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Advice / Job Search / Job Offer

Get it in Writing: Why You Absolutely Must Have a Written Job Offer

You’ve been on the job search for months. You’re exhausted, and your patience has been worn thin. So, when you get that all-important phone call from HR offering you a job, why wouldn’t you accept? You might even do so on the spot!

Not so fast. While it’s completely understandable to be thrilled (and slightly overwhelmed with relief), it’s crucial to have a written offer in hand before you verbally accept a position—and yes, even if it’s your dream job.

The Importance of a Written Offer

The most basic reason is that you won’t know what you’re getting until you actually see the contract in writing. When HR calls, you’ll likely get a sense of what your base salary is, but little else. While the salary is obviously important, the other parts of a job offer (think health insurance, vacation days, maternity leave) add up, and you’ll want to know what is there—or isn’t there—before you say yes.

Related: 5 Things You Must Discuss With HR Before Accepting a New Job

That said, you’ll also put yourself in a poor position to negotiate if you find out later that your job offer doesn’t include, say, basic short-term disability insurance. (In case you’re wondering, insurance is not generally something companies are willing to negotiate on, but if you’re not offered it, you can use it as a point to ask for a higher base salary.) Saying yes and then going back and pretending like you’re reconsidering unless they meet you in the middle is the equivalent of showing your hand in a poker game.

How to Answer the Call

So, now you know that when that phone call comes, you need to be mentally prepared to handle that silence the comes after the offer and to not fill it with an acceptance. What do you say instead? Try something along the lines of, “I’m so thrilled to hear back from you and can’t wait to review the details of the written offer. When would you like to have my response by?”

Nine times out of 10, this works. It is, though, important to note that you could get a particularly obstinate HR representative who really, really wants that verbal acceptance before drawing up the paperwork for you. In fact, I’ve worked with a few clients who have received offers from companies that won't send them their official written offers without a verbal acceptance first.

To be honest, I’m not sure what the motivation for this kind of behavior is, and don’t know of any company where this is actually an HR policy. Regardless, to handle this sensitive situation, you want to be very careful with your language. Try reassuring your HR representative of your enthusiasm for the position and explain that you’re just looking to get a sense of some of the details of the job offer before formally accepting. If this doesn’t work, your best bet is something along the lines of, “As of this time, I see no reason not to accept this position—I’d just feel more comfortable having a written offer in hand.”

Verbal contracts are tricky business, and rules vary by state, but in general with at-will employment in the U.S., the problem is not so much about being unable to back out of the job—and more about being unable to negotiate the terms as well.

Related: Can You Renege on a Job Offer?

In the end, the majority of the time, as long as you have your wits about you and know to ask for a written offer before accepting, your HR rep will happily send it along and give you some time to think it through before asking for a response. So, when you get that call, take a deep breath and be prepared to position yourself well to negotiate. (Oh, and then go celebrate. You’ve earned it!)

Photo of man signing documents courtesy of Shutterstock.