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BusinessColumnistsCarrie Mason-Draffen

Revised job offer to lower pay probably legal, though unfair

DEAR CARRIE: My son was offered a federal job, which he accepted. He hadn't started because he was waiting for a training program to begin.

While waiting, he received an email saying the agency had sent him the wrong job offer. The email included a new offer for the same job but with a lower grade and $10,000 less. The agency said the previous offer was a mistake.

Can an employer rescind an offer after you accept it and merely chalk it up to a mistake?

My son is just happy to get the job and doesn't want to make waves.

But I think it's outrageous that an employer unilaterally changed a salary offer -- and two months after it was made. -- Salary Switch

DEAR SALARY: What your son experienced was undoubtedly unfair.

But it was probably legal -- and for reasons involving three key aspects of contract and employment law, said employment attorney Alan Sklover of Sklover & Co. in Manhattan who represents employees. The first involves contract law.

"Basic contract law says that if two parties agree to something, but neither party starts to fulfill its obligations to the other, then either of them can call the deal off," said Sklover, author of "Fired, Downsized or Laid Off: What your employer doesn't want you to know about how to fight back."

"That is, if neither side has begun the work requested or supplied any of the goods ordered, the business deal can be called off. Your letter mentioned that your son had not started the job yet, so he would seem to fit into this concept," Sklover said.

The second aspect hinges on the basic concept of labor law called at-will employment.

An at-will employee has no contract that requires his employment relationship to last for a specified period, he said.

"This means that either the employer or the employee can terminate the relation after just one minute, if they choose," he said. "Since you didn't mention your son having any kind of long-term contract with the federal government, he was probably such an at-will employee."

The final step looks at the "no harm, no foul" aspect of the changed job offer.

We all make mistakes, he said, and are liable for the consequences of our mistakes -- just as a negligent driver is liable for the mistakes he or she makes while driving a car.

"However, if one car hits another, and neither one is dented or scratched, and no passenger is injured, even if the negligent driver made a mistake, there are no damages to collect in a lawsuit," he said. "This mirrors the old saying, 'No harm, no foul.' So even if the government agency made a mistake, it did not result in any actual harm to your son, and he therefore has no recourse."

Much as employers can change their minds, employees have the same option under these legal principles, said Sklover, who has defended employees who have changed their minds after accepting job offers.

"It is a two-way street," he said. "Just as many employers rescind job offers after acceptance as employees turn down job offers after they have accepted them. The law is entirely consistent in this regard, forgiving people who change their minds and understanding people who make mistakes, so long, of course, as no one is damaged in the process."

Go to for more on the employment-at-will principle of state labor law.

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