If It’s Not In Writing, It Didn’t Happen

During your career, you’ll be faced with times when someone will tell you something along the lines of “You’ll be getting a raise/bonus of $x if you meet these metrics” or “We won’t try to take the IP of things you work on during your own time” or even something as simple as “We are signing off on this decision verbally. Go ahead and do it.”

Don’t believe them, and do not take any of these statements at face value.

Anyone who tries to do anything like this without putting it in writing has a high likelihood of conveniently “forgetting” that they ever said anything in the first place. While it’s true that verbal contracts can be upheld in court, it’s extremely difficult to prove the conversation even happened without proof (and voice recording laws vary by jurisdiction, so if you want to record it, you need to check on the laws where you are beforehand).

The problem is that these kind of people try to never put anything in writing. Convenient, right? Trying to get someone who works by using lies and “forgetting” to commit what they’re promising to writing is like trying to get a fish to jump out of a stream and into a frying pan. Good luck.

You’re going to have to treat them like a potentially hostile party – which is what they effectively are. We’ll break down tactics and strategies for this into a few different categories.


Read every piece of paper that you get sent – the job offer, benefits information, any IP related legal verbiage, any piece of paper that restricts your ability to work outside of the company or invest without clearance (financial institutions like to surprise you with this one after you’ve already joined), etc. In fact, ask for a copy of their employee handbook while you’re at it.

As you read it, strike out the parts that you do NOT agree to. Initial them. DO NOT SIGN ANYTHING YET. Send them back. If there are any guarantees that you were given verbally which were not in the documents you have been given, request that those items be added as well.

This is a contract negotiation. Treat it like one – part of that means that you need to look at everything that’s in writing and think of how it can be used against you. If you have access to a lawyer, run it past them. If not, you’re going to need to get at least a basic understanding of contract law. If the company refuses to make changes, and you have the ability to walk away, I strongly suggest you do so.

Keep copies of all of these things. Make a copy of the initial documents. Make a copy of the documents after you’ve made any changes. Make a copy of the documents you get sent back (compare them to your changes). Make a copy of the documents that you finally sign. Put them in a safe place (I’d advocate having a digital copy in at least 2 places and possibly a printed copy kept in a safety deposit box or, at the very least, a fire safe).

While working as an employee

If you are working with someone that tries to only give orders, etc in a verbal format, follow up every meeting with an email summarizing your understanding of what was said and ask if your understanding is correct. It’s probably a good idea to send it to all attendees – both so they can have a summary for their own use as well as to make it more difficult for the person to backpedal later.

If something that is written can be interpreted in multiple ways (frequently with one of those ways being to your detriment or their explicit benefit), ask for clarification.

Save all important correspondence (both what you receive and what you send). Be aware that a lot of corporate email systems auto-purge content that is over a certain age (supposedly because it “uses less space” but the real reason is often to destroy paper trails without getting in trouble), so save it as a PDF and keep it in a safe place.

Having a CYA file and never needing to use it is considerably better than getting blindsided by malfeasance and having no way to defend yourself.

Working as a contractor or a company

EVERYTHING needs to be in writing. The contract should spell out what your deliverables and responsibilities are, the compensation and how it is delivered, how things are wrapped up in the event that something happens, etc. Save all emails to/from the client. Anything in writing needs to be preserved – often for quite a long time after the job is finished.

Run all contracts past your lawyer. If you don’t have a lawyer and you are running a company, stop what you’re doing and find one that you work well with. Do not proceed any further until you have one.

I could write on this section for a while, but instead I’ll refer you to Mike Monteiro’s talk “Fuck you, pay me” on YouTube. He and his lawyer cover the subject masterfully.

Isn’t this really cynical?

YES. It is and I’m glad you noticed.

The unfortunate truth is that you can’t treat business like you would a relationship among your friends. They operate on completely different principles.

A relationship with friends (in a healthy relationship at least) should be one of equals where everyone treats everyone else with respect. It’s driven by mutual interest and caring for each other.

A relationship with a business (especially when you are an individual or a smaller business), is based on transactions and has an inherent imbalance of power. You may be acting with caring for the other party (that’s a discussion for another time), but the larger corporate entity is almost certainly, AT BEST, going to be acting due to financial motivations.

At worst, you’re going to be dealing with someone who actively tries to screw you because it makes them feel powerful. I’ve dealt with people like this. It sucks, and at the end of the day, the only thing you have to protect yourself is what you have in writing and potentially what you can prove in court.

Don’t put yourself in a position to be exploited. Protect yourself, your career, and your mental and emotional wellbeing instead.

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