“Must I repay a ‘Sign On’ bonus if I am fired on trumped up charges?”

Question: I came to this job about 11 months ago. At that time, I was paid a “Sign On Bonus.” The agreement about the “Sign On Bonus” said that if I was to leave the company for any reason within twelve months, I would have to repay it to my employer the sign on bonus. 

My employer is now trying to set me up to fire me so that they can recover the sign on bonus from me. I am a 15-year veteran of the Information Technology (“IT”) industry, and I know my work is fine.

I am being harassed and discriminated against for no valid reason. I am considering a multi-pronged approach to go after the employer, including a lawsuit for harassment and discrimination. I am also planning on complaining to the Utah labor office.

Any pointers?

         Salt Lake City, Utah 

Answer: Al, there are three general “pointers” I would offer you:

First, Carefully read your “Sign On” Agreement: Agreements regarding employees’ obligations to repay bonuses (and such other things as relocation and tuition payments) usually provide that repayment is required only if the employee resigns. If yours says this, your employer may be trying to get you to quit, in disgust. Your employer may also be trying to get you to engage in misconduct, such as yelling or swearing. Don’t fall for either trap: don’t resign and don’t act badly.  If your agreement says your repayment is required if you “leave the company for any reason,” your employer would have no reason to “set you up,” but could simply fire you, and not state a reason.

Second, Carefully review your company’s Employee Handbook or Policy Book: Look out for any required procedures that either (a) your company must follow to terminate an employee, or (b) you must use to file a complaint or grievance. If (a) the employer is not following a required process or procedure, raise an objection about that. If (b) you must follow a required process or procedure to raise a concern such as yours, start following it.

Third, Make a “Record of Good Performance and Good Conduct”: I suggest you consider sending your employer an email – very respectfully written, perhaps to your manager’s manager – outlining that (a) you are performing and behaving admirably, but that (b) you are concerned a false record is being made that you are not in order to fire you to make you repay the sign on bonus. You might, too, ask that your concerns be investigated. This, alone, might stop the harassing and discriminating employer conduct. I suggest it be sent by email to your manager’s manager, and to the Director of Human Resources.

These three steps may very possibly get you that extra month to avoid repayment, and also stop what your employer seems to be trying to do to you. It is also my hope that you won’t have to start a lawsuit, because few lawsuits end happily, especially for employees. At my law firm we do all we can to help our clients “negotiate and navigate” in order to avoid lawsuits.

That being said, don’t hesitate to speak with an attorney about the possibility of starting a lawsuit if you truly think it is necessary and appropriate. Unfortunately – I mean that – it sometimes does require legal action to get an employer to “do the right thing.” If you do go into litigation, having taken the three suggested steps above will also help you in that process.

Good luck to you. Hope this helps.

           Best, Al Sklover

If you agreed to repay your former employer (a) tuition reimbursement, (b) relocation expenses, (c) a sign-on bonus, or even (d) a short-term loan, you may be able to have that obligation waived and forgiven. To obtain a copy of our Model Memo entitled “Model Letter for Repayment Obligation Forgiveness – with 18 Great Reasons,” just [click here.] “What to Say, and How to Say It.™” – Delivered by Email – Instantly!

© 2010 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.