Do I have legal options when my boss doesn't keep promises? Ask the Expert

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Q: Five months ago, I received a job offer from a competing investment bank. My current manager begged me to stay, increased my compensation and assured me I had good career prospects. A month later, he began putting staff members senior to me on my projects and transactions, and has gradually excluded me from my project team's discussions and meetings. When I emailed him to raise concerns about this, he called me "too emotional" and said he no longer wants me working for him. Now, I'm afraid the firm could lay me off because of what happened. If it does, have I a legal case?

The Expert Panel
A: Kenneth Taber, an employment law attorney in the New York office of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, says this type of issue comes up frequently. Under the legal doctrine of promissory estoppel, employees in such situations may actually have a claim.

However, to take advantage of promissory estoppel, you must be able to point to:

  • A sufficiently definite promise made to you by your employer.
  • Your reasonable and good faith reliance on that promise.
  • Damages you've suffered as a consequence of that promise not being honored.

The promise doesn't have to be in writing. It could have been conveyed orally.

"It sounds like you may well have received sufficiently definite assurances of a bright future intended to induce you to forego another job opportunity," says Taber. "The key issue, however, will be whether such assurances were sufficiently definite to rise to the level of a de facto promise upon which you reasonably relied in turning down the other opportunity."

Determining that will hinge upon the exact words used and the precise circumstances under which they were conveyed. If after five months you do lose your job, and you cannot recapture the position you just turned down, that may be sufficient to establish the requisite damages necessary to support a promissory estoppel claim, Taber says.

David N. Schwartz, founder of the New York-based executive search firm D.N. Schwartz & Company, says it's always questionable whether you should let a current employer know you're considering another job. While some employers react professionally to the news, others - as seems to be the case here - do not.

That said, your first decision is whether you want to try to salvage the situation and stay at your current firm, Schwartz says. If you do, contact someone in the Human Resources department, such as the employee relations liaison. It's their job to investigate your grievance and find constructive ways to deal with it. They're likely to take a good look at your last performance review to determine whether your manager's negative stance may have other reasons behind it.

"If your performance reviews are excellent, the firm will probably try hard to make your current situation work for you, or find you an alternative position within the firm," Schwartz says. "On the other hand, if your performance reviews have been less than stellar, you may be looking at some form of redundancy - particularly since your boss told you he no longer wants you on his team."

If you decide things are too far gone, go back to the other firm to see if its offer is still open. You'd be surprised how often the answer is "yes," Schwartz says. But if the answer is "no," contact headhunters, friends and professional colleagues to try and find another position as soon as possible.

"As a general rule, the legal route should be explored only as a last resort, after you have explored all other ways to deal with the problem," Schwartz says.