Q. “Hi, Cathy. I just took a job that represents a big step up in my field. As part of the package, I was promised a 10% bonus after 6 months. But it’s been nine months, I haven’t seen a dime and my boss changes the subject when I bring it up.”
A. Believe it or not, I hear these stories often. Clients raise concerns whenever they embark on relationships with employers, contractors, suppliers, partners or clients. Here are a few suggestions (and readers may contribute more).
(1) Before accepting a position (especially if you have to relocate), you need to know three things.
(a) What are industry practices regarding bonuses, assignments and other conditions? If your company deviates widely from current practices, you need to know why.
(b) What is your company’s reputation as an employer or contractor? A history of broken relationships should raise a red flag.
(c) Will you get what you need to be effective? Territories for sales reps, labs for scientists, staff for executives, and so on. Don’t let anyone sabotage your success before you start.
(2) Ignore promises of bonuses unless they’re in writing. If missing a bonus would be a deal-breaker, hire your own attorney to review the contract before you sign. Make sure you understand any terms and conditions.
(3) Once a written promise has been broken, raise questions immediately. Deal directly with whoever has power to act.
“Fred,” an accounting student I met in graduate school, was scheduled to teach a course for a local university. A few weeks before classes began, he inadvertently learned that he had been displaced. Someone else had been hired (presumably cheaper).
Fred bypassed the department head, who had no power. He called the Associate Dean, saying, “Ken, I’m really sorry to bother you with this. I know how busy you are. But I’m afraid we have a contract. How would you like to handle this?”
Fred kept his questions polite, even diffident. He told me the Associate Dean muttered a few swear words, followed by a few phone calls. Fred was soon back on the schedule.
(4) Decide ahead of time if you are prepared to escalate.
If your polite questions are ignored, it’s time to go into a legal huddle. Make absolutely sure you understand what was promised. Was this bonus contingent on a condition?
Your lawyer should be the one to advise you now – and no one else. You probably won’t need to consider lawsuits or courts. Most companies will settle.
(5) Don’t ask your career consultant for legal advice and don’t ask your lawyer for career guidance.
In my experience, many lawyers will not understand how their advice may impact your long-term career goals.
My friend “Ruth” negotiated a settlement with a company following a major dispute. Her lawyer warned, “You won’t get a good reference.”
“True,” Ruth explained patiently, “But that’s not important. In my field, my portfolio gets me jobs.”
You probably need to start job-hunting as soon as you question a broken promise – but not always. And even if you remain quiet, you need to consider the hidden story.
And your lawyer can’t be a sounding board as you express your frustration and ponder your next move.
Bottom Line: Nearly all of us learn about broken promises from experience, at least once. I believe it’s better to lay the groundwork before beginning any business association.
Inevitably you’ll forget to consider at least one important element of any deal. But over time you get better and often an hour of consultation can save months (or years) of misery later on. The career consultant helps you figure out what you need; the lawyer makes sure the contract delivers.
I cover a lot more in my irreverent job hunting guide .