ACTUAL CASE HISTORY: Nine years ago, when my assistant interviewed for her position, by means of discussion and compromise we came to agreement on all of the essential terms of our working relation. Among other items, they included her title, responsibilities, salary, bonus, benefits, vacation, start date and certain other entitlements. We shook hands. All that was left was for her to submit her resignation to her then-employer, and serve out her two weeks’ notice. But, cleverly, she had something else in mind.
As she and I left the conference room, she casually, clearly and confidently said to me, “Mr. Sklover, would you please do me a favor . . . would you mind sending me an email setting out each of the points we’ve agreed on . . . before I give my notice . . . just to make sure that we’re both entirely on the same page?” I said, “Sure, no problem. Good idea,” and silently thought to myself, “Very sharp . . . she got herself an employment contract. This is surely the assistant for me.”
In that informal and simple — yet effective — way, she obtained for herself the benefits of an employment contract: a written confirmation of the essential elements of the employment relation. No more and no less. No need for formality, or long debates over wording, or even signatures. And, of course, if I’d said “Sorry, I don’t do that,” or “Well, I’m really sort of busy,” she could have simply countered with, “No problem . . . how about I send you a memo, for your review?”
If I’d countered by, “Why, don’t you trust me?” she could simply have answered, “Of course I do, but I’m a prudent person . . . that’s a good part of the reason you’re hiring me. I know how memories can fade . . . and if you sell or merge your practice one day, I may have to show this to your partner, or successor.”
If I still refused, or came up with some sort of excuse as to why I DIDN’T WANT a record of our points of agreement, well, then, she would have been on notice that I was not willing to stand by my word, and perhaps I was not the person she wanted to work for. People who are prepared to stand by their commitments are not afraid to put those commitments in writing.
But my assistant wasn’t done . . . as she was putting on her coat, she turned and said, “Oh, and one more thing . . . just in case things don’t work out . . . for example, if the chemistry between us just isn’t right, could I have three or six months to find something else?” I said, “Sure,” at that moment quite eager to hire her. To myself, though, I silently thought, “Gee. . . she even got herself severance in that contract. Very impressive.”
LESSON TO BE LEARNED: What my assistant did for herself nine years ago (and, yes, we’re still working together), you can do for yourself. By simply making sure that the points you’ve agreed on just before the proverbial “handshake” are confirmed in writing. And to answer a most frequent question YES, AN EMAIL LIKE THIS IS ENFORCEABLE. The secret is, though, that having a written record. To make sure your email is even more enforceable, you should end it with simply, “Please let me know immediately if any of the things I’ve written don’t agree with your memory of our agreement.”
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO: Just as “Good fences make good neighbors,” having a mutual understanding about the terms of your employment relation makes it much more likely that you’ll be in a successful relation, and less likely that differences of opinion and differences of memory will spoil an otherwise profitable and promising job. So, go ahead, give yourself the benefits of an employment contract.
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