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Evaluating a Job Offer

Don't make a decision without weighing the pros & cons

By Molly Joss

"We'd like to offer you the position". These are exciting words that every recent graduate longs to hear. Finally, someone has offered you a real job. You can start paying off your student loans and maybe even buy a few new things. But wait! Before you say yes, it's important to take some time to evaluate the job offer.

It's a big temptation to take the first job offer you receive without considering the details. You may worry that another job offer won't come along, especially considering the rocky economy, but it's worth taking your time. No matter what you do, don't accept any offer on the spot. Even if it's your dream job, and you're certain that you'll accept the offer in the end, you should always take time to evaluate the option.

Mental Checklist

The first part of the evaluation process is a checklist of job basics:

  • Is the salary fair and in line with the pay average of your current location, the job type, and the responsibilities you will be expected to handle?

  • Are the benefits (health, retirement, vacation, etc.) fair and sufficient for your needs?

  • Does the job title accurately reflect the main responsibilities of the job?

  • Are the responsibilities clearly defined, and you are capable of fulfilling them?

These details should be set down in writing by the company in the form of a letter or a formal contract signed by a company representative and by you. Larger companies will do this without being asked. Smaller companies and start-ups may want to operate more informally, but you should still ask for all the pertinent details in writing before you make a final decision.

If the company refuses to put an offer on paper, this should be a clear red flag. Be prepared to walk away from an offer if the company will not write up a formal contract, or if they put it off indefinitely. An email won't suffice either. It should be a formal letter on company letterhead, signed by a senior executive.

Once you get the offer on paper, make sure it's complete and includes the checklist items. Go over the details, paying close attention to the job description. Some companies like to keep the descriptions of responsibilities as vague as possible so they can change them later. If the description is vague, work with the company to revise it. Make sure it clearly matches what you were hired to do.

Keep a copy of the agreement at home and another at the office. Start a file that includes all emails, memos, and files that you receive that change or expand your job description. This will be handy material to have for future performance reviews.

What to Watch Out For

The first red flag we discussed was companies refusing to put an offer in writing. Oftentimes, these same companies will follow up with our second red flag - they will rush you to make a decision on an offer. They might say things like, "We really want to get moving on this," or "We're already behind." Reputable, well-run companies won't act like this. To them, hiring decisions are extremely important and should not to be rushed. Similarly, they won't mind if you take some time to make a good decision as well.

Another thing to watch out for is any company looking for investments. Never invest your own money in a company in order to get a job. If you're asked to do this, even with a start-up technology company, consider it a scam operation and not a real company.

Sometimes companies have standard employment contracts that try to restrict the employee's rights even after the employee and company part ways. For example, the contract may say that you cannot work for a competitor for a few months, a year, or even longer after you stop working for your employer. Although the laws on this matter vary from state to state, and such agreements are difficult to enforce for several reasons, there are still companies out there, particularly in the technology field, that try to restrict your rights after you leave the company. I recently saw one contract that said the employee could not work for a competitor or any company the former employer might consider a competitor located anywhere in the world for 12 months after the employee left the company - whether they were fired or left to take another job. That's unacceptable because your best option for the next job is probably going to be at a competitor.

Similarly, some companies insist that you sign a very restrictive non-disclosure agreement or claim rights to products you developed while employed to them. At times these agreements can be so restrictive, it's like they're saying you're not supposed to use anything you learned while employed by them.

The final word on contracts is to just be careful with any contract you sign. If something seems suspicious to you, take your time, ask plenty of questions, and have the contract looked at by a lawyer before you sign on the dotted line.

Good Signs

Just as there are some red flags, there are also some good signs to indicate you've found an employer worth working for. If the company pays for ongoing training - a benefit that is particularly useful for technology jobs - that is a great sign. It says the employer values its employees and is willing to invest in their education.

During your experience interviewing with the company, you should ask questions about opportunities for advancement within the company. If the company has a policy of hiring from within, that is also a good sign.

If You Decline

If you're considering a job offer and the red flags start piling up so high you can no longer see the hiring manager's desk, don't take the job. As soon as you decide the job is not for you, decline the offer as quickly as possible. You should do so professionally and in writing - again provide a letter on paper and do not send an email. Thank the company for the opportunity and briefly outline the reasons why you decided to decline the offer. A short sentence or two of explanation is sufficient.

Worth the Time

It can take a while to find a job, particularly in today's tough economic times. However, it's better to find a job that's right for you, even if it takes longer than you might like, than to jump at the first job that comes your way.

Do research on the companies that you're considering, and if you're having trouble deciding on an offer, talk to your friends, family, professors, and to the career planning staff at your college. Discussing the job offer with knowledgeable professionals and weighing your pros and cons will help you make the best possible decision for your future.

Molly Joss is an IT veteran who writes about career and job issues, among other topics of note.

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