) See the next paragraph.

Back Door Reference

Invisible to the job seeker, most recruiters/HR people conduct what is called a back-door reference when they can. They know that the references you give are basically a fix, and recruiters use them as networking/sales calls to see if they are looking and/or hiring and using agencies (we are so sly!) The back door reference is simple:

  1. You worked at Acme Widgets
  2. The recruiter/ref checker knows someone or has access to someone who worked at Acme Widgets at the same time and gets an unfiltered reference on you

Reference Diversity

Try to mix up references so they aren’t all from one job or company, unless that’s the only place you ever worked. When including peers, maybe have one from a different group as yours to show you were a positive contributor among the entire organization.

So, if you haven’t gathered your reference posse, now is the time.

Next post: An offer you can’t refuse (or can you?)