Promise Received at Work? Ask These Two Critical Questions

“People with good intentions make promises.
People with good character keep them.”

– Author Unknown

ACTUAL CASE HISTORY: Brianna, an Executive Assistant to the Regional Vice President of a major clothing chain, was soon to complete her fifth year of service, all with positive attendance record, positive performance reviews, and positive relations throughout the company. Without her seeking it, one of the company’s vendors made her a job offer with greater compensation and a clear career path to executive level responsibilities.

When Brianna gave her Manager notice of resignation, he pleaded with her to stay, and promised her, in turn, that he would ensure she soon received a very significant ?“retention bonus” totaling almost one half of her full-year salary. With that promise in hand, she politely declined the job offer that had been made to her.

Brianna waited one month, two months, then six months, and the promised retention bonus did not arrive. Finally, she summoned the courage to ask her Manager about it. He said he would look into the matter for her.

About a week later, he told her he had good news, namely, that he confirmed with the company’s Controller that the retention bonus had been officially approved. When it still had not been paid to her after another month, she then received a memo from the Controller’s office apologizing for taking so long to get back to her. The Controller’s memo, though, contained some considerably disappointing news.

First, the retention bonus would be paid, but not for another year “as had been explained to you,” but had not, in fact, ever been discussed. Staying for another year was not something her Manager had ever mentioned.

Second, her retention bonus would be paid to Brianna “if and only if” (1) her next performance review was “exceeds expectations,” (2) the region she worked for met its sales goal for that year, and (3) she assumed additional responsibilities, including extensive travel, that had never been part of her job.

Oh, and one more thing: Brianna’s retention bonus was also conditioned on her agreement to relocate to another city if the company moved her division headquarters during the next year, something that recently had been rumored.
Brianna did not feel at all that she had been treated fairly, not in the least. She decided to seek a position with another employer, as soon as possible, with no looking back this time.

LESSON TO LEARN: What Brianna learned – the hard way – is that, at work, if a promise, assurance or pledge is made to you – whether of a raise, bonus, promotion, stock options or anything else of value – you should instantly ask two critical questions: “When?” and “What are the If’s?” meaning the conditions for receipt.

Nailing down the answers to these two simple questions will greatly increase your chances of receiving what was promised to you, perhaps more than anything else you can ask, say or do.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: At work, If you are offered, promised, assured, pledged or guaranteed anything of value, ask both (1) “When?” and (2) “What, if any, conditions exist on my receiving it?

Ideally, you will develop the habit of asking these two questions, because if you don’t ask them, you just cannot expect anyone else at work to ask, or answer, for you.

1. Is asking these two critical questions, after receiving a promise or assurance, a sign of disrespect distrust, or disbelief? No, not in the least. Rather, it is a sign of your prudence, your practicality, your focus, and your professionalism, nothing more or less. Wise people always seek clarity and certainty, and only those who seek clarity and certainty will ever find them. With clarity and certainty on your side, your success will surely follow.

2. It does not matter in what workplace context a promise or assurance is made; your first response should always be to ask these two questions. Whether a promise or assurance is made to you during an interview, in a job offer, an employment contract, a retention agreement, or even a severance agreement, it makes no difference: your next two questions need to be “When?” and “What, if any, are the conditions to my receiving what was promised?

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3. “When?” can only be answered by reference to “Time” and nothing other than a specified or calculable date. Say you are promised that you will be elevated to Partner status at your firm, and you ask, in response, “Great . . . may I ask when?”

There are many different possible answers to “When?” but the only kind you seek is one that can be determined with specificity, and will, one day or another, surely arrive. These would include such specific dates as (a) On April 30, 2022; (b) on or before six months from today; and (c) no later than January 1, 2021. Each of these responses will arrive, sooner or later; they are not a matter of some condition, event or circumstance, but are simply and surely calculable by reference to a calendar. Put another way, “that day will arrive, sooner or later, no matter what.”

Answers that are NOT responsive to “When?” include (a) “when you achieve sales of $2 million,” (b) “as soon as the Board approves it,” and (c) “before anyone else does,: because such events may, or may not, ever take place. “When?” calls for an objective, calculable answer, capable of being answered by looking at a calendar, only. On the other hand, “On what conditions?” is subjective, and can be answered by reference to events or circumstances that may, or may not, ever take place.

4. The question “What are the If’s?” calls for the “conditions” that must first take place for a promise is to be fulfilled, and do not call for a specified date. The problematic part of having a promise fulfilled only upon the happening of a “condition” of “event” is that a condition or an event may never take place. Said differently, “that day may never arrive because that condition may never take place.”

On the other hand, the good part about having a promise fulfilled upon a condition is that in many cases, you can help make that event, condition or trigger take place sooner through your own good efforts. For example, “You will become a member of the Management Committee if and when you get seven votes in your favor from Management Committee Members.” In this illustration, you can lobby all of the Management Committee Members for their votes. Another illustration would be “You will get a $100,000 bonus when your sales total $1 million.” In this condition, too, you can work your fingers to the bone to sell that much, and when you do, you are that bonus. Might even be sooner than you thought.

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5. There can be both dates and conditions for a promise to come due, and there can also be various combinations of “dates” and “triggers.” It is critical that you know all of the “when’s” and all of the “if’s” to which any promise or assurance is subject.

Here’s an example, “You will get the promotion we have promised (i) if you bring in 15 new clients (ii) within 100 days of today’s date.” Being aware of, and sensitive to, these two questions leads you to practicing a kind of mindful negotiation, and over time, a regular, helpful, positive habit.

6. By their nature, vague answers are unresponsive to these two questions, and therefore should be viewed as unacceptable. Clarity and certainty are your goals. I often say that commitments, agreements and promises should be so clear that an 8th grade student can understand them. That is because some members of a jury may have that level of education. In addition, if you are crystal clear about when something promised is due you, and upon what conditions exist to its fulfillment, “the other side” will be far less likely to take a position that is clearly without basis. We call that denying others any “wiggle room.”

Examples of unacceptable vagueness: “Payment will be made as soon as is practicable.” (No one I know understands what “practicable” means.) “You will be promoted when you exhibit to us that you deserve the promotion.” (Non-sense in my book.) And, “The benefits will commence no less than four weeks after you commence work.” (“No less than four weeks” could mean “five years from now.”

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7. Upon your receipt of clear responses to these two critical questions, it is simply a matter of confirmation in email or other writing, clearly, concisely and quickly. And the best way to do just that? No question: (i) if at the time you are being hired, to ask that it be inserted into your offer letter or employment contract; (ii) at other times, by email with request for a return email confirmation. Clear confirmation of the results of any “negotiation” – and don’t kid yourself, this is a kind of negotiation – is the most important step in wisely negotiating yourself at work.

In Summary . . .

At work, whenever you are promised, assured, pledged or guaranteed something, you must ask for clear answers to both “When?” and “What are the If’s, or conditions?” Focus on getting clear answers to these two critical questions, and then confirming the answers writing. ?Asking these two questions will lead you to your goal; not asking them can only lead you astray.

P.S.: If you would like to speak directly about this or other subjects, Mr. Sklover is 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. For those viewed as “overqualified” for the positions being sought, addressing the underlying concerns with these suggestions is the essence of wise “navigation and negotiation.”

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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