Truth (In Hiring) Or Consequences

Mark Daniels (not his real name), a professional engineer with 15 years' experience in solid and hazardous waste management, left a highly visible and influential position with a regulatory agency to accept a tempting of-fer from a private consulting engineering firm: a higher salary; bonus incentives; command of a hefty chunk of the firm's waste management work; and, significantly, assurances that if he met objective performance standards, he'd soon be in charge of the practice area nationwide.

Seven months after joining the firm, Daniels, whose job performance had admittedly been excellent, was laid off after several private clients of the firm sharply curtailed their business with Daniels' firm and other outside consultants. At the same time, a number of the firm's long-held contracts with public agencies were abruptly cancelled.

Daniels has sued his former firm, charging that before making the of-fer, the firm knew that the private clients were considering cutbacks in outside services and the agencies had notified the firm that its contracts were shaky. The engineer also accused the firm of lying about how much hazwaste work the firm actually did. Daniel's former government job was filled shortly after he left, and a hiring freeze at the agency has otherwise prevented his return. He has not worked as an engineer since his release by the firm.

Job-seekers often exaggerate - and sometimes lie about - their background and experience. That's why employers examine resumes, conduct in-depth interviews with candidates and hope for candid assessments from references. But the tables are turning. Employers now find that they must watch what they say during the recruiting process and make good on their promises.

Recent court battles have made it easier for employees to win damage awards from employers who can't or won't deliver on the job picture that the recruiter des-cribed. As a result, employers are more carefully making commitments and promises, while employees are more frequently insisting on specific walk-away ar-rangements if the reality of the job experience falls short of expectations.

So-called "truth-in-hiring" cases got a boost last year when a federal appeals court in New York ruled that even a law firm could be taken to court to face the consequences. The decision allowed an attorney, who was recruited by the firm, to sue over alleged broken promises about the work she would be doing. She claimed that the firm reneged on an alleged promise to create an en-vironmental department. The ruling was particularly significant because New York severely restricts the types of claims that employees can bring against employers.

Experts in employer liability law say these cases are becoming more visible and noteworthy in an economy where professionals, in particular, are moving from firm to firm and many firms are themselves unsure of what's ahead.

Here's how the employee sees it: He or she passed up other career opportunities to take a particular job. The employer (presumably) told the new employee certain things about the job that in-duced the employee to choose that employer. If the attracting features of the job don't materialize or, worse, if the firm goes broke, the employee is entitled to damages based on the forsaken opportunities elsewhere.

New hires aren't always the victims. Current employees may have similar claims stemming from what supervisors and managers told them about job advancement. The theory behind the case would be the employee giving up an advantageous position elsewhere in favor of sticking with the current employer.

In Minnesota, a TV co-anchor won nearly $400,000 in damages because her station failed to follow through on a promised promotional campaign. She argued that she turned down an offer from a network affiliate in Los Angeles, relying on the Minnesota station's promise.

"The trend of the law is unsettling. The cases are put-ting up walls between employees and employers," says a lawyer who represented the television station. "These cases discourage employers from ever discussing with employees plans for the future," he added.

A former sales manager of a Hartford, Conn., TV station sued his former employer for fraud after he was fired for mismanaging his employees. The station's reason: His management style was too aggressive. Yet, the manager claims, company officials specifically told him to be tough.

Employers, wary of the pitfalls of rosy promises to job recruits, are beginning to watch their language. Em-ployment promises and work scenarios now contain hedge words such as "may" and "possible." Some em-ployers give job candidates a carefully worded statement of work arrangements and career opportunities. An in-creasing number of companies furnish new employees with a manual outlining the terms of employment. Each new employee must sign an acknowledgement that he or she has received the manual and will read it.