an employer told me they don’t provide written offers

A reader writes:

I had a job offer yesterday, which I accepted verbally over the phone. When the HR woman asked what my start date would be, I said two weeks after I receive the offer in writing. To which she replied, “We don’t do written offers.” What the heck? She then said, “I can repeat it back to you if you want to write it down.” I politely told her that I thought this was unusual, and that even an email with the details would suffice. She said they only do that for “very senior” people, but that she’d see what she could do.

I wrote a follow-up email to her in which I summarized the offer for confirmation and told her to let me know if I got anything wrong, but she never responded. Is there anything else I could have done? I’m particularly concerned because part of the offer is that I’d qualify for the management bonus program even though I am not in a management position, and as that is unusual and won’t happen until the end of the year, I don’t want them to conveniently “forget” about my bonus.

There are actually a lot of employers that don’t do written offers — usually smaller organizations, but not always. It’s not because they’re deliberately avoiding putting things in writing in order to screw over candidates, but simply because they’ve never made it a part of their process. As a result, when a candidate asks for a written offer, they don’t have any process in place to provide that … and they’re usually envisioning something much more official and complicated, and it doesn’t occur to them they could simply summarize the details in an email.

Even then, though, reasonable employers will put the details in writing if you make it clear that you’re not asking for something formal, but just an email summarizing what’s been agreed to.

Here’s what I’d recommend if a company makes you an offer without any mention of a written offer coming:

1. Say, “Should I expect a written offer to be coming as well?”

2. If they say no, say, “Would it be possible to get all the details of the offer — salary, benefits, title, and any other relevant information — in an email, so that I can look it over and be sure that I’m getting all the details correct?”

3. Most employers are going to say yes to #2. If for some reason they don’t, as in your situation, then do it yourself. Write up an email that says “Just want to summarize the details we’ve discussed. Would you look this over and confirm this looks right to you?” (However, wait until you’ve finished your negotiations so that this email is summarizing the final points that have been agreed to — there’s no need to do this before that point.)

4. If you sent the email to HR and haven’t received a response within a few days, forward it to the hiring manager with a note that says, “Hi Jane, haven’t heard back from Bob on this but thought I could simply run it by you to ensure that it all looks right.” Or, if you sent it to the hiring manager and haven’t heard back within a few days, send it to HR with this note.

5. If you still don’t get confirmation, something is wrong. At this point, it’s the equivalent of them saying, “We don’t want to be held to what we’re telling you.” If you reach this point, pick up the phone and call the hiring manager and see what’s going on.

Also, in addition to all of the above, keep in mind that a written offer isn’t an employment contract. Employers can still change the terms of your employment at any time, even with a written offer (unless you have a contract, which most U.S. workers don’t). The reason to get the details of your offer in writing is because it dramatically strengthens the likelihood that the terms of your employment will be what you agreed to. That’s important not because you should assume that the employer is nefarious and out to get you, but rather because otherwise you’re at higher risk of genuine mistakes or misunderstandings — a miscommunication on either side, or someone forgetting a key detail that was agreed to, or a decision-maker promising you something (like a raise in six months, or telecommuting one day a week, or a change to the original title) and then leaving the company soon afterwards, with no one else there has any knowledge of your agreement. Having a written offer to point to in those situations is hugely helpful.

{ 82 comments… read them below }

  1. Sandy*

    Interestingly, when I accepted my first job, with the federal government, I asked for a written offer and was told they don’t do that.

    So it’s not just small employers!

    1. De Minimis*

      Yeah, that’s where I work, and it was all done over the phone. You did get to a point where they gave a “firm offer” where you determined a start date. I assume you could get something in writing if you needed it at that point. There is some kind of offer-related paperwork in my personnel file, but I think it was added long after the fact.

    2. Anonymous*

      Crazy! I don’t know when you were hired, but lately it takes a whole lot of paper to hire a new federal employee. Granted, I’m in the defense industry, so that may make a difference.

    3. Jessica*

      That is surprising to me. I work for the federal government and I not only got a written offer, I got a written offer after I’d been working there for 3 years for a promotion to a higher grade. Even that level of job change required a massive amount of paperwork. It’s hard for me to imagine a federal job not giving a written offer. Was it for a federal employee position or a contractor position?

    4. doreen*

      What exactly does everyone mean by a written offer? I’ve worked for both a state and municipal government (although not the Feds) and although I always get something in writing when I’m hired or promoted, it’s not anything I would characterize as an “offer letter”. It comes after I’ve already accepted the position (sometimes after I’ve started ) and tells me the title, sometimes the salary or grade , details of where and when I am to report to work and the type of appointment ( provisional, permanent,temporary, contingent etc). It’s really just a copy of what gets sent to HR/payroll .

      1. De Minimis*

        Oh don’t get me wrong, I had a ton of paperwork that I had to complete once I was hired, but no official “offer letter” given to me prior to starting work the way I’ve had in private sector jobs.

        And yes, I’m a permanent federal employee.

        1. De Minimis*

          Oh, and I was hired in 2012, so not that long ago. As I said, had a ton of paperwork to do, but not till my first day of work.

  2. Bend & Snap*

    I received a “formal verbal” from a rather big company. Ended up declining it, but they told me up front that they didn’t do written offers. Didn’t seem weird.

    1. Stevie Wonders*

      I’ve always received offer letters even from very small companies. I would consider refusal to provide a written offer very strange, particularly from a big company.

  3. Episkey*

    Not getting something in writing (even just an email) would make me very nervous. Maybe I’m just paranoid.

    1. GrumpyBoss*

      Me too. I’d bail.

      Doesn’t help that I had a bonus underpaid once and needed my offer letter to set things straight. Once bitten, twice shy.

    2. Jamie*

      If you’re paranoid I’ll come sit by you, because me too.

      Not so much that they don’t do them, I think it’s crazy, but some don’t. But balking at just confirming the details in email is waving giant red flags for me.

      No way would I give notice without details confirmed in writing, and the fact that part of the offer is unusual in that they are customizing the bonus? Feel hinky to me – I’ve just seen people forget (honestly or whatever) stuff like this too many times and email or whatever gets everyone back on the same page – without it? I wouldn’t count on that bonus.

      1. HM in Atlanta*

        Yes – I once had an offer disappear a day before I was supposed to start. It seems the hiring manager didn’t do a lot of the things he was supposed to do, and his boss overruled picking me over an internal hire. I probably dodged a horrible workplace, but at the time I was already unemployed because I just worked my last day my previous job.

        1. Artemesia*

          My husband had a verbal offer disappear like that for internal reasons and it was triply awkward because they had invited us to a social event and didn’t get the word to him before we showed up where we were sort of shunned. It was fairly nightmarish.

      2. Jerry Vandesic*

        It’s not that they are necessarily doing something evil, it’s that they don’t know how to manage their business. If they can’t do their job and provide written specifics about the job they want to you do, they likely don’t do their job in other areas. This would be a real red flag for me.

    3. Stephanie*

      I’ll bring the tinfoil hat and sit by y’all. I got a verbal offer once, only for the job to get rescinded. Of course, even in writing, the offer wasn’t an employment contract, so I would have had no recourse even if a written offer was rescinded. I just would feel way too uneasy with no written details.

  4. JMegan*

    I don’t find it all that unusual that they don’t provide written offers – as Alison said, there are lots of companies that don’t, for one reason or another.

    But I’m just gobsmacked at “I can repeat it back to you if you want to write it down.” How incredibly rude. I hope if you do accept this job, that you don’t have to work with this HR person on a daily basis!

    1. CH*

      Eh, I’m not sure she was trying to be rude. I read it as she was not too bright and just trying to figure out a way to be helpful.

      1. Jerry Vandesic*

        My response would a bit different. I would say “If you can’t provide a written offer, I need to record this conversation. Can you please repeat the details you just gave to me.”

    2. LQ*

      I don’t think that’s all that horribly incredibly rude at all. There was a problem she offered a solution. There are a lot of things way more rude than that (including not responding to the email). It may very well have been that when the OP asked for a written offer it came off as, I’m not sure I got all the details, can I expect a written offer? To which “I’d be happy to repeat the information for you if you want to get a pen to write it down I can wait,” would be a totally reasonable response from someone who has never done a written offer and may not often be asked, and even less often pushed back.

      1. JMegan*

        Oh, that makes sense. I was reading it as the HR person telling the OP to write down that they don’t do offer letters! I thought that was kind of a strange thing to say, but glad to know it’s just me. :)

        1. AVP*

          ah now I get what you mean. I think she just meant oh, if you need to write down the salary details, I can repeat them for you. Depends on the tone though.

  5. Matthew Soffen*

    For my very first job after getting my Associates Degree (back in 1988) I got a written offer and in the offer packet it included all the relevant details (3 or 4 different benefit explanations, etc) so that I’d have 100% of the information that I’d need to make an informed decision.

    I would think that it would be “safer” for them to do this (because what happens if you respond yes. I agree 5o this offer of XX,000/year and then AFTER you’ve started (and turned down other potential employers) the job is actully 10K less then what you were told. ?

    Without any written anything you’re kinda SOL…

    1. LQ*

      But they can change it at any point, they could decide 1 week after you started with a written offer in nice paper with gold foil that they are going to pay you 10K less and you are still SOL.

  6. BRR*

    I would think an employer would want to offer in writing. It’s always better to get things in writing (it kills me I can’t do this when negotiating with comcast). As an employer, I wouldn’t want to have an employee show up on their first day and say, I thought I was getting xyz.

  7. illini02*

    I’ve had a couple of jobs, including my current position do this. It is a bit weird, but it kind of depends on the vibe you get otherwise. If its a bigger or at least more established organization, I’m usually pretty trusting because they don’t want to get a bait and switch reputation. A lot of smaller places, I’d be a bit more wary. Although, my current place, I just had a really good feeling about it after the interview, so I was pretty trusting and it worked out well. While it shouldn’t, I think if you push it too far, it cast you in not the best light to start out

    1. EngineerGirl*

      The goes along with “at-will” employment. Either side could ask to change the agreement tomorrow and either side could terminate the agreement.

      1. Jerry Vandesic*

        The real value of a written offer is two fold:

        1) It provides evidence if they come back later and their memory of the offer is different than yours. Not that you have a contract, but re-setting their expectations is easier with the piece of paper.

        2) It provides documentation that you can use to shame the employer if it comes to that. The power of social media is strong today, and evidence of scumbaggery can go a long way to impact a company’s reputation.

  8. LJL*

    A few years ago, I was relocating for a job, and my landlord required a copy of the contract. Since I didn’t have a contract, he accepted a copy of the offer letter. How would people deal with that kind of situation without anything in writing?

    1. Who are you?*

      I had this situation happen too. The offer letter was enough at the time, but without it I would have been screwed. In my case, it was for a financial assisted program and I needed to show that I was working (or about to, in my case!) but because my letter indicated salary I was able to use that as proof of projected income.

    2. Koko*

      When I applied for an apartment as I was starting a new job the landlord just wanted the name and phone number of someone at my company who could confirm my employment status and salary. He didn’t need any written documents. As long as you are getting them what they need (proof that you have income) most reasonable people are pretty flexible about the details (how you prove it). There will of course always be the odd bureaucratic place that will be so rigid they sabotage their own efforts, but most places have policies to make things go smoother, not to get in people’s way.

      1. De Minimis*

        My workplace doesn’t generally do written offers either, but I think HR will provide some kind of paperwork to show landlords and others.

    3. AVP*

      I’ve never had an offer letter. When a prospective landlord asked me for this I just wrote out my pay details on a sheet of letterhead and asked my boss to sign it.

    4. Traveler*

      In my moves for jobs, I’ve mostly encountered that one of any of the following work:
      offer letter, bank account statements (showing consistent deposits where I was able to black out any important info), last 2-3 months pay stubs

    5. Helka*

      I had to provide an offer letter too, since my new job was a significant step up in pay from the one I’d held previous. I wouldn’t have gotten my lease if I hadn’t been able to prove my new rate of pay (the job was new enough that I didn’t have the requisite three paystubs.)

    6. Stephanie*

      Yeah, I’ve always had to use 2-3 pay stubs or offer letters. I suppose the person could get employment verification from HR stating his salary.

  9. Anonathon*

    My first job post-college didn’t do written offers. I ended up asking them to email me a letter with all the relevant details: title, start date, etc. The hiring manager seemed surprised, but agreed. I just wasn’t comfortable relocating for a job without some kind of documentation!

  10. C Average*

    I never got a written offer when I started with my current company, which is a really big company. I’ve made two upward moves within the company and I never got a written offer for either of those, either. Everything was verbal.

    For my first role here, we had an orientation day on which we received all of our HR paperwork. Our packets included a page with our title, pay, manager, and some other really basic stuff. We were asked to look over that page and initial it to confirm that it matched with what had been verbally offered to us.

  11. the gold digger*

    I have a friend who is still working at OldJob. They made her a written offer that very clearly said she could telecommute two or three days a week.

    Soon after she started, the CEO (this is one of the many jerky things he has done) said nope, no telecommuting. She protested – her manager protested – and showed him the offer letter that he, the CEO had approved. He just shrugged (I imagine he shrugged while cackling and twirling his mustache) and said too bad.

    My friend had specifically taken that job because of the telecommuting – she lives 50 miles away and had factored the transportation savings into her decision.

    So my point is – although you should get it in writing, that doesn’t mean the company will honor it. Sometimes, you are just dealing with jerks.

      1. some1*

        Absolutely! I guess that’s his right to not allow telecommuting but he should have the decency to to make sure his hiring managers know!

        1. Anna*

          In this case it wouldn’t have mattered. The CEO approved the telecommuting when the offer was put together.

  12. Kai*

    The part about just needing to get it in writing, even just spelled out in an email, is really important here. It doesn’t necessarily occur to people (certainly wouldn’t to me, until I read this) that “in writing” doesn’t HAVE to mean something really formal, on letterhead, notarized and what have you.

  13. Eden*

    The last time I received a written offer was 1993. I thought these had gone the way of the dinosaur. I’m actually surprised to learn some companies still provide them!

    1. Cindi*

      Funny, I’ve never gotten a job offer that didn’t include a written offer – and I’ve been working since 1983, and my last job change was in 2011, so that spans quite a bit of time. I know it’s not a contract, but if I’m going to quit one job and go to another, I at least want something in writing.

    2. Emily, admin extraordinaire*

      I generally haven’t gotten them, either, but I think that’s pretty common in administrative support positions, which is what most of my jobs have been. There just usually isn’t that much to spell out when you’re non-salary exempt with no chance of a bonus. :P The exception is my current employer, but it’s a state agency and does written (emailed) offers for all positions no matter what.

    3. AB Normal*

      I started a new job in April, with a start-up even, and got an offer in writing (electronic format), to read and return signed. All my jobs prior to that asked me to sign the offer letter too.

    4. TrainerGirl*

      I haven’t gotten an offer letter on paper since about 2000. I got e-mailed offer letters in 2012 and just a few weeks ago. Since I’m working for a company whose HQ is in CA (I’m in VA), and I did all of my interviewing by phone, I would’ve been very nervous if I hadn’t gotten an offer in writing.

    5. Stevie Wonders*

      My last company provided detailed offer letters even to those transferring internally, just like the one I got coming in from outside. Spelled out job position, pay, benefits, etc. I would consider omission of written offer from any company to be peculiar and lackadaisical, like refusing to provide an invoice to a customer. Downright befuddled a request for one would be refused.

  14. Long Time Lurker*

    I once accepted a verbal offer from the state and gave two weeks notice based on that. Two days later the front page of the newspaper announced a state hiring freeze. Because I didn’t have the offer in writing the job offer had to be rescinded. I had to beg to stay in my old job until they found a replacement. Never again!

    I’ve also been in the position as a hiring manager where I’ve had to stop mid-hiring because budget cuts were announced. Only openings where written offers had been made were retained. Fortunately I’ve never had to rescind a verbal offer since I have them ready to go the minute a verbal offer is accepted.

    I’d never give notice without a written offer. And I’ll never refrain from at least an email when I make an offer.

    1. CA State gov*

      Had a similar thing happen to me during those years. The division I was going to be hired for got completely wiped out in a budget cut about a month after receiving a verbal offer and verbal start date. In my experience with government a verbal offer doesn’t mean anything (esp. if you happen to be job hunting during the budget appropriation discussions of the year).

    2. Alien vs Predator*

      You seem a little more conservative on this issue than I am, but based on your experiences, I think I can see why. Wow, that stinks. You do raise a very good point.

      I wonder if a lot of it has to do with state laws regarding how much weight those offer letters really carry. I doubt they mean much here in Texas, but I could be wrong. I kind of just view it as a way to socially pressure people into doing what they said they were going to do. To me it’s like forcing someone to give you a straight answer and having some documentation to show that they are a liar.

      For me, the offer letter is mostly page one in my file on that employer. I don’t really know how helpful it would be, because I’ve never had to test it, but I like to imagine that it would be one more piece of evidence in my favor if I had to fight for unemployment benefits, etc.

    3. Jerry Vandesic*

      A good hiring manager will tell the candidate not to notify their current employer until they receive the written offer and agree with all of the specifics. I have hired hundreds of people, and always make sure the the transition happens without any problems. It’s just common decency.

  15. Alien vs Predator*

    Most of the larger organizations I’ve worked for provided offer letters that at least included the basic details: job title, manager, salary, PTO days, etc. But, I wouldn’t get too geeked out if you don’t get one.

    But, I think the OP’s letter is kind of a special case. If some sort of special consideration is included in the offer (management bonus program in this case), that is something I would want to see in writing. Not that it is legally binding, as AAM pointed out, but it does make it a lot easier to push back if they don’t keep their word.

    In your case, OP, it sounds like you’ve done everything right. I would be pushier on this, though, and get the sign off from somebody. Take it up with your hiring manager as it sounds like HR will be no help in this case.

    Another, larger point. A lot of employers have the mindset that you are on “probation” the first few weeks or months. This is perfectly fine and makes good business sense but a probationary period should work both ways. If you take the job based on verbal commitments, and then see those commitments rescinded within your first few weeks, walk away. And make sure they know why you are walking. Of course, not everyone can do this every time and it is often much easier said than done, but if you have any leeway at all on the matter do not be afraid to move on. Don’t stick around those first few weeks, if it is a bait and switch, out of some misguided idea about loyalty or dedication. If they change the terms of the agreement on you without your consent, you don’t owe them anything.

  16. M. in Austin!*

    I had the opposite problem! I received a written offer through FedEx! No phone call, no email. It made me feel like I couldn’t negotiate (though the offer was good and 1k more than I asked for). It was very bizarre.

    1. Mabel*

      If you hadn’t negotiated yet and you wanted to, you probably could have called the hiring manager and referenced the written offer as a jumping off point. It’s easier if you don’t have to, though, so I’m glad it worked out well.

    2. Stephanie*

      I had that happen once. The hiring manager called me like the morning of from a restricted number to let me know I had an offer coming. We had chatted casually about her area, but I never did a formal interview (or I suppose that chat was the interview). It was a new grad requisition, so it was pretty clear that it was nonnegotiable.

  17. fluffy*

    I’ve never heard of this “no written offer.” We have a lengthy and rather formal process that goes to all of our positions. Is this an industry thing?

  18. OP*

    Thanks for answering my question Alison! I did follow up with the hiring manager, who apologized and got me an offer letter pretty quickly.

    For some more context, it’s not an industry thing as I received an offer letter from the job that I left for this new one. And the “I can repeat it back to you if you want to write it down” comment came across to me as confrontational/defensive — one of her big sells to me on the job was the management bonus, and how “no one” gets that and it’s very special that I’m even being offered it etc. so I mentioned the written offer, and multiple times emphasized that an informal email would be fine, that I understand that it’s not a contract, and that they can even include language that it’s not a contract in the letter. I was mostly just worried that this “unusual” bonus would be so unusual that everyone would forget about having offered it. At which point she said “I can repeat it if you want to write it down…” Perhaps she was trying to be polite, but it didn’t help the situation.

  19. Buu*

    I don’t know about the US but in the UK I wouldn’t take a job without an offer letter and ideally even a contract. If your new job does evaporate and you’ve already left your old job you can’t claim jobseeker’s allowance unless you can prove that it’s not your fault you’re out of work.

    1. B*

      Yeah I was thinking that the US seems very different to the UK in this (any many other!) regard(s)!

    2. De (Germany)*

      In Germany, you would usually not leave your old job without already having signed the contract for the new job. For timing reasons I had to give notice half a day before signing the new contract, which I had already received a copy of, and my new boss was surprised about that when I told him.

    3. ScaredyCat*

      I’m also from Europe (though not the UK), and after an interview had received a verbal offer. So I asked the Hiring Manager for a written document that they’d agree with my lengthy notice period, and he didn’t have any problem.
      And then silence for a week (he was supposed to send me the written agreement). When I e-mail him to ask about the status, I get a rather cavalier reply about how the lengthy notice period wouldn’t work for them after all.

      If written offers and contracts weren’t the norm here, I would have been in a rather unpleasant situation.
      Like someone above said “once bitten, twice shy”. I find it really hard to understand how virtual strangers can trust each other enough to agree to a job without a formally binding contract.

    4. Brightwanderer (UK)*

      The US is very different from the UK in areas like this – to the point where it’s honestly not really relevant for us to compare our experiences. Not only are contracts the norm here, my understanding is that often a verbal offer is considered legally binding, so generally companies jump to give you something in writing to protect themselves as much as you.

      1. misspiggy*

        Yes – in the UK, contract law specifies that if an offer is clear on what the job is, when it starts and for how long, and salary/hourly rate, then as soon as it’s agreed it counts as a contract, whether verbal or in writing.

  20. Artemesia*

    I’m surprised. Every major job I have had has included an offer letter with the details of compensation and such spelled out. I thought that was a lot more standard than it apparently is.

  21. Not So NewReader*

    My husband took a job at Very Big Company, with no offer letter. Well, we needed something just to organize the things that were offered. They sent us information piecemeal. One week he got info on Plan x. Then a few weeks later, Plan y. A month or two later “Oh here’s information on Plan M.”

    It would have been so helpful to have a letter that said “In the weeks to come we will send you information on: a, b, c, d…” So we could have used it like a check list, and check off the things as they arrived. Instead we ended up with redundant files in the file cabinet and on our desk. It was incredible to sift through.

    It took the two of us, sitting together on the weekends to figure out what was there. And nothing was what it appeared. Yeah, we could get elder care insurance for $2000 per month. [No, thanks.] The dental insurance was capped at $1500/ year. [Not useful.] And so on. I learned a lot about benefits, uh, actually non-benefits.

  22. Layla*

    When I first read it I thought not getting a written offer was weird , but I realise I’ve never gotten it.

    Here ( not US) I think it’s usual to get a verbal offer , which one would “accept” but it is probably conditional as it is prior to signing the employment letter where all the details should be stated.

    I’d only give notice after signing.

    1. De Minimis*

      I’m surprised by that, I figured they would be for most professional service firms. They are pretty standard in accounting, which is good, the one I had spelled out how things worked as far as signing bonuses, severance, what happened if you quit or were terminated, etc.

  23. Cynthia R*

    This is so interesting. This situation would raise a red flag for me. Not because it seems like they’re trying to pull something sneaky, but because the employee seems nervous about sticking her neck out over something simple. I’d have concerns that this was a CYA culture. It would also seem that it’s a company with less awareness of how things are generally handled elsewhere, and I’d wonder what other policies they would handle very differently from what I would expect (time off requests, expense reimbursements, etc.).

    It might just be this one person, but it would definitely give me pause for thought.

  24. Joe*

    Another anecdote on the “written offers of future considerations don’t mean much” front. I once took a job at a lower salary than I had been looking for, with the stipulation that I would get a performance review after 6 months, and if I received a good review, I would get a raise to the salary I had wanted. I got this all in writing as part of the offer. After 6 months, I got the performance review, and my boss gave me an excellent review. I then asked for the raise I had been promised, and was told by the uber-boss that it wasn’t going to happen, because the budget just didn’t allow for it right now. When I pressed the issue, the uber-boss, along with the person from HR that I had complained to, cooked up an overblown reason to fire me.

    The bright side of things is that it turned out to be fortunate that they fired me. That wasn’t a great job anyway (in case you can’t tell by the way they treat their employees), and when I started looking, I found a much better job (which I’ve been at for seven and a half years, now).

  25. anon-2*

    I guess, if it were your first job ever, it wouldn’t matter all that much.

    But if you are migrating from one job to another, at least in my IS/IT world – you do not give your resignation at company “A” until you have a formal, written offer from company “B”.

    I once verbally accepted a job – but the company dragged their feet on an offer letter. I could not give a two-weeks’ notice until I had it in hand. They said “it’s coming” but I said “Great. I will drop by tonight at 6 and pick up the letter.” — but it still stalled my migration for a few days.

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