Find Out About Employee Handbook “Surprises” Before You Accept the Job
Things the company doesn’t tell you (maybe purposely) until you’re committed
At age 23, I sat down in a corporate conference room facing three managers. I had just wrapped up my final coursework for graduate school. That spring had been time to search for a job. After several swings and misses, I had found a company that liked me. They really liked me!
The most senior of the three managers pushed an offer sheet across the table. “Paul, I’m going to be frank with you,” he said. “That’s not a number we bat around with just anyone. But it’s the consensus among all of us is that you’re smarter than the average bear, and we really want you.”
He talked about the benefits package — health insurance, life insurance, and the like, as well as 401(k) matching and stock options. I listened intently. It all sounded very good, and no other company had come close to making me an offer. I signed on the dotted line.
“We’ve got you? We’re really got you?” the senior manager beamed.
“Sure, you’ve got me,” I replied.
“Well, I want to tell you, buddy, then you’ve got us too,” said the senior manager, reaching across the table to give me a firm, hearty handshake. “Tell me, what was it about (company name) that made you know we were the right fit for you?”
“Well, uh, I guess it would be the company culture you talked about so much during the interviews,” I said. “It seems like everybody’s just one big family here. I’m an only child and I don’t have family in this town, so that’s comforting to me.” I hoped my nose wasn’t growing like Pinocchio’s. I hated to lie, but I accepted your job offer because it was the only one I had just didn’t sound like the answer they wanted to hear.
We wrapped things up and the manager who would be my immediate supervisor walked me out. “Well, I sure am glad to have you aboard, Paul,” he said. “We have a lot of exciting projects going on right now, and we’ll figure out which one to get you started on. You’ll be able to jump in and make an immediate contribution.”
Then as we got to the parking lot, he stopped and changed his tone of voice. “Now, Paul, there is this one thing.” I stopped too and waited for him to continue.
“Now, I want you to understand — I mean, don’t tell anyone, but I don’t completely agree with this personally…” my future boss sputtered.
“What is it? I’m sure whatever it is, it couldn’t be that bad,” I told him.
“Well, it’s just that — it’s your hair. They’re going to ask you to cut it the first week you work here,” said my future boss. Now, it’s not like I looked like I had been dancing to the Grateful Dead at Woodstock. My hair was not even to my shoulders, about the same length as it is in my profile picture on here. But, I would learn later, the corporate handbook banned male employees from having hair below the bottom of their ears or the top of their shirt collar.
“It’s no problem. I’ll get it taken care of,” I assured him. The manager breathed a sigh of relief, smiled, and said he’d see me Monday. I did get the hair taken care of. However, the way they communicated the rule bothered me a bit. Why couldn’t they have told me before I committed to the job? Was that a bad omen of things to come?
The first day of work came, and I showed up with my hair trimmed to company standards. I was introduced to my co-workers and they showed me around. They showed me how to use my ID badge to access different parts of the building, for example, to get to the vending machines or the restrooms.
“Just so you know, these badges record every move we make,” my co-worker explained. “So you don’t want to get up too frequently. Your manager gets a report of how often you’re away from your desk.”
They monitor how often I go to the bathroom? I thought. Well, that certainly is Big Brother-ish of them.
They took me to lunch, inviting along a couple of co-workers I’d been to grad school with to make me more comfortable. “Saturday is a great time to come up here and get work done,” one of them told me. Really? I thought. Monday-Friday seems like a great time to get work done. Saturday is a great time to sleep in, or watch TV, or go watch a ball game.
Later a different co-worker reiterated that point. “If you want to move up rapidly in this company, being seen here on the weekends is the key,” he told me. “If you’ve got all your work done, just play solitaire. The thing is for the folks in the executive suite to see you’re here.”
The same co-worker gave me another tip for rapid advancement. “Anytime you participate in the company cheer or the company song, really give it your all, put your full enthusiasm into it. People will be watching to see that you do.”
Is this a company or a damn cult, I was beginning to wonder.
5:00 — the official quitting time — came and went. I was bored and had nothing to do; I hadn’t been assigned tasks yet so all I had to do was read company literature. But nobody in my little work “pod” had left yet. So I felt uncomfortable being the first one.
5:10. 5:20. 5:30. I didn’t mind staying late if there were important matters facing a deadline. But there was no reason at all for me to be there, other than appearances.
So I left.
I found out later the others had talked about me behind my back. “He didn’t even put in a full day,” they said.
I decided to quit by just not showing up the next day. In 20+ years of working, that is the only time I have ever done such a thing. I knew in my heart I didn’t want to be there. I also knew that if I called in and tried to quit, they’d try to convince me to stay — and if I did stay, they’d hold it against me that I tried to quit. No matter how many Saturdays I put in an appearance, I’d likely never move up.
My intuition had tried to tell me that it was important that they hid the rule about hair length. There were other things they didn’t want me to know about the way their company operated until I was fully onboarded — and indoctrinated.
Other examples of rules a company might not tell you about until you’re on board
Unusual work hours — I got hired at a job out West some years ago, and showed up to work at 8:00 a.m. since that was the normal start time for corporate jobs I had worked in the past. A coworker who started the same day showed up 2 minutes after I did.
After we got all our paperwork done, we got lectured by the network manager. “You guys showed up way too late this morning,” he told me. “We expect you to be here by 7:30.” Why couldn’t that have been communicated in the interview? At the time I was not an early riser at all, and that 7:30 start time might have caused me to decline the job offer.
Draconian vacation policies — A friend of mine took a job with a corporate logistics company a few years ago. By his first day in the office, he still had not been told anything about vacation. Finally, he asked his manager.
“After a year, you get a week’s vacation,” the manager responded.
Are you kidding me? My friend was expected to work every day for an entire year without any time to himself? What if he needed a day to help a friend move? What if he wanted an afternoon off to watch his son pitch a Little League game? What if he simply wanted a little time because he had burned himself out?
Furthermore, my friend was advised, he’d be watched during that first year. If he was out of the office excessively during work hours, he wouldn’t make it to that second year and earn that week of vacation.
Drug testing — Two of my past companies required me to go take a drug test on my first full day, neither having said anything about it in the interview process.
I passed with flying colors both times, because I don't do anything. I couldn’t help but thinking, though, what possible reason could they have for not telling me that in advance? I can understand them not wanting an addict working for their company. However, would they really rescind a near-six-figure job offer because a new hire had taken a puff off a joint at someone’s party 6 weeks prior, just to be social?
A lot of people equate drug testing with a company’s willingness to violate employee privacy. Therefore, some prospective employees might turn down the offered position if they knew about the testing in advance. Could that be why the companies don’t mention it?
Bans on using your smartphone or certain websites — I can certainly understand a company doing this, as it can cut into employee productivity. However, it is not the norm and it deserves to be brought up in the interview process. If a company fails to mention it until the first day of work, it seems like that blindsides new employees to an extent.
Really, any company policy that, if disclosed during the interview process, might cause potential hires to decline a job offer, ought to be brought up during the interview process.
How to get companies to tell you about any surprises in the employee handbook before you take the job
If you have to sit through multiple interviews for the position, you want to save this question for the last part of the final interview. You only want to ask when they’re sending clear signals that they want you and intend to make an offer. Alternately, you could save this for the day you come in to sign the offer letter.
Then, you just ask them straight up, “Are there any rules in your employee handbook I should know about in advance?”
You can then steer the conversation in one of two directions:
1 — Bring up an example scenario that doesn’t apply to you
I don’t have any tattoos. I appreciate tattoo art very much but it’s just not my personal thing.
So I might say in an interview, “Let me give you an example. I have a friend who has a full-sleeve tattoo down his right arm, all the way to his wrist. He was interviewed and hired, and no one said anything about tattoos. His office dress code is short-sleeve polos and khakis. But the day he started, they told him he had to wear long-sleeve shirts because tattoos can’t be visible.”
“I just don’t want to be surprised the way he was surprised on his first day. With that in mind, are there any corporate policies you think I should know about?”
2 — Bring up an example that’s a dealbreaker for you
Let’s return to the vacation example from above. Going an entire year without a vacation day, to me, is completely unacceptable. It shows that the company doesn’t respect employees’ work-life balance.
So I might say, “I had this friend who interviewed at a company. He should have asked about vacation time before accepting an offer, but he didn’t want to leave the impression that he was a slacker who couldn’t wait to get paid not to work. On his first day, they told him he’d have to work there an entire year to get any paid time off. I just don’t want to be surprised like he was. Can you understand that? Will I be surprised by any company policies?”
The interview and hiring process should be one of trust-building between the company and the potential employee. Holding back information about company policies can shatter that trust, whether the policies are revealed after the offer is signed or on the first day at work.
If you’re an interviewee — Use the examples above to try and bring any “surprises” to light during the interview process. One way is to give an example of a policy that wouldn’t apply to you. Another is to give an example that would apply to you, but which would cause you to decline an offer.
If you’re a hiring manager or HR professional — Take some time to go through your corporate handbook. Are there any policies in there that would be considered unexpected, or out of line with the norm for the industry in which you are hiring? If so, make a list of these and make sure they get brought up in interviews. Full, honest disclosure builds trust.
Have you worked for a company in the past where you’ve been unpleasantly surprised by a policy you were required to follow? You don’t have to give the company name, but you can tell us what the policy was in the comments.
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