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Many items that matter greatly to me in determining whether a job offer is acceptable tend to only appear in employee handbooks after accepting a position -- and are presented as non-negotiable requirements for employees to sign.

Examples include specific terms about intellectual property policy as it relates to open source software development and projects undertaken when I am not on company time; any firm-wide policies about severance pay; policies about leaves of absence, vacation accrual and roll-over, and maternity/paternity leave.

All of these matter very much to me and they all have to be acceptable for me to take the position. However, asking specific questions about these items is usually not taken well by hiring managers. It gives an impression that a candidate is impossible to please, when in reality these are hugely important issues that affect my life as an employee. I'm often very surprised how little many other employees seem to care about the details of these issues given how much they impact the properties of the job.

Given that, is it fair to ask for a copy of the company handbook at some point later in the hiring process but before accepting the job? Is it fair to highlight certain policies and ask about whether exceptions have ever been made for other employees in the firm, and if so, whether exceptions can be made for me as well?

If not, how can an employee learn these important details ahead of time? It's very likely for me that the interview process, salary offer, and other features could make the job seem acceptable, but then a blanket policy of never paying a severance package, or claiming IP ownership over any and all software projects undertaken while employed, for example, would be instant deal-breakers.

  • It's worth noting that some portions of the "company handbook" may be company confidential, so the more specific you about your areas of concern, the more likely you can get specific information. (Most of my employer's policies that affect most employees are public, but some -- especially the manager's view of exactly where the edge conditions are -- are considered confidential, and some details about edge conditions are normally visible only to managers/HR/Legal unless you ask for a specific ruling.) Note too that it may be possible to negotiate specific reasonable exceptions; not uncommon. – keshlam Nov 2 '14 at 14:27
  • I did exactly this after a recent job offer. The contract I was about to sign mentioned something that I agree with the handbook. Of course, before I conform to something (more important than some software ;)), I want to know what I sign. It would feel weird for me to turn down a job offer because of what is in a handbook, but that is a different discussion. – Bernhard Nov 2 '14 at 15:31
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I have done this. I told them that my family situation necessitated a review of some parts of the benefits package prior to accepting the position. I have never had a problem getting an advance copy of these documents.

For items that are a little more complex (IP issues) you should be able to get a copy of the documents they will be asking you to sign on day 1. They should also be able to give you any other related documents.

For some topics (vacation, 401K matching) that is an integral part of the offer. I generally haven't even had to ask, most companies gave me the basic info as a part of the offer letter. In some cases it was a 10 page pdf file, and in other cases it was a hard copy document that was overnighted to my house. In one case there was a website for you to visit during the week the offer was open.

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Many items that matter greatly to me in determining whether a job offer is acceptable tend to only appear in employee handbooks after accepting a position -- and are presented as non-negotiable requirements for employees to sign.

Examples include specific terms about intellectual property policy as it relates to open source software development and projects undertaken when I am not on company time; any firm-wide policies about severance pay; policies about leaves of absence, vacation accrual and roll-over, and maternity/paternity leave.

...is it fair to ask for a copy of the company handbook at some point later in the hiring process but before accepting the job?

You certainly can and should ask for anything that is very important to you.

Your request may come across as somewhat unusual/nontypical, but if the details are that important to you, you are wise to learn them beforehand, rather than have an unpleasant surprise afterwards. At the same time, try not to come across as a "high-maintenace type" if you can. Don't ask for something that really isn't important.

Many of the issues you mention are pretty standard fare for HR anyway - vacation accrual policy, maternity/paternity leaves, etc. Many companies hand these out in a benefit packet along with the offer letter.

Some (like intellectual property policies), may have a separate document, and may require you to consult an attorney to fully understand.

The one that seems most unlikely for you to get is a severance pay policy. Companies where I have worked have not had a written policy for severance pay, and wouldn't promise anything along those lines in advance. I know because I have tried. That's also the one request that will come across as unusual ("why is he already thinking of severance before he even starts?"). It's a good thought, but you may not be able to get a document for this.

Instead, you may have to settle for a public forum (like GlassDoor), or chatting with an internal contact, chatting with a recruiter who is familiar with the company's policies, or just hoping for the best.

Is it fair to highlight certain policies and ask about whether exceptions have ever been made for other employees in the firm, and if so, whether exceptions can be made for me as well?

Anything is fair, if it's important enough to you.

Companies may make exceptions in some cases (I've gotten more vacation as an exception to policy in the past), but for other cases, it will be less likely. For example, items such as intellectual property policies are somewhat less likely to have exception cases granted.

Still, if this is important to you, and particularly if it's a deal-breaker, then you should ask for an exception. Just be ready to walk away from the job if the exception isn't granted.

  • Very nice answer. +1 For the mention about GlassDoor -- I do hope that crowd-sourced review platforms like that become more and more accurate and trustworthy, even to the point of reporting on details like IP policy or severance policy. – ely Oct 14 '14 at 18:48
  • I agree -- I'm just hoping that much in the way Yelp went from being inaccurate and suffering from negative selection bias (i.e. people negatively effected by something are more likely to report about it than people positively effected by something) to being fairly accurate and widely trusted, that something in the space of employer reviews can achieve the same. – ely Oct 14 '14 at 20:31
  • "why is he already thinking of severance before he even starts?" -- same reason they're thinking about the disciplinary procedure before he even starts, and put that in the handbook. But indeed, employers typically expect employees to be more irrationally optimistic about how the employment will go, than the employers are themselves, and employees usually must humour this. Asymmetric relationship. – Steve Jessop Nov 2 '14 at 23:22
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As other answers have said, you should ask for anything that affects your decision. That said, take care in whom you ask.

You're concerned about the impression you may give the hiring manager. That's fair. The hiring manager isn't the right person to ask about HR anyway, assuming there's an HR person involved. Ask the hiring manager questions about the project, the team, and other job-specific factors; ask the HR person questions about benefits, IT policies, ownership of open-source work, etc. And if you want a copy of the handbook, ask the HR person -- the hiring manager might not even know where to find a copy. (For many people, it's the sort of thing you read once and then file away...somewhere.)

In my recent job change I was very concerned about certain factors and took this approach. There was one post-acceptance surprise (something I hadn't thought to ask about), and it was something that wasn't written down in the handbook anyway! (Fortunately, my manager was able to address it.)

If there is no HR person, then your only choice is to ask the hiring manager. In that case you can preface it with something like "this is really a question for an HR person, but since you don't have one maybe you can help me find an answer?".

  • This is definitely good advice. In some cases though (like vacation or paternity/maternity) you do also need to get a sense for the hiring manager's opinions about it, since that person will likely approve or reject requests for that kind of leave. You can ask about "work/life balance" but they will usually keep the answer vague and always positive. No hiring manager has ever told a candidate that the work life balance is bad. You have to ask them more specifically about how they view the specific company policy on these things when deciding how it effects their employees. – ely Oct 15 '14 at 12:46

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