It’s Not an Offer Until It’s in Writing

Recently, two colleagues got stuck in their negotiations over a job offer. The candidate thought he heard “How little will it take to make you happy?” The hiring manager thought he said, “What do you need?” Argh. Both of these are bad questions. When you’re asked how little you need, you feel as if you’re being nickel and dimed. And when you ask what do you need, that’s not the same as asking “What would it take for you to accept this offer?”

If you’re a hiring manager, ask the question, “What would it take for you to accept this offer?” You’ll hear a variety of answers, not necessarily about money. You might hear about unpaid time off, a conference, a book allowance, stock options, not necessarily salary. I hired an engineer early in my management career who wanted three months off every summer. He was willing to be paid for the time he worked full-time and to take time off without leave. He was brilliant, and more than made up for the three months he wasn’t around every year. Luckily, my boss knew enough to tell me to hire him, even though I wasn’t sure. He worked at the company for 6 or 7 years, before a series of management changes made it impossible for him to continue his summers off.

If you’re a hiring manager, ask the question about what it would take for a candidate to accept an offer, and then write the offer down. An unwritten offer doesn’t exist. I don’t care if you think you don’t have enough time; make the time. There’s nothing more important than starting a relationship with a new employee right. Writing the offer down makes the offer real and tells the candidate that you’re serious about the offer. If you can’t write the offer down, you’re not serious about the offer, not matter what you say. In this case, actions are much louder than words.

If you’re a candidate, be honest with the hiring manager about what it would take for you to say yes to an offer. Once you have an offer, decide quickly. When I make an offer, I only give the candidate 7 days to respond to the written offer. I expect the written acceptance returned to me within one week. If the candidate can’t return the acceptance to me, I withdraw the offer.

Offers are legal documents, so make sure you have a standard offer letter. (Yes, I have a sample in the book.) When I extend a verbal offer, I read from the offer letter. Since even a verbal offer can be considered a legal contract, offers are too important to be anything other completely clear.

When I start talking about an offer, I ask the what would it take to make you happy question. Then I develop the best offer I can make. Then I write the offer down, and extend it to the candidate verbally, following up with the written document. Candidates have no reason to believe it’s an offer unless it’s in writing. So make the offer verbally, and always follow up with a written offer. You’re showing the candidate you’re a professional manager. It’s a good start to the relationship.

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