The letter of offer is the final step in the interview process. It follows compensation negotiations and signals to both the company and the new employee to cease searching. You can also think of the letter as a tangible form of trust designed to lay out the ground rules and prevent distractions during the pivotal first few days on the job.
The offer letter is especially important to those ex-military who are already employed in the civilian world. That is because you will need to serve notice (typically a two week notice via a resignation letter) at your current company when you choose to accept a job elsewhere. In the civilian arena, you should never serve notice at your current company until you have an official offer letter from your new company.
The offer letter should contain the terms of employment (full-time vs. part-time or independent contractor, exempt vs. hourly, job title, name of the reporting official (your boss), etc.). Next, the letter should cover compensation. Details pertaining to bonuses and commissions should be spelled out meticulously to avoid any confusion. Additional compensation such as benefits, vacation, company vehicle, severance, etc. are typically included in a separate attachment. The letter may also contain conditions of employment (more on that below) and rules such as normal work hours.
Beware that letters of offer, or large portions of them, are often canned documents. Read the letter thoroughly as there may be a discrepancy between what you were promised in an interview and what appears in the letter. This usually stems from an administrative oversight. Resolve the issue by contacting the authority listed in the letter (usually a Human Resources title) and ask for another letter with a slightly extended deadline. Be sure to submit your signed letter of acceptance before the deadline as most letters have an expiration date.
While smaller companies may be unfamiliar with letters of offer, no reputable company should refuse to give you one. Once a verbal offer has been made, reply, “That sounds great – when may I expect the offer letter?” If you are told not to expect one, offer to draft one yourself, but also be wary and ask why.
Also note that in some cases, offer letters will outline conditions of employment. That is, it will say that the offer is contingent on the candidate successfully passing certain screening procedures such as background checks for a criminal record, driving offenses (in cases where you will be driving a company vehicle as part of your job), financial / credit history and / or a drug screening. Unfortunately for the candidate, due to the expense of this type of screening it not typically done until after you have accepted the offer.