terse answer Thursday — 6 short answers to 6 short questions

It’s terse answer Thursday — six short answers to six short questions. Here we go…

1. Do I have to repay my sign-on bonus if I resign after a month?

I recently accepted an administrative assistant position with a new company. A staffing agency introduced me to the position, and my new employer paid the agency for their assistance. I received a $5,000 sign-on bonus from my new employer. I started Dec. 4. I know this company is not a good fit. I would like to resign now and I did not sign a contract with my new employer. Am I obligated to pay the bonus back?

I visited the staffing agency’s website and they offer company’s a 90-day money-back guarantee.

You could wait and see if they tell you to pay it back once you resign (and I’d be prepared for that to happen), but if there’s no contract requiring it, you may not have to. (But I’m surprised that there’s no paperwork requiring it, and I’d argue that ethically you should pay it back regardless.)

2. Asking for a raise when you might get turned down

I’m not really unhappy with my actual work, but I’m unhappy with my compensation. I’ve been contemplating asking for a raise, but I just can’t bring myself to do it given the follow facts: (1) My coworker recently asked for one and was denied and (2) My oversharing boss is constantly walking around complaining about how we don’t have any money and talking about how much personal money she puts into the company. How do I ask for a raise when my boss openly says there’s no money? Do I dismiss it as a lost cause and put my job seach back in full-swing? If I do ask and get denied, then is going to be super awkward working after that?

The fact that your coworker was denied a raise shouldn’t factor into your thinking at all, since you don’t know how strong a case she made or how much your manager values her. Your situation could be completely different. However, the fact that your manager is complaining about money and putting her own personal money doesn’t exactly create the ideal conditions for a request like this … although still no reason not to ask, if you can make a case for how your work is worth more to the company than you’re currently being paid. And the worst that can happen is that you’re turned down. It shouldn’t be awkward after that — people ask for raises and are told no all the time; it’s a normal part of business.

3. Gift-giving by gender

I started working as an office coordinator/exec assistant to a CEO and SVP at a small company in the beauty industry about 3 months ago. All women in the office received accessories from the VPs before we left for the holidays, instead of monetary gifts. Is this sort of gift-giving common, given the industry or were the bosses just trying to be creative and thoughtful? The men in the office received wine and champagne. I’ve definitely heard of champagne being given as a gift, but not jewelry. Also, I verbally thanked my supervisor but should I go out and buy a thank-you card?

Giving accessories to the women and champagne to the men would be a little odd if you weren’t in the beauty industry, where this type of thing happens a lot. A verbal thank-you is fine, although a card would certainly be a gracious thing to do if you feel like it.

4. Employee parking lot is dark and dangerous

I work for a company that has designated an employee parking lot. However, it is across a very busy street (that is actually a highway!) behind a building on unpaved gravel. By the time I leave in the winter months, it is pitch black and there is very little lighting. I am worried I will fall and get hurt, or worse! I have expressed my safety concerns and I was told it would be reviewed. Parking on the city street is also against employee policy, but there is no mention of any of this in our handbook. California law gives 72 hours to park on a city street. What are my rights?

I can’t speak to California’s laws specifically, but in general, employers can direct employees not to park in certain areas (including public on-street parking) because they want those spaces to be open to provide easier access for their customers. No federal law governs lighting standards for parking lots, but some cities have their own codes that require a certain minimum amount of lighting. If you want to look into the laws in your area, I’d start by contacting your local city or county government for advice. Meanwhile, though, you might want to enlist other employees in raising this concern to your employer; that might spur them to take some action.

5. I might have been fired because I was pregnant

I am not really sure why I lost my last job, and I’m not sure how to explain it in an interview. The department was in the process of restructuring, but my position was not eliminated. I am not eligible for rehire. I asked why I was fired, and my boss said, “you’re just not a good fit for this company anymore. There’s nothing you could have done better or differently.” I have requested a letter stating the reason a few times, but cannot get ahold of anyone. I’d ask my previous coworkers, but most have called to ask me why I was let go! I was employed for over 2 years without any discipline on file, and had even received a substantial performance raise 2 months prior. The only reason I can think of is that I was pregnant, and due at a rather inconvenient time for the company.

I am now searching for a job and landing interviews left and right, but cannot get past this question. I did receive a job offer, but it was rescinded when the new employer called HR and found out that I was ineligible for rehire at my old job! Soon, my baby will arrive. I know the additional time that I will need to spend out of work to care for my infant will make an even bigger unemployment gap that will linger on my resume forever! How do I answer that inevitable question that comes up in every interview, while anticipating such a vague but negative HR reference?

You may or may not be right that your former company fired you because you were pregnant, but they’re not giving you any other reason to explain it, so it’s reasonable to assume that might be the case. If your employer has 15 or more employees, firing you because you were pregnant is illegal. You might want to enlist a lawyer in handling this for you — not necessarily to sue (although you could explore that option as well), but to reach an agreement with the company about what they’ll tell people who call for a reference for you. I’d be very surprised if a lawyer couldn’t get you a good outcome here, possibly including a monetary settlement as well — especially now that you’ve lost a job offer over it. (And I don’t recommend that kind of thing lightly, but this sounds egregious.)

6. Verbal warnings, sharing resumes, and unprofessionalism

I was recently hired at a facility and the manager passed out my resume to the coworkers that participated in the interview. The coworkers get a say so in who’s hired at this facility. I am worried that since these two people are no longer with the company that they may still have my resume that this is not a professional thing to do!

Also, when you get a verbal warning, shouldn’t this be identified as such? Also, how much do managers get in regards to training as the assistant director would talk about people at the lunch table and I felt this was very unprofessional?

I doubt that your coworkers had any interest in taking your resume with them when they left the company, but regardless, it’s normal for anyone interviewing a candidate to be given a copy of the person’s resume. (And it’s not unusual to have coworkers participate in interviews.)

Different employers and managers define “verbal warning” differently — for some it involves an explicit statement that this is a warning, and for others it might simply be a statement that something needs to be done differently. Either way, the assumption is that if you’re told to do something differently, you’ll take that seriously.

Most managers get little to no training, and you’re right that managers shouldn’t be talking about people at the lunch table. That said, I would let all of this stuff go, because I don’t think you’re hearing how adversarial toward your employer you’re sounding, as if you’re looking for problems wherever you can find them. If you’re unhappy there and it’s not the right fit, I’d deal with that head-on, rather than getting focused on multiple little things that are irking you.

{ 43 comments… read them below }

  1. Elaine*

    #4. Not sure from your post if your employer owns the parking lot. If not they may be limited in what they can do. While exploring options, here are a few easy helps. Use a buddy system. if no one is leaving when you do, a co-worker can accompany you to your car then you can drive him/her back to the building entrance. Carry a big flashlight, preferably one that includes a siren and a flashing red light.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      OP #4, definitely request the implementation of the buddy system.

      Go to a Lowes or Home Depot type place and check out their rechargeable flashlights. I picked up a little one about 4-5 inches long. It is very bright and I am amazed by how long it has lasted. (I have had it a couple years.) A couple of my friends (rural area) have driveways that are pitch black at night and you cannot even see where you are putting your foot down. I bring my little light.
      But definitely keep pushing for safer conditions. It’s a safety issue- you are not wrong here. At all.

    2. Jazzy Red*

      I had to work in a place once that had parking way in the back. It wasn’t lit, and the neighborhood was not really safe. I told my boss I didn’t want to park back there because it was so dark, and he asked if I wanted a flashlight. I told him, no, I wanted a gun. He did find a parking place close to the building for me, so I guess that was the right response.

  2. Mike C.*

    What in the hell is it with the treating women like crap in the workplace!? We’ve got the gal in the post below, the gal in Iowa and now we’ve got OP #5 here! I mean heck, even my sister in law was “laid off” soon after her pregnancy started to show! Funny thing was, they kept extending her final date!

    I know things aren’t perfectly equal, but I had hoped the really obvious stuff would stop. I guess we have a ways to go. :(

    1. EM*

      Exactly! You are one of the (sadly) few men who really get it in terms of feminism. My father is another one.

    2. Anonymous*

      When you see something happening, speak up, a woman may not always be in a position to say something. If you are, always speak up.

      I’m often conflicted about the really obvious stuff, is it better because people can actually recognize it or does it just say we are still that backwards.

      (I also think of the interviewer from earlier this week who was generously treating “women as people” like it was a big deal.)

    3. Ry*

      Go Mike! You are right, and egalitarian men are sometimes in a position to help. We can model non-sexism for sexist men, and even if we can’t educate them and bring them around in the short term, we can help create an environment where sexism is socially unacceptable.

      …I hope.

  3. pidgeonpenelope*

    #5. At first, I thought you were my sister in law. She loyally worked for a doctor but as soon as she got pregnant, bam, fired. They told her that they were eliminating her position (she’s a medical assistant) but that they were going to “fire” her so that if they chose to rehire later they could pick someone else. They said she wasn’t really working out but she never had any disciplinary action taken against her so she never knew there was a problem. In addition, her employer said that she would have a letter of recommendation. Her employer is a female. You’d think they’d have “hmm how would this look if I let her go pregnant” on her mind? Ugh. Total B.

  4. Anonymous*


    How do you already know the company is a bad fit?!! A $5,000 for an admin job is pretty damn generous. You’ve been there a FEW WEEKS, during the HOLIDAYS!!!!! Oh my goodness. I think ethically if you don’t pay back that bonus you are going to come across as a really crappy person and may burn a lot of bridges, as it sounds to me that you took the job just to take the bonus and run.

    1. Victoria HR*


      And as the person who used to place people at companies and got a commission, it really REALLY sucks to have a person leave within the first 30 days and have to pay that back. The staffing agency did their proper work in finding you that job. IMO you have a moral obligation to finish the probationary period in which they’d have to replace you for free (sounds like 90 days).

      And really, as we used to say at the agency, sometimes there’s a reason why people came to us – they weren’t capable of finding work on their own, whether it’s because they have a poor work history of ditching jobs on a short term basis, or they have a difficult personality, or they are lazy. Most of our employees were great people who just needed a hand finding a job, but there were those select few … oy.

      1. Anonymous*

        As much as I agree that they will already know about the fit, I don’t think taking a recruiter’s financial well being into account should be the deciding factor. I mean, what if they make it 45 days and are really miserable? You think they should stay just so the recruiters comission doesn’t have to be repayed. Thats pretty selfish

      2. Dan*

        TBH, I’m surprised you haven’t received a lot more flames for this. First and foremost, every staffing agency I’ve ever known works for the client, not the employee. How do I know? Just take a look at who pays your bills — I sure don’t. So to say that you earned your paycheck by finding *me* a job is incorrect — you earned your paycheck by finding the client an employee, and it’s between you and him how you get paid.

        Second, you disrespect the people that you would place with your clients. Sounds like you guys deserved each other. The places I work through place trained, experienced, professionals, and we use them because it’s actually pretty difficult to connect with small companies on our own. I’m sorry you couldn’t work for a place that attracted stronger employees. Have you ever paused to consider why that might be?

    2. AnotherAlison*

      I agree with anonymous & Victoria HR. Had the OP said there was an abusive boss or something more than “I know this company is not a good fit,” I might not find this so outrageous.

      I have never felt comfortable in a new professional job until I had been doing it ~ 6 months. It takes time to learn all the new things required to do the job well and to get to know the new personalities that you’re working with. I’ve also found that just when I think I’ve finally decided a situation is absolutely no longer tolerable, something happens. . .a new manager starts, a awful coworker leaves, and it’s a good place to work again.

      1. Anon*

        This was my thought: is there something egregious happening? She doesn’t say in the letter, but only three weeks in, I can’t imagine how else she’d know. If there *is* something egregious happening, the ethics of returning the money are much fuzzier.

  5. De Minimis*

    I am surprised there isn’t something somewhere in writing that would say what happens with the bonus if the employee leaves early. I know in one of my previous jobs you had to pay it all if you left before six months and half if you left before a year.

    I have been in a similar position of realizing that a job was not right almost immediately, but I would recommend at least sticking it out a year for various reasons.

    1. Jamie*

      I would be surprised as well – but then again I’m surprised when companies have tuition as a perk but don’t have a repayment policy in writing if the person leaves immediately – but it happens all the time.

      I don’t get it – so easy to lock this stuff down.

      And a huge THIS to those recommending sticking it out because a couple weeks is rarely enough time to determine fit. Gosh – unless I was being actively punched in the face as I walked in in the morning a couple weeks in I’m still clenched and learning the ropes. I wouldn’t start worrying about it being a bad fit for at least 6 months – closer to a year.

      And also ITA that 5K is a huge signing bonus for an admin assistant – I’ve never heard of such a thing on top of the fee they paid your agency for you. That’s pretty unheard of.

      Morally if you are leaving now I’d pay it back – legally you may not need to but ethically it’s their money if you’re not staying.

      1. fposte*

        There’s also the reputation damage. If you pay it back, you might be able to manage it as a civil annulment–“I realized immediately it was a mistake and moved on causing as little fuss as possible.” Keep the $5000 and it’s an ugly divorce, the story of which is going to widely circulate (and the staffing agency probably will never touch you again).

    2. K.*

      Yeah, I’m shocked that there’s no statute in place. My best friend has to pay back her relocation money if she leaves before two years are up; at my old company you had to pay back tuition reimbursement if you didn’t stay for a year after you took it.

      And a huge “word” to those who advise sticking it out for more than three weeks unless something abusive is going on. I started my new job Nov. 26 and I don’t even know everyone’s names yet.

  6. C.*

    #1- First off, I guarantee that somewhere in that stack of papers you inevitably filled out for that staffing agency, there is something about that bonus. Most likely a 90 day completion period of employment, or you must pay back either the full bonus or a prorated amount. If you quit now, be prepared to get the bill. Because then people could just make a career out of getting jobs through staffing agencies and then quitting a week later. They must have protection again that, and if they don’t, shame on them.

    Second, 5K! Damn!

  7. Mrs Addams*

    #1 – I agree with others here that a couple of weeks really isn’t long enough to determine whether the job’s a good fit or not. I’d recommend sticking at the job at least for the 90 day probation period before assessing the fit and deciding whether or not you need to start looking for a new job. However, if the workplace really is that bad, I’d make sure to keep the $5k completely separate and unspent – that way, if you do quit and move on to a new job within 90 days then at least you don’t have to scratch around for the cash when you’re inevitably asked for the money back. But if you can tough it out for 90 days, so much the better.

    A couple of side notes/questions (not directed at the OP, just general curiosity).
    1. What happens if the new hire, after being given a sign-on bonus, is fired within the probation period? Would he/she still have to give the money back, even though it wasn’t them that made the decision to leave?
    2. Why do companies give out sign-on bonuses immediately on commencing employment? Surely it would be more prudent to allocate the sign-on bonus after the probation period has passed, thereby negating the need to chase the (former) employee to return the bonus, which could be a PITA if the employee has spent it all and hasn’t got the means to return the money immediately? Giving out a lump of cash as soon as a new hire starts work seems rather risky to me.

    1. Anonymous*

      Sign on bonuses go in and out of the marketplace in my field. Typically, you get the bonus after having worked a year just to prevent this kind of thing from happening.

      Also, I learned the hard way that if a bonus seems too good to be true- it is. There is a reason they are offering it and unless it is because they are in a geographic location that is hard to get staffing for, it’s usually because it is so disfunctional no one wants to work there. I learned this one early in my career and it is the only 3 month job on my résumé.

    2. Anonymous*

      “1. What happens if the new hire, after being given a sign-on bonus, is fired within the probation period?”

      From what I’ve seen, all sign-on bonuses come with paperwork explaining the stipulations. Companies handle repayment in many different ways. The contract for JC Penny President Michael Francis included pro-rated repayment terms for the sign-on bonus if he left *for any reason* within a year. (And he was required to pay back about $3mil after leaving in the 7th month.)

      “2. Why do companies give out sign-on bonuses immediately on commencing employment?”

      I think it’s a bribe – er, incentive – to accept the offer. My old company gave a lot of s/o and relocation bonuses, but this often turned into a hot mess if the employee left before the year was up. The employee was required to pay back the full amount including all withholdings. This left the employee with the problem of sorting out the taxes, sometimes totaling thousands of dollars. (Imagine a $5k bonus. In December, the employee receives $3.5k after withholdings. Six months later, in a new tax year but after April 15, the employee quits but owes the company the full $5k. The employee won’t recover taxes until the following year.)

      I actually turned down a sign-on bonus and instead negotiated that it be added to my salary, primarily because of what I saw at my last job. I would have loved the lump sum of cash, but the salary bump was better in the long run.

  8. De Minimis*

    I know, I only got 1k to be a tax accountant, although I think people with competing offers from competitors might have gotten more, but even then I would guess 5k would be on the high end.

    1. Anon*

      I’m amazed at the number of people here who seem to think an AA position is less important or less worthy of high compensation.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I don’t think that’s what people are saying at all. Rather, there are lots of jobs that don’t generally come with sign-on bonuses, or at least not they’re not widely known to.

      2. aname*

        Its less about “worthy”ness and more about attitude. The expected norm is only the high positions would be offered one since most companies undervalue the administration staff and don’t noticeably respect that having the right person in that job is as important as the higher levels.

  9. Sabrina*

    I’m shocked an Admin Asst got a $5K sign on bonus. Or a sign on bonus at all. Flabbergasted, actually. I never heard of such a thing.

    1. Exec Assistant in VA*

      Actually, I (an EA) received a sign-on bonus at my last job. The reason being was that I took pay-cut to work there and in the negotiation conversation, I asked about other compensation since they couldn’t match my previous salary. I actually asked for more vacation/PTO time, and they countered with a sign-on bonus. It did have the “you need to work here a year or pay it back” clause.

    2. JLL*

      I got a comparable sign on bonus when i took my job, and I’m an admin too. It’s not unheard of. It was part of my negotiation as well, since the top of their salary range was almost my floor. I managed to score an extra week of vacation time in addition to that.

  10. De Minimis*

    It’s not that I think an EA is “less” or anything, I just view signing bonuses as something you normally see for positions that are directly involved with creating revenue for the employer….lawyers at a law firm, accountants at an accounting firm, etc. I currently work in healthcare and we pay bonuses to medical staff, but not to support staff [such as myself.]

    Then again, if it’s a staffing agency, I guess almost all the positions they fill are a source of revenue so it would make sense.

  11. Kimberlee, Esq.*

    To play devil’s advocate (and not necessarily advocating it, just throwing it out there)…. I think there’s an argument to be made on $1 that the bonus is called a *sign-on* bonus. Like, she signed on, and that was apparently the totality of what she had to do to get the bonus.

    Like, if you want to make them pay back the bonus unless they stay a year, why not just put in writing that they’ll get a $5000 bonus, regardless of performance, after a year?

    As Anonymous above said, it’s a bribe to get you to accept the offer. She accepted the offer. Now, to this line of reasoning, the bonus is completely off the table. There are many good reasons why she should try to stick it out for x months or x years, but she met the terms of the bonus.

    If OP had been working somewhere for 5 years, and got a holiday bonus, then quit the next day, no notice, would the expectation still be that the employee pay it back? Sure, its a different situation, but bonuses are always incentives to try to get/retain good employees. If you know you’re going to quit soon, is it in bad faith to accept a bonus?

    1. Jazzy Red*

      Yes, it would be wrong to accept a signing bonus when you know you’re going to quit soon.

      As for the holiday bonus, that’s usually given for the past year, not the coming year.

      Read a book on ethics sometime.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Hey — no need to make this personal. Ethical issues are interesting precisely because they’re not always black and white — there’s room for debate on many of them.

        In this case, if you take the idea of a signing bonus out from what we generally know of them, Kimberlee’s argument makes sense. In its most black and white form, if it’s a bonus for literally signing on, then signing on is all you have to do to get it. It’s only when you put them into the context of how we’re familiar with them that it changes things — which was going to be my response to Kimberlee, that signing bonuses are understood to be something you’re accepting as part of agreeing to come on board in the true meaning of coming on board. It’s not just to get you to show up at work on Day 1; it’s part of you agreeing that you’ll be showing up at work for at least a reasonable amount of time (hence the reason that most come with requirements to pay them back if you don’t).

        1. Kimberlee, Esq.*

          Though, similarly, you could argue that she did come on board, in every sense, acting in good faith, and found that the company just wasn’t for her after 2 weeks. If so, I think she still met the terms of the bonus. I think that the clincher is the fact that the company didn’t (apparently) have any written or verbal requirements related to OP about the terms of the bonus, and to my mind, the default would be “The company is giving you $5000 with no strings attached, as long as you become an employee and show up on the first day.”

          So this discussion makes me wonder, what *is* the line, if none is given in the agreement? Can she keep it after a month? Two months? Six months? I think that people may tend to think 6 months; but then, I think about if OP had been there, say, 4 months, and found another gig and gave proper notice, I’d be miffed if they asked for the bonus back after 4 months.

          1. K*

            Interestingly, I think some industries do have a set of informal norms about signing bonuses and how long your’e expected to stay. For instance, my understanding is that Supreme Court clerks who join large law firms and get the $250k (or so) bonus are expected to stay for two years, but not under any formal obligation to return the bonus if they don’t. (Though maybe they are; I’m not the lucky recipient of such a bonus!)

            And then sometimes the norms are what you describe. When I started at my much, much smaller, public-interest side law firm, there was a $2500 signing bonus that I was told I just needed to show up to collect. I got another $2500 if I stayed on for 6 months. So in that case, they were setting up the bonus to do exactly what you suggest they do – some is for signing on (presumably in good faith); some is to reward a certain amount of longevity.

    2. Jamie*

      The holiday bonuses are different to me because they are typically seen as a reward (or thank you) for work already performed.

      That said, I’m sure a lot of employers would consider it rude to take a bonus and quit, but for me there’s no ethical issue there.

      1. K*

        And it’s standard to do that in some fields where a significant portion of compensation is the holiday bonus. It’s just expected that most people who leave those jobs will leave in January/February.

  12. De Minimis*

    I know in my case signing the acceptance of their offer was also an acceptance of their terms regarding what happened to the signing bonus if I left before a year.

    Some employers will give you a break, though….I ended up being let go from that job a few days prior to my year being up and they did not say a word about me repaying anything [if I remember correctly the agreement did not distinguish between someone quitting and someone being fired.]

  13. Maria*

    #5 Please do consult with an attorney. I am not positive but I’m pretty sure once an allegation is made that you were fired for a protected class, the employer would have to demonstrate other legit grounds for terminating you, and it doesn’t sound like they have any. Alison is right in that hopefully this would at least encourage them to play nice when they’re called for a reference.

  14. Ry*

    OP#1, please tell us more. I would love to get a $5000 bonus, and I’m temping as an admin while looking for permanent work. What’s going on? I am Emphatically Not Judging because I don’t have enough information, but I’d love for you to come back and flesh out your story a little.

    OP#4, get a flashlight, carry your cell phone, and use the buddy system for now. Did you put your safety concerns into writing? Your employer, of course, should resolve this situation for your safety and other employees’ before anything happens to anyone. Just in case, though, I’d want a paper trail that would show that I had brought the issue to their attention.

    Anybody in the US who has felt unsafe in public, here’s a small thing that might be helpful. Push 9 1 on your phone, and put your phone in your hand in your jacket pocket with your finger on the 1. If anything happens, you just push 1 that second time and keep the line open, whether you can talk to emergency dispatch or not. This strategy is obviously only an adjunct and not a primary self-defense move.

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