If It’s Not an Offer Letter, It’s Not an Offer

TL;DR: If you receive a job offer verbally or over email (without an actual offer letter), assume it’s not official.

Within the last year, I was looking for a job as a software developer at a startup. After reaching out to a bunch of companies and doing a few phone screens, I had three in-person interviews lined up. One wasn’t a good fit, but the other two went well and turned into offers. Things were looking good.

As is common, the terms of these offers were below what I had said I wanted. I was interested in a new job, but I did not need to leave my current position, so I rejected both. For the first time in my career, I thanked both parties and respectfully declined their offers, because they did not meet my requirements. I could feel my heart racing as I sent the emails.

Sure enough, within two days, I had follow-up phone calls with each company to negotiate further. I was feeling pretty good. After the calls, both sides were willing to increase total compensation (I’m counting both salary and equity here). One side was still not quite what I wanted, so I thanked them again and things ended there. I was happy with the other side’s amended offer, so I confirmed the terms one more time and accepted it. Score!

And then, for about 5 days, I got radio silence. I followed up twice in that time, and had a very strange mixture of feelings: I accepted a job offer, but a lack of responses was completely uncharacteristic of them. Finally, a full day after my second follow-up, they revoked their offer. This was an offer that they extended to me in writing over email, and that I accepted in writing over email. But guess what: there was no offer letter. I had never even considered that an informal, written offer would not be equivalent to a formal written offer letter!

I feel lucky to have had this experience without a negative impact to myself. I learned a bit about negotiations and closing deals, and a lot about integrity. It will certainly inform my decision-making process moving forward, but my greatest hope is that this story will help others navigate these types of situations more successfully.

If you found this helpful, check out my startup Tailspin where we’re connecting talented individuals with the work they love.