Golden Handshake or Shackle? When the Bank Pays your MBA

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A. While tuition assistance programs can be immensely valuable to an employee-in real dollars and in terms of career advancement-your experience demonstrates how uncomfortably short that leash can stretch.

'Typically it's a form of golden handcuff,' says recruiter Peter Gonye at Spencer Stuart. 'It's a means of retaining top junior- or mid-level talent. It allows the organization to retain some of the people they think are up-and-comers who have a future within the organization.' Sometimes these agreements are negotiated with a handshake (which may nonetheless be legally enforceable), but usually by a contract. The situations that trigger repayment-such as quitting your job too soon after receiving your degree- are normally spelled out in the contract and/or another description of the tuition assistance program such as in an employee handbook.

'It's like military service in a way,' says executive coach Maggie Craddock. 'You sign on and you're required to do your term. You can't just take the degree and run.'

Or can you? 'An employer's failure to give an employee a raise once he or she has successfully completed the educational program will not ordinarily relieve the employee of that obligation to repay tuition or remain employed, unless that was the parties' agreement,' says employment lawyer Ken Taber at Pillsbury Winthrop. But presumably your employer intended to develop you after you completed your MBA, not rob you of your incentive to perform. So the question now is if something has changed your employer's motivations-and whether you can use it to your advantage.

'If your employer has been unwilling to reward you for receiving your MBA, it's possible that it may derive some economic benefit from the termination of your employment, such that it would be willing to forgive your repayment obligations,' says Taber.

Indeed, says Gonye, 'It's not unusual for there to be a little bit of negotiation pertaining to that departure.' Outplacement consultant Rod Williams at Lee Hecht Harrison agrees that 'sometimes it's possible to revisit the situation with your management or human resources department to negotiate a mutually agreed upon set of lesser terms.'

If you're taking a job with a prospective client, you may be able to use that for additional leverage.

'Another, less common option is having a new employer include the buyout or repayment amount as part of your new compensation package,' says Williams. 'Of course, it depends what your perceived value is to the new organization.'

If your newly-minted negotiation skills don't pay off, factor in your tuition as part of the opportunity cost attached to your leap. And console yourself with the notion that your degree has begun to pay for itself by opening doors of opportunity outside your firm if not within.

Next week's question:

I've been offered another job within my firm for significantly higher compensation and a broader range of responsibilities. It's a very attractive opportunity which would mean a significant step forward in my career. The problem is my prospective boss, who has a reputation for contradicting himself and, according to others I've spoken with, is generally not held in very high regard. While I will have a certain degree of autonomy, I will need to work closely with him in some regards. Therefore I have two questions: will working under him taint my own reputation within the firm, and if I do decide to take the job, how can I protect myself?

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