“If my boss approves a payment to me in error, am I entitled to receive it?”

Question: Dear Alan: I have an issue with my employer over a lack of payment.

Here’s the situation: I was a salaried employee with my company for the first four months of the year, after which I took a different position as a part-time manager. I noticed in our login system that I had 40 hours of personal time I could use, which I requested to use a couple of weeks ago as a week off.

It was approved by my District Manager, and I took the week off. But when my paycheck came, I did not get paid for the time off. When I spoke with the company about it I was told that I cannot be paid for it because the company has a policy of not providing personal time to part-time employees, even though (a) I was “coded wrong” in their system, (b) it showed I had 40 hours to use, and (c) the District Manager approved it.  

I would not have taken the time off if I knew I was not going to get paid. Is there anything I can do to get the week of pay?

Columbus, Ohio

Answer: Dear Chris: As often happens, (a) the law does not provide any real remedy for you, but (b) navigation and negotiation may do so:  

1. There are legal arguments both in your favor and not in your favor. On the one hand, the law generally provides that, where both parties to an agreement made an error of fact, the resulting agreement is not enforceable. Applied to your situation, the law would say that both you and your manager made a central error – you were not entitled to personal time – and any agreement based on that mutual error would be considered null and void. On the other hand, when you reasonably relied on the repeated errors of your company, you ended up being short one week of pay, which you would not have done if the company had not made repeated errors. That is called “action in reliance,” and constitutes a kind of contract in the law. Who is right? Who is wrong? I think it would be something of a toss-up if you were ever to go to Court.  

2. But talk of “legal arguments” never does very much good for an otherwise good working relation between employee and employer. It will be no surprise to you that talk about anything “legal” at work makes employers uncomfortable. When the words “legal” or “lawyer” are used, employers start to view the situation as negative or adversarial, and that can start your employer looking at you in a negative light, too. So, we try to avoid any use of the words “legal” or “lawyer” unless it is both necessary and appropriate, which it is not for you at this time.

3. However, you are always free – and I encourage you – to make a respectful request for payment of the week’s salary you lost due to (a) no fault of your own, but rather (b) several errors of the company. It is a fact of life that differences, disagreements and disputes will arise in every relation. I always encourage reasoned and respectful efforts to resolve differences between employees and employers. In fact, resolution of differences between an employee and an employer can often be a relation-building experience. I think that this is because when one person of good will sees good will in another person, it is very much appreciated.

I suggest a rather simple, short letter to your Manager and the Head of Human Resources laying out – without accusations or vitriol – what happened and that, as a result of what happened, you are short one week of pay. The fact that you would not have taken the vacation had it not been for the repeated assurances (though in error) that you would be paid for the time is the one fact in your situation that really “shouts out” to me. I would emphasize that in your letter.

Don’t forget to recognize and acknowledge their viewpoint, too – that company policy is against paying you – but you can also point out that company policies are always somewhat flexible if and when a good reason for flexibility exists. That kind of “navigation and negotiation” is the best course of action for you to take, of that I am confident. While there is no guarantee it will work, you are guaranteed to lose out completely if you don’t give it a try.

In my experience, Chris, employers are sometimes so surprised to receive a respectful letter like the one I recommend you send, especially if their perspective is given respect by the author, that they often give the employee all, or almost all, of what they reasonably ask for.

I hope you’ll give this a try, and that it will prove helpful. I hope, too, that you keep returning to our blogsite, and encourage others to do so, too, for any “working wisdom” you might need.   

Al Sklover

Monies owed to you by present employer? Your best bet is to make a respectful written request. We offer a Model Letter to show you “What to Say, and How to Say It.”™ To obtain your copy, just [click here.] Delivered by Email – Instantly! 

© 2011 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.

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