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So a company made an "informal" offer to me, today, and said a formal offer would be forthcoming if I accepted. Which kinda begs the question.. why not just make the "official" offer immediately? Doesn't seem like it'd cost anything to make an "official" offer.

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For larger companies, an official offer is a formal affair. It consists of putting together some documentation and mailing you a letter. (yes a letter, how quaint.) There are three reasons I can think of to offer unofficially first:

  1. If you aren't interested, why waste time with the letter.
  2. It gives both parties the opportunity to negotiate salary and the like BEFORE the official offer is written down.
  3. To keep you. If they don't say anything and wait a couple days to have the official offer ready, you might take a different job.
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    One would think #2 would be a good reason (and I agree that it is), but I once had a company telephone me with the terms of an offer. I told them during the call that the offer wasn't acceptable, but they said they wouldn't change it and sent those terms in their formal offer. When I replied I said I wanted the job, but the terms were not acceptable and offered a counter-offer, which they agreed to. Go figure! – GreenMatt May 25 '13 at 16:21
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    I would clarify that often the hiring manager can send you the informal offer, but for the official offer, it requires HR involvement in paperwork etc., which slows things down, as anything that involves tasking other departments always does. – Carson63000 May 25 '13 at 21:45
  • @Carson63000: The most I've ever received from a hiring manager was a "Yes, we want you" (or "No, you're not right for this job"). I've never received an offer, informal or formal, from a hiring manager. – GreenMatt May 27 '13 at 14:01
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    @GreenMatt: I guess "Yes, we want you" is an extremely minimalist case of an informal offer. :-) – Carson63000 May 28 '13 at 3:04
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And another thing not yet mentioned: many companies (especially large ones) have long stretched out approval processes for new hires and other (major) expenses. These can often take weeks or even months.
So you could get an informal, tentative, offer now as an indication that the team lead or department head you're going to be working under wants you, but he still has to get approval from HR, Finance, regional sub board, and worldwide board.
Getting all that, especially with holidays interfering or other days off can take quite a while (my last job, they told me they had all the required signatures but one in a week, a record time, and that last took another 2 weeks because the person was on a skiing trip and could not be reached), and they don't want you to go accept another job in the meantime.

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    Some of that should be done BEFORE opening the job interview process. If HR, Finance, etc aren't going to approve budget, there is no reason to be recruiting. – Jeanne Boyarsky May 27 '13 at 15:23
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    As you know full well, that often doesn't happen. And if it does, they still in many cases need to give approval to the specific purchase even if they have already given approval for the fact that things are to be purchased (yes, it's weird maybe, but such are corporate and especially government bureaucracies). – jwenting May 28 '13 at 5:29
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Some companies have a long period between unofficial offer and official offer. As well as some of the things Jeanne Boyarksy mentioned, more and more companies are doing police and background checks before making official offers. There can be other bureaucratic stuff. Sometimes the hiring manager can tell HR that they want you, but it takes HR a while to process it. In a recent case it was six weeks between unofficial and official offer.

Technically the company can withdraw the offer before it is official so never act on an offer until it is official. But they won't make it official before they are done in case the background checks find something. Only you know the likelihood of a background check turning up something undesirable.

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    I have always received offers with background checks officially with a "contingent on background check" type situation. Also, I don't think I would ever wait for 6 weeks based on a non-official offer unless there were exceptional circumstances communicated to me by the company. – enderland May 27 '13 at 13:42
  • The large financial companies I've worked at do the drug and background check AFTER making an official offer. If you fail, you don't get to start and the offer is void. And I agree that I wouldn't wait 6 weeks for an offer. Why should I trust a company without skin in the game. – Jeanne Boyarsky May 27 '13 at 15:22
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    I'd be much more unhappy with a company that made me a formal offer, and then after I had quit my previous job said "we found something we didn't like in your background - the job's off". – DJClayworth May 27 '13 at 15:42
  • The six weeks was only tenable because I already had a job. I'd have been much less happy if I hadn't. – DJClayworth May 27 '13 at 15:43
  • Why would you quit your job before the background job completed? A large company could generally be ok with you starting 2 weeks after they finished checking you out. – Jeanne Boyarsky May 28 '13 at 0:54

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