I was so excited when I recieved my first job offer. The editor called me to say he would pay a certain amount of money and can I start in a month. I called my dad, who is also my attorney. And Pops said: “Great. Did you get it in writing?” And I said: “No. He told me over the phone and why would he lie? He’s a newspaper editor!” And my father said: “It’s not an offer unless you get it in writing.”
Now. Lots of people might dispute this. But in my humble experience, it really isn’t an offer unless the publication writes it down and sends it to you. This offer letter at a minimum needs to detail salary, the days you work, vacation time, health benefits, start dates and the name of your supervisor or the division where you will be working.
I was so nervous to ask this top editor to put it in writing. But my dad told me to do it, so I did. I’ve done it with every job since then. Putting things in writing — email or snail mail — is a good way to make sure that everybody is on the same page with the details. Will the company offer you moving money? Will they give you a signing bonus? Any details about money ought to be in writing. Otherwise, you’re dealing with a he said/she said situation if things don’t pan out right.
This same advice works for freelance contracts as well. What does the contract say? And if not a contract, what does the email say? What rights do you have? What rights are you giving up? When do they pay?
And please know that you can always push back against an offer letter. You can always ask for a lump sum for moving money versus asking the company to hire a moving company for you. (Though I recommend letting the company pay for your move, so that income isn’t taxable to you.) That’s why these things are called negotiations. It’s OK to negotiate. One of the things I like to negotitate in all my employment contracts is immediate access to healthcare without a waiting period. This is something a company can easily do if you ask, but they won’t if you don’t bring it up.
You can also ask them to bump up your salary if they’re not providing moving costs. Because let’s be honest, most of us journalists are moving around quite a bit. (That’s why I think it’s a good idea to work for a union shop, but more on that next week.) When you get a chance to talk to the HR person, ask for a copy of the company handbook. Read it. It’ll tell you a lot about corporate culture. For people of child-bearing age, it’ll tell you how much time you get off if you have a baby. For folks with older parents, it’ll tell you how much time you get for bereavement. Keep these things in mind if someone is ill or you plan to have/adopt children.
I always talk with the hiring manager about the expectation of quantity of stories. Is there a daily or weekly quota? Will I have the opportunity to write for other sections? When is my lunch break? And will I get a laptop and an iPad and a phone on day one?
Also, you can negotiate when you accrue vacation. Most companies want you to work a set amount of time before you get vacay. But if you already have a girlfriend’s weekend planned, then you should tell the manager and work to get that weekend off folded into your offer letter so everyone is on the same page. My bestie had her bachelorette weekend in Puerto Rico the first week that I started a gig. I told the hiring manager — after she gave me the offer — that I had previous plans to be in Puerto Rico and to attend a wedding in Washington DC, and I need these set number of days off.
The boss agreed and wrote it down. That way, when the boss was on vacation, and I had to go to Puerto Rico, I had no problems because everything was already written down. Looking back, I thought my father was so old school for not taking people at their word. Who would lie about a job offer?!
My broadcast brethren have massive contracts that detail, well, everything. Print and digital journalists should try to at least get an email. Every week I hear yet another horror story about people who pay their own way and move to a new city and expect to have a job but they don’t. Protect yourself. Get it in writing.