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Dream Offers That Just Lead You On

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Sunday, April 27, 2008

A job offer is supposed to bring relief after a long search, but that can be short-lived if the employer yanks the offer back, a prospect that becomes more likely in a struggling economy.

No matter how valid the reasons -- or how profuse the hiring manager's apologies -- a prospective employer's about-face still puts the worker in an awkward spot.

Consider this story, from Bruce Robertson, a human resources manager in Northern Virginia, about a man he interviewed recently:

"He had been working at a local company and decided it was time to look for a new job. He interviewed at quite a few places and was eventually hired at a local government contractor. He was very happy to be offered an increase of 30 percent of his current salary. He was told they really did not need him for over a month so he decided to give the typical two-week notice from his old employer and then go on a two-week trip to Asia he had always dreamed about," Robertson wrote in a recent e-mail.

"One month later he went to his new employer and was greeted by his new boss. The man greeted him strangely and asked what he was doing there."

Apparently the job offer had been withdrawn because of funding problems, but no one had told the worker. He tried to go back to his old employer, but his position had already been filled.

The man went to a lawyer, Robertson said, but he was told that there was no case. He couldn't collect unemployment because he had quit his last job and never actually went to work at the new one.

As unfair as all of that sounds, that's how it would work for most people.

Mimi Moore, an expert in labor and employment law at the Chicago office of Bryan Cave, said generally the only people who have legal recourse against fickle employers are those with strong employment contracts. They aren't very common, "except for very high-level executives."

Angry workers wondering if they can sue an employer for costs incurred as a result of accepting a phantom job, such as relocating, should know that it is "really difficult" to prove such a claim, and that the legal fees can quickly exceed the damages, Moore said. "Employers are increasingly aware of that potential problem," and they are trying to avoid it. "They're being a little bit more wishy-washy in their offer letters."

So what should you do if your new chair is pulled out from under you?

Some people get angry and figure they might as well let the employer know.

That was Chris Pennington. "I did not handle it well," he said. "I had never been told to report to work and then told not to come in. . . . At first I tried to talk my way into working for them, but there seemed to be some sort of mysterious 'real reason' for them not hiring me and it became obvious that I was not going to get hired so I cussed them out and remain unemployed and bitter."

However, a softer approach might pay off, especially if the economy is the reason the hiring company reneged.

Give the employer the benefit of the doubt, Moore said. "In this economy, people never know what their hiring needs are going to be. They make predictions, but sometimes they are wrong."

Appeal to the employer's self-interest. "They obviously don't want to be known as the company who offered to hire 50 people, then rescinded 30 offers," Moore said.

Moore suggested that workers try to come up with creative solutions. Perhaps the start date could be deferred, with a small stipend. If there was a signing bonus, perhaps the worker could keep that. Maybe the hiring manager could write a letter explaining what happened that you could show future potential employers.

At the very least, ask the company to keep you in mind for other positions.

This strategy paid off for Kim Barber last year. Just two days before Barber, 38, was scheduled to start work as a sales and catering manager at a Prince George's County hotel, the general manager called to say that the company had decided to go with another candidate, someone who had worked for it before.

Of course she was upset, especially because she had turned down another job offer to take the position. But Barber, who lives in the District, kept her cool, and sent the general manager a handwritten card, thanking him for the opportunity, and saying that she really wished she would have had a chance to prove herself in the job.

That courtesy paid off when another position opened up at the same hotel. "I was offered that position because the general manager was touched by the fact that I sent a thank-you card," Barber said.

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