Make sense of your offer letter

We all know how brutal the job search process can be (though hopefully resources provided here can help ease the process). So when that offer letter finally arrives, it’s easy to just throw up a “hand raised” emoji and accept it. However, your happiness and success at the new role can be made (or broken) by your cover letter. Take a few moments to really read it and understand what you are literally signing up for. Don’t forget an offer letter is a binding legal agreement, and more difficult to change after signing.

The Basics

A formal written document sent when an employer has selected you for employment. The purpose is to clearly outline the expectations for both the candidate and the organization. You may get a verbal job offer as well; this is when the hiring manager calls the candidate to let them know they are being offered the position. Here are some key things you should look for in an offer letter:

  • Job Description and Job Title: not only is this important to make sure you understand what is expected of you at your new role, but it allows you to clearly mark a starting point as your job evolves and you look to move up the ranks or receive a promotion. The responsibilities outlined when you start should be a launching point and represent your skill set fairly.

    • “What are my core responsibilities?”

      • Your day-to-day will likely encompass much more than these tasks, but they are often the starting place for how your manager will evaluate you in your first few months.

    • “What are some of my key responsibilities?”

      • Are these clearly laid out and are there goals and targets set if applicable?

      • Note the things you feel confident and comfortable about and those you will might need to learn/things you enjoy and things you don’t?

    • “Who am I reporting to?”

      • It’s important to be excited about your boss; it’s one of the strongest determinants to happiness in your job. Take the time to LinkedIn stalk your new potential manager. Do they seem like someone you can learn from?

    • “Where can I really help serve the organization in this role?”

    • “Is there a path to professional growth highlighted?”

      • If there isn’t - it’s worth asking! Whether it’s a specific timeline that your company offers or simply listing the resources you have access to for your own knowledge building

  • Starting Date of Employment: Take time to check in on what is going on in your life (do you have to wrap up another internship or job? Do you have a vacation planned? Do you have to move and get life in order?). Make sure you are thoughtful about what start date you choose and that you’ll be on your game for that first day.

  • Salary: You likely discussed salary on the phone or during the interview process, or through a verbal offer process. If the number cited on the offer letter seems lower than what had previously been discussed, you have a right to go to the hiring manager to find out why. Make sure you understand the number before making that call (Is there a signing bonus you missed? Is the salary laid out as your bi-weekly paycheck?). Keep a record over email of all your communications with HR just to make sure you are covered as well. If bonuses are referenced in your letter, make sure the language is very clear and deliberate and that it outlines how to receive it (is it discretionary and based on performance? Is is guaranteed and kicks in after a certain amount of time?)

    • Two terms it can be helpful to understand here - especially for those looking at nonprofit jobs: Exempt vs. Non-exempt positions.

      • An exempt position does not qualify for overtime, so you avoid the hassle of tracking your hours but you get paid that salary no matter how many hours a week you work

      • A non-exempt position technically means you are hourly - which might seem like a downgrade in a professional setting but is actually GREAT because you can accrue overtime for hours you work beyond 40. These are often negotiated as annual salary numbers and then calculated down to hourly amounts for tracking purposes.

      • Exempt positions SHOULD be reserved for leadership (a.k.a., will/should your job keep you up at night?) but the distinction gets abused

    • With a mind to seeking opportunities to grow, look for language that notes when your salary might up for negotiation - often these coincide with a performance review cycle, but not always!

    • For helpful benchmarking on salaries look here.

  • Benefits Information and Eligibility

    • Benefits: This part of a cover letter is notoriously challenging and intimidating. Feel empowered to ask questions and break through the jargon!

      • Does the employee pay for health insurance coverage? If so, how much for individual coverage and/or family coverage? Is the premium deducted from my paycheck? How much is the deductible?

      • Can I review a summary of the health insurance plan options? What restricts and limitations are there? What about pre-existing conditions? When does coverage begin?

      • How much sick time, vacation time, and holidays are provided. When/how do benefits start to accrue?

      • What type of pension plan is there? How much does the company contribute? Is life insurance provided?

      • Does the company offer short-term and long-term disability coverage?

      • Are there educational and training benefits? If so, are they are available for my family, as well as for me?

    • Perks: Many organizations offer things from free lunches to pet insurance. Not everything will be explicitly written out (a lot of that lives in the employee handbook)

    • For more, check out The Muse!

Based on what is outlined for the both bullet points, you can decide whether to accept, counter, or decline the offer.  

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