committing to a start date before you have a job offer

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A reader writes:

What do you think about the hiring practice of attempting to pin down a candidate to a start date before providing the formal job offer? I recently had a prospective employer contact me saying, “Please let me know what date you’re able to start so that I can include that information in the offer letter.”

On the one hand, I understand that offer letters traditionally include the start date. On the other hand, the start date is often something a candidate might wish to negotiate, so withholding the formal offer until a start date is agreed upon seems like a power play on the part of the company.

I know someone whose prospective employer who was even more heavy-handed about it. She applied to a position and was interviewed, and was told that her desired start date would be fine. Later, she received an email saying “This is not a formal offer, but if hired, when could you start? We need someone to start as soon as possible.” She suspected that they had sent the same email to several other candidates, and would offer the job to the candidate who could start soonest. She didn’t feel that she could ask them to give her the formal offer letter before she responded, without risking losing the offer. So she ended up committing to start sooner than she had originally planned to, and then they were slow to give her the formal offer — so by the time she had the offer in hand, she had to give her current employers very short notice.

I understand that the job market is bad, but isn’t this kind of unfair? I’m really curious to know what you think about this — and how to handle it if you’re a candidate in this position!

It’s fine to give a general answer. After all, when someone can start often depends on when the offer is actually received and accepted, so rather than giving an exact date, you can say something like, “It depends on when exactly you’d be making an offer, but in general three weeks after we’ve settled that.”

And if you want to negotiate your start date, you can wait until you have a formal offer to negotiate around. Plenty of what’s in an offer letter is up for negotiation — you might not succeed, but it’s not a faux paus to try.

The exception to this is if you want to ask for a ton of time between the offer and your start date — if that’s the case, you’ll look disingenuous if you didn’t bring that up when they asked about your timeframe earlier.

{ 41 comments… read them below }

  1. Wilton Businessman

    My company dictates that the start date goes in the offer letter. I’m just looking you to tell me if you need two weeks, three weeks, or whatever before you start. I also realize that the first three weeks you’re going to be getting oriented to my environment, so I don’t have a problem pushing it back a little bit. But I always ask up front what the candidate’s availability is anyway. If they have a contract that they need to finish in a month, then I work with them. If their company has a habit of letting people go when they put in their two-weeks notice, I am flexible to let them start in a few days (but always on a Monday).

    Depending on the position I am hiring for, I may pass on a candidate that needs two months. Then again, I might not. Just depends on the person and the position.

    1. EM

      Good point about your current employer not allowing 2-weeks’ notice. That happened to me when I resigned my last job (albeit it was rather sloppy; my boss called me out of the field to tell me they were accepting my resignation immediately, 3 days after I gave notice) I just took the week between jobs as a mini vacation. It was great. I watched TV in my bathrobe, ran errands, etc.

  2. Stells

    I agree with AAM here – most companies have to coordinate training, orientation, etc for new hires, so we try to get a general idea of when you’re going to start so we can plan accordingly. The usual “I need to give my employer X weeks of notice after accepting the offer” works just as well as anything else.

    Also, RE: your friend, I’m sure they sent it out to all qualified candidates, but if she had already been told her start date was fine, then she shouldn’t have changed it. I think she was probably reading too much into it.

    Some employers are more manipulative about it though…..then again if they are trying to bully you into an earlier start date – is that the kind of employer you want?

    1. ChristineH

      What I don’t understand is why they asked her when she could start when she had already given her desired start date, which they said was fine.

      1. blu

        It’s possible that either the original date was misplaced, or the person who received the original date is a different person from the one who sent the second email, or that enough time passed between when she gave the first date and the time when she was asked a second time that HR wanted to confirm the date. There doesn’t have to always be some insidious reason behind a question.

  3. Stells

    Oh, and there’s the (potential) drug and background screening, which can take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks depending on the person/vendor/company. So that factors into their start date too.

    1. Wilton Businessman

      Yeah, the worst is when you actually start the job due to your current employer letting you go the day you give notice and then the drug test comes back with an issue. Oops.

  4. Miss Displaced

    I have to say that giving a start date has never been an issue for me or a future employer. Typically this is discussed in the final round, and a date is verbally agreed upon by both parties. This date then goes in the formal offer letter. Usually the date is two to three weeks from the verbal offer, but I have had it be closer to a month or even more if it should fall at the end of the year or there are holidays involved.

    The other situation you describe is just horrible. That a company would pick someone based solely on who could start the soonest is, most likely, not a company you would want to work for.

  5. AD

    I bet the same companies that want the candidate to drop everything and start ASAP are the ones who took six weeks after the phone screen to follow up for an interview.

  6. Anon

    I agree with AAM and Wilton Businessman – they probably just want to put a date in there. If you’re currently unemployed or your current employer usually lets employees go immediately when going to a competitor, great, you can start right away. If you need to give two weeks’ notice, they’ll set the date with that in mind. If you have two weeks of vacation already planned, then you plan to give your notice, they’ll expect you in a month. (Assuming they’re okay to wait that long.)

    1. Wilton Businessman

      Not like at the last company I worked for. Guy wanted three weeks off because he was getting married. He left on Thursday to get married on Saturday. I went to the wedding and at the reception he gave me an envelope which I stuffed in my pocket. Looked at it later and it was his two weeks notice.

      Congratulations, you just lost out on four years of matching 401k contributions. dbag.

      1. Z

        Wait, how did doing this lead to lost 401k contributions? (I’m not condoning the behavior, but I don’t understand how doing a bad job of giving notice leads to lost contributions. Did you somehow retroactively take back contributions?)

        1. Josh S

          Sometimes there are requirements before you are vested in the employer contributions to a 401(k)–either a certain amount of notice, years served, or something else.

          It’s entirely possible that if Wilton Businessman’s employee had sat down and talked through wanting to leave, Wilton Businessman might have been able to waive any further vesting requirements. Or Wilton Businessman might have said, “Oh wait! If you stay 3 more weeks, you’ll be vested in your 401(k) company match!” and talked through some of it. Or maybe the guy’s 2 weeks would have put him to the 4 year mark to be vested in the company match, but Wilton Businessman fired the guy on the spot for the unprofessional way he gave his notice.

          There’s any manner of ways this could’ve gone down. It would be nice to hear the actual thing from Wilton Businessman, but it doesn’t seem too unusual to me.

          1. EM

            I worked for a major US city, and I worked there less than the number of years requiring me to be vested in their 453 plan. I did not lose any money because of that and I was able to rollover my money into a different 401(k).

        2. EM

          Yes, I’m confused by this as well. Was there some contract stating that any company matches were forfeited if the employee left before X years of employment. I have never heard of such a thing.

          1. Heather

            I’ve never seen it not done that way. If you leave before you are vested, you don’t get the company match.

        3. Anonymous

          You don’t lose your own contributions if you quit or get laid off; you lose any matching contributions made by your employer if you leave before you are vested. It’s a very common practice and would have been spelled out in the plan and typically in any reports provided to the employee.

        4. Wilton Businessman

          The employment agreement (I don’t know if agreement is the right legal word for it, but it was the terms of your employment) stipulated that when you left the company you would give at least two weeks notice and that you would be present for those two weeks. The penalty for not giving two weeks notice is the company would keep all 401k matching funds. The employee kept the money they put in the plan, but the company took back the money they put into the plan.

    2. Gene

      When I started my current job the offer came in a week before I was to start a two week vacation for a family reunion and they wanted me to start in two weeks (that’s the notice I had told them I needed to give.) I contacted the new job and explained the circumstances; we agreed that I’d start the Monday after I returned. Easy-peasy.

  7. Michael

    When it came to negotiating the start, I have them the date that was earliest possible within the constraints of my commitments to my current company with the caveat that I need to provide a minimum of 2 weeks notice and that I would not provide that notice until I received an official offer. (They have walked people out the door the same day – it’s policy to immediately escort them out if its a competitor they are going to, but they’ve done it in other circumstances)

  8. KayDay

    In my experience, I have only received an offer letter after the details were negotiated. My initials offers were via phone and/or email (We would like to offer you the position of Senior chocolate teapot maker and are offering a salary of $100,000K year), and I had already given a general idea of my availability in the final stages of the interview process (in my case, it has always been 2-3 weeks after receiving the official offer). Details such as salary and exact start date are then negotiated, and what we agree upon goes into the final offer letter.

    That said, I have only been through this process about three times in my life, so I’m not exactly an expert….

    1. Jamie

      This has been my experience as well. The offer letters were confirmation of what had already been agreed to verbally.

      I don’t see any power play here – this seem clerical to me. They just want to make sure the letter has all the correct info.

      I’ve never negotiated anything after the offer letter.

  9. Student

    Depending on your field, there might be a very wide range of acceptable start dates. They may want to pin you down because the work is seasonal, or they may want to pin you down because getting the job filled fast is more important than getting the job filled by the best possible candidate.

    On the flip side, some organizations will want to discuss the start date early in the process because they are trying to be nice to the candidates. I had this happen to me recently. I applied to a job that is notorious for lots of bureaucracy in its hiring process. During my phone interview, I was asked about start dates and whether I had other work lined up for a bit. I was terribly puzzled by this, but I answered their questions. They then explained that it would be at least 3 months between hiring me and my start date, because of various organizational delays. The prospective employer just wanted to make sure I understood that so I wouldn’t be homeless and starving in the intervening time period. He didn’t want to cause me financial hardship.

    A different job I’m looking at has an average time between hiring decisions and start dates of 9 months plus or minus 3 months, but that’s a different story altogether.

  10. Kat

    With my current job I was asked how soon I could start way before the offer. I just told her that since my current job was a temp job I wish fine giving them a week and a half.

    Funny because when I received the offer letter/e-mail my start date was exactly a week and a half from that date. So going forward I’d always just give my start window in weeks, not an exact date.

  11. January

    Thank you for answering this. I’m job-hunting while I finish out a one-year contract and have been stymied by this question more than once. I will keep your approach in mind if it comes up again.

  12. Chocolate Teapot

    I have been asked in interviews when I could start and explained how long my notice is. Here it is defined in law rather than by each company.

    I have had the “How-early-can-you-start-we-need-someone-as-soon-as-possible” line, to which I reiterate the notice period. Normally it works out that the start date is based on the 1st or 15th of the month, and that is stated in the contract/offer letter.

  13. Anonymous

    We always put a start date in the official offer letter. If they are asking you when you can start you are basically being given a verbal offer, or they want to make sure you are available to start within the time frame needed for their purposes— but from experience, by asking this they just want to put the start date in the letter so this is the time to negotiate when you are able to start.

    The reason for putting start dates in offer letters is they often serve more than one purpose– they finalize the offer, but the letters are also used to verify employment to unemployment offices, condo associations, etc.

  14. Max

    “She suspected that they had sent the same email to several other candidates, and would offer the job to the candidate who could start soonest.”

    I doubt that was actually the case – skills and interview performance would still matter more when it comes to actually making the choice. It was likely that they were still deciding, but had a hard time limit and wanted to filter out any candidate who couldn’t start within their timeframe, but they wouldn’t just have picked the one who could start the soonest.

    Typically, a relative date would have been enough (i.e., “X weeks from receiving the offer”). Most employers understand that it’s impossible for applicants to know how long the hiring process at a particular company may take, and that applicants can’t reasonably be expected to end their other obligations (such as their current job) until they have an offer letter.

    In addition, your friend probably would have been able to ask about what kind of timeframe they were looking for. It goes back to AAM’s old post (Jan 2010, I think?) about power dynamics – she placed all the power in the employer’s hands and was afraid to ask for or negotiate for reasonable accommodation, for fear that it might jeopardize her chances.

  15. Sarah M

    I’ve been in a situation where I was verbally given an offer, and asked what my start date would be, and I indicated two weeks from the formal offer letter. They said the letter would be to me the same day, so we agreed on a week two dates out. I did not receive the letter for several days, and did not give notice to my current company since I did not have a firm offer. The new company would not negotiate the start date because they needed someone ASAP! Then, I was told it was dependent on my drug screen after I gave two weeks. I got upset with them, and the recruiter said she didn’t realize I was currently employed. Sigh.

  16. Elizabeth West

    Clerical workers like me are usually asked about start dates because they need someone right away. Either the person being replaced is leaving in a finite amount of time (often with only short notice) or they’ve been working without someone for a while. Lucky for me, I’m unemployed so I can start right away! :)

  17. OP

    OP here. Thanks to everyone for your thoughts. I guess it all goes back to the employer / employee power dynamic … as a job hunter, it’s easy to be super scared that you’ll lose an offer, with the result that you get really scared of setting any boundaries with the prospective employer. That creates a situation where you have to do something that you’re not comfortable with (like giving your previous employer too little notice). Then, you end your relationship with the previous employer on bad terms, and you’ve set a bad precedent of being spineless with the new employer.

    And I guess part of the solution is just making a commitment to act with integrity, even if that has consequences sometimes (e.g. committing to giving enough notice to your previous employer, even if that jeopardizes a potential job offer). And realizing that if the new employer doesn’t understand your choices, they’re probably not someone you want to work for anyway.

    I’m also reflecting on “happy mediums.” I know that when my employer asked me for my start date, I could have said, “Oh — let me think about it and get back to you tomorrow,” instead of trying to answer on the spot. (That situation was hard because the offer was actually for an internal hire, so my current boss was the hiring manager for the position that I was going to be moving into — with the result that we “negotiated” a bunch of details “on the fly” in the middle of working together on other projects. Or, equally awkwardly, we had casual “coworker” conversations in person, and intense “negotiation” conversations via email, over the course of the same day. I personally find it really to balance working with someone and negotiating with them! A topic for a future question to AAM…)

    Similarly, when my acquaintance was contacted by her prospective employer, she could probably have written back to them saying, “In my interview, we had discussed date X. The hiring process has taken a bit longer than I expected, so I would like to still be able to give two weeks’ notice to my current employer, so I would ideally like to push that date back to Y. Does that still work for you?” That would have given the employer an opening to say “Well actually, we had hoped you could start sooner,” while also reminding them, “Hey, you already agreed to date X.” And maybe that would have struck an effective balance between being assertive about the employee’s needs and being open to the employer’s needs….

  18. kelly

    (FYI, didn’t read the comments) It sounds like one of the OP’s main concerns was if she gave a realistic start date (say 2 weeks from when a formal offer is sent and accepted) and another canidate could start sooner, she would be passed up in favor of the other canidate. In all reality, I seriously doubt a few DAYS is going to make a difference in how quickly an employee can catch up to the company culture, task list, training, etc. And I would be VERY wary of a company that acts in this way. (From personal experience the longest notice I’ve given from offer to start date was 5 weeks, and that was because I had to relocate. The company was very supportive and accommodating for me.)

  19. Angela

    I’m in a situation where I’ve been offered a starting salary via email and was asked for a start date to include in the official offer letter, that I have yet to receive from HR. In this case, should I be negotiatingthe offer before I’ve received the official offer from HR?

      1. Angela

        I’m having a very interesting hiring process with the new employer. I took advice from some of your previous posts about keeping salary history private until after they made the offer. I’m transferring campuses, so apparently there’s a HR policy that they are not allowed to offer more than 25% of base, even if changing locations; but, they’ve already made the initial offer that was greater than that. The manager called to let me know that they’ll be working with HR to figure out the next steps, I’m curious if this policy should affect the initial offer, since I’m certain that offer would have been made to an outside candidate.

  20. Kitty

    I am currently in a situation very similar to this. I was recruited for a new position by someone I used to work with who recently took a new director job. I didn’t give notice until the background check cleared which took longer that I had expected. When it finally cleared I had less than 2 weeks before my start date of the new job. I explained to the HR person with the new job the delay in giving my notice and asked if I could delay my start date so that I can give a full two weeks’ notice with my current employer. She has been very understanding and nice but she indicated they really want me to start on the date we had originally agreed upon due to the training schedule.

    I gave my notice this past Thursday which is only giving my current employer 1 week +1 day notice. My current boss (whose opinion of me I greatly respect) is not happy. I felt bad enough not giving two weeks’ notice and then she tells me that one of my co-workers who was recently diagnosed with cancer is going out on medical leave the same day as my last day of work! This will take my department from 5 employees to 3.

    I’ve been with this company for a very long time (14 years) and I feel I am tarnishing my professional reputation as well as possibly jeopardizing retirement and accrued vacation money. My current employer is a huge corporation and the powers that be don’t know me from Adam, so my concern isn’t with the company as much as it is about my current boss and co-workers. I care greatly about how I am perceived professionally and I do feel a certain loyalty to my team, especially now that one of them is sick. It’s not enough for me to stay, but I don’t want to burn bridges either.

    I don’t know what to do. I really, really want this new job and am not willing to blow this opportunity. At the same time, I feel bad for not giving 2 weeks’ notice and I feel it will haunt me professionally and emotionally. Should I contact my friend who recruited me (bypass the HR person) and explain the situation and see if my start date can be delayed? Or will this possibly throw up a flag and make them leery of hiring me? If it comes down to it, I am not willing to blow this opportunity but I am hoping to reach a compromise. Help!

    1. Angela

      Personally, I think your new employer should understand, my new employer had indicated that they wanted me to start a week before the date I provided, so I pushed back. If they really want you, another week shouldn’t jeopardize that, let them know what you’re particular reason is for wanting the extra time, there may be particular reason that they are also wanting you to start as soon as possible. In my case for instance, they’re short staffed, and wanted to train me on the monthly process as soon as possible (get me up to speed fast).

      Best of luck! Let us know how it goes.

  21. Stan

    Sorry to ping an old thread, but I’m hoping for some good advice.
    I’m filling out my third form at a company whose recruiting process has taken a long time. I will send in the form prior to a second interview on 6/18.

    My challenge is, regarding the “when can you start”-question on the form, that I need more time. Things have changed since the recruitment process started, and I would now like a couple of months before i start (my wife is having surgery).
    Should I say that flat out in writing, should I say TBD/negotiable, and then cross that bridge during the interview, or should I say “preferably mid august, but I am flexible if such a late start date is flexible”.

    Thankful for any input.

  22. Angela

    I’d leave the start date field negotiable until they are stating interest in bringing you into the company. Otherwise, it may be a reason to eliminate you on the basis of a start date, instead of qualifications for the job.

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