The Last First Impression: The Art of Extending an Offer

There’s a turning point in the lifecycle of any recruitment process. This step in the process is different for every candidate. For some, the course ends abruptly at the phone screen, but for the best-fitting candidates, that catalyst is the offer letter.

The offer letter, though overlooked, creates an important juncture in the process because it’s often the first time the candidate communicates directly with their new employer. And from a client perspective, it’s the first chance to show the candidate an official product—a representation of the company’s brand and values. An offer letter is a prime opportunity that should be capitalized upon, especially in an industry where first impressions are everything.

It’s all in the details

Most college applicants remember their first acceptance letter. The seal embossed on the envelope, the smell of the paper, the university logo scrawled across the top—every detail is exciting for a prospective student, and a part of the transition process into a new chapter of life.

The same is true for a job candidate. Every detail matters, from the quality of paper used (if you decide to go the traditional route), right down to the centering of the company header. If a company includes the correct details, it can show a candidate that they care. And the letter doesn’t have to be extravagant, either; referencing a person the candidate met with, including a note from the hiring manager, and following up with a call are all effective ways to leave a lasting impression on the candidate.

A chance to brand 

However, the content of the offer letter holds as much weight as the presentation. Though the offer letter is technically a legal agreement, it should be viewed as a sales document. Focus on using clear and inviting language that will get a candidate excited about working for your company.

Brendan McCartin, a senior project lead at Argosight, believes that putting in a little extra effort can go a long way. He cited an experience with a previous agency in which a candidate declined the job offer due to a careless letter.

“It was one page, and had no in-depth details about a 401k or health benefits. It was very unprofessional, especially for a $120,000 position,” says McCartin. “The candidate responded back with, ‘are you serious? This is my job offer?’ and declined. It reflected badly upon the company.”

Timing is key

It’s no secret that time kills all deals, and this mantra extends to the offer letter. Think of it like a balancing act: sending the offer letter too quickly (for example, before a proper verbal agreement was made) can make your company seem desperate, while sending it too late can cause the candidate to think that you don’t care.

Sending the letter at the right time can make a candidate feel wanted and excited about joining the team. There’s no secret formula for when it should be sent, but timeliness can ensure that your perfect candidate doesn’t get restless and accept a job elsewhere.

Look at the legalities

Beyond welcoming the employee, the offer letter should also address the terms and conditions of the individual’s employment so that there aren’t any surprises about what the employee will receive in exchange for their services.

Stephanie Smith, a counsel at WilmerHale in Boston, suggests that the offer letter contain basic provisions such as base salary, other items of compensation (like commissions, bonus, and equity grants), a brief summary of duties, and a general statement about benefits. The letter should also include a representation by the individual that he or she is not bound by any agreement that would conflict with the potential employment. This will allow the company to mitigate the risk of hiring an employee who is bound by a non-compete or non-solicitation agreement with a former employer. Smith adds that it would be a good idea for individuals to consult with their own attorney before signing.

“If there are any additional requirements that the individual must fulfill as a pre-condition of employment, these should be referenced in the letter,” Smith says. “For example, if the employee must sign a non-disclosure agreement or successfully complete a background check as a condition of employment, the letter should state so. Again, the goal is to avoid misunderstandings and surprises.”

According to Smith, employment at most U.S. companies is “at-will,” which means that both the individual and the company can end the employment relationship at any time, with or without cause or notice. If this is the case, the offer letter should make this clear.

“If it was agreed upon, it should be in writing,” says Smith. “Memories fade and if there is a dispute down the road, it is useful to have a document that reflects the parties’ agreement.”

Smith advises that the letter should be accompanied by any documents that the candidate will be required to execute, such as a non-disclosure and/or non-compete agreement.

“However,” Smith cautions, “a company should think twice before sending documents containing information that the company considers proprietary or confidential before the offer is accepted and the NDA is signed, in case the candidate decides not to take the offer or rescinds his/her acceptance before the start date.”

Sending a PDF of the offer letter and accompanying materials by email is acceptable, but a hard copy with a stamped return envelope will facilitate the process for the candidate, Smith says.

Conclusion

Remember that although an offer letter is the last step in the recruiting process, it’s the first step in the onboarding process. It’s important to keep a candidate engaged and enthusiastic about their new position. At the same time, over-promising in offer letters can lead to potential issues for the company down the road.

The challenge is to strike the right balance between making the candidate excited about joining your company while also being clear about the job, so both sides decide to enter into the relationship with clear expectations. Don’t let all of the effort you’ve exerted in the recruitment process go unnoticed by leaving a bad taste in the candidate’s mouth.