“At Work, Always Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth”

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“If you’re not careful, the bow on a gift box can strangle you.”

– Unknown

ACTUAL CASE HISTORY: Jordan was an Assistant VP of Customer Relations for a large manufacturer of Medical Equipment. He’d been in the industry for six years, ever since his college graduation. Over that time, he’d been promoted twice, and had built up a large network of strong customer relations.

In mid-October, Jordan was invited to a meeting with his Manager, and was told that there was “very good news”: Jordan had been chosen for a new bonus program, intended to show appreciation to the “keepers” at the company: at year’s end, he would receive an additional bonus of about $12,000, representing 10% of his annual salary. All he had to do was sign a “confidentiality agreement”: so that none of his colleagues would feel cheated by not getting the bonus. “You know how people get jealous,” his manager told him.

Jordan was handed the confidentiality agreement, he signed it, and he and his Manager shook hands. It was quite a wonderful surprise.

February arrived with its own “surprise”: Jordan received an email advising him that he had again been “selected,” this time for layoff as a result of the Covid pandemic. His severance agreement provided that Jordan would get six weeks of salary as severance, but it also mentioned that he had to honor the “confidentiality agreement” he had signed in October. When Jordan met with an attorney, he learned the “really bad news”: the “confidentiality agreement” he’d signed in October included a non-compete obligation that barred him from working in the Medical Equipment field for that 12 months.

LESSON TO LEARN: Do you know the derivation of the old saying “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth?” Well, as horses age, their teeth get ground down. If you look into the mouth of a horse that was “gifted” to you, you are questioning the value of a “gift,” instead of just graciously accepting it.

The saying should not apply to the workplace. Lately, we have seen several instances in which employees are given “gifts” or a sort – such as stock, bonus or extra benefits – but to receive the “gift,” they have to sign an agreement containing a rather “poisonous” provision. Then, weeks or months later, under the guise of a “Covid-related Layoff,” are terminated, at which time the “poisonous provision” is a real problem.

As another saying goes, “If it seems too good to be true . . . well, it probably is too good to be true.”

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Consider and bear in mind these five thoughts:

1. Be a bit suspicious if your employer offers you something new, unexpected, seemingly valuable though not earned, or “out of the blue.” Don’t decline the offered “gift,” but “look before you leap.” Get it reviewed, get it assessed, get it right.

2. Though it costs money to have a document read, analyzed and explained to you, the “damage” any agreement can cause to your employment, compensation, career and even reputation is far, far more expensive. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is perfectly applicable to documents at work, especially any you are required to sign. There’s no question: lawyers are often expensive. But if you ask around, and shop around, a rather simple consultation should cost in the hundreds of dollars; signing the wrong document will almost certainly cost you in the thousands, perhaps many thousands.

3. Make and email a note to yourself, perhaps in an emailed “Memo to File,” if you are not provided time and opportunity to consult with an attorney before you need to sign the document. Write down the date, time and circumstances of when and how it was presented to you to sign. That’s because not being provided sufficient time and opportunity to have a document reviewed is the simplest and best argument to have a document declared unenforceable in court, if needed.

4. Please, please, please keep a copy of every agreement and other documents you sign in a safe place, on your home computer is best. Many employment transitions are intentional, in which the employee “makes a move” to find something better. Even “involuntary” transitions are often preceded by events and circumstances that give the employee a degree of advance notice. You will certainly be doing yourself a favor – of immeasurable value – if you just do this.

5. Above all, remember that what may be “taken from you” in workplace negotiation today can be “given back to you” in later workplace re-negotiation tomorrow. If it turns out that you have been deceived, deluded, hoodwinked, swindled, outmaneuvered or hornswoggled into signing an agreement that turns out to be against your interests, don’t fret. Instead, if and when you have the leverage to do so – and that can happen at many different moments during employment – bear in mind and don’t ever forget that you can, and should, “re-negotiate” the removal of that agreement.

In Summary . . .

Lately we’ve seen clients unexpectedly provided stock, bonus, better titles or even raises, but as part of the “gift,” required to sign agreements. When closely examined, those agreements often contained considerable risks to their interests, rights and employment freedoms. Be careful with what you sign. Have agreements reviewed. Look before you leap. If it’s too good to be true . . . well, it’s probably too good to be true.

P.S.: If you would like to speak directly about this or other subjects, I am available for 30-MINUTE, 60-MINUTE, OR 120-MINUTE TELEPHONE CONSULTATIONS, just [click here.] Evenings and weekends can often be accommodated.

SkloverWorkingWisdom™ emphasizes smart negotiating – and navigating – for yourself at work. Negotiation and navigation of work and career issues requires that you think “out of the box,” and build value and avoid risks at every point in your career. We strive to help you understand what is commonly before you – traps and pitfalls, included – and to avoid the likely bumps in the road. Being careful about what you sign is a sure step to do just that.

Always be proactive. Always be creative. Always be persistent. Always be vigilant. And always do what you can to achieve for yourself, your family, and your career. Take all available steps to increase and secure employment “rewards” and eliminate or reduce employment “risks.” That’s what SkloverWorkingWisdom™ is all about.

*A note about our Actual Case Histories: In order to preserve client confidences, and protect client identities, we alter certain facts, including the name, age, gender, position, date, geographical location, and industry of our clients. The essential facts, the point illustrated and the lesson to be learned, remain actual.

Please Note: This Email Newsletter is not legal advice, but only an effort to provide generalized information about important topics related to employment and the law. Legal advice can only be rendered after formal retention of counsel, and must take into account the facts and circumstances of a particular case. Those in need of legal advice, counsel or representation should retain competent legal counsel licensed to practice law in their locale.

Sklover Working Wisdom™ is a trademarked newsletter publication of Alan L. Sklover, of Sklover & Company, LLC, a law firm dedicated to the counsel and representation of employees in matters of their employment, compensation and severance. Nothing expressed in this material constitutes legal advice. Please note that Mr. Sklover is admitted to practice in the State of New York, only. When assisting clients in other jurisdictions, he retains the assistance of local counsel and/or obtains permission of local Courts to appear.  Copying, use and/or reproduction of this material in any form or media without prior written permission is strictly prohibited. All rights reserved. For further information, contact Sklover & Company, LLC, 45 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 2000, New York, New York 10111 (212) 757-5000.

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