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I'm confused as to whether an "official offer letter" that i have signed is actually a contract.

I have received a tenure-track offer from a US university, and they have sent me a 1.5 page official offer letter specifying salary, starting date, etc. However it does say employment is subject to university funding availability and other background processing (criminal record, visa etc.).

I have signed and sent this offer letter, but was wondering whether this is actually a binding contract, or just an offer on paper and thus not binding.

Could anyone kindly answer my question?

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  • If your employment is "at will" (which is common in the US), you will never get a contract.
    – wimi
    Apr 7, 2023 at 13:09

3 Answers 3

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An agreement, written or verbal, is a contract. You've signed it, so you've agreed to it, and you should look carefully at what you've agreed to.

Generally, the advice is to make sure your employment offer is in writing not because a verbal offer isn't a contract but because it's a difficult contract to enforce.

In the US, it's rare relative to other countries to have employment agreements that bind employee and employer to a specified length of employment. This varies a bit by state and you can come to an agreement otherwise, but in most cases in the US you are free to leave a job at any time and your employer is free to fire you at any time, as long as they don't violate other rules in doing so (like discriminating by gender or race).

However it does say employment is subject to university funding availability and other background processing (criminal record, visa etc.)

That's pretty standard - if you aren't eligible to work at the university because you have no visa, your offer is void. If you fail a criminal background check, your offer is void. Even if you had already started working and were there for a week, if they run out of money they can end your employment, they're only legally required to pay you for the time you already worked.

Now, there is an important distinction between what is permitted by law and what is free of consequences. If you accept an offer and then decide you don't want to work there, the institution can't legally compel you to work there, but they can be annoyed by you. They can refuse to consider hiring you in the future, the faculty there can tell their friends that you skipped on them. If you have good reasons to renege and gave ample notice, it's unlikely those things would happen, though, at least not to an extreme degree. If there are visa problems, they're likely to see the bureaucracy as a shared enemy and not blame you for it, as long as you've done your part. If they were expecting you to arrive and teach courses and you told them 2 days before the semester began that you chose to take another job that's a definitive bridge burned.

Similarly, if an institution regularly hires people to tenure track faculty jobs and then tells them "oh sorry, we decided we don't have the money to pay you, bye" the word is going to get out and they will quickly find it harder to recruit anyone (and likely other people working there will look for other jobs).

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  • Employment in the US is usually at-will. There are no employment contracts, and, legally speaking, employers can dismiss employees at any time for any reason (except for discrimination based on sex, race, national origin, veteran status, age over 40, and a few other things some of which depend on state). Apr 7, 2023 at 15:48
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    @AlexanderWoo I would not say that there are "no employment contracts". A contract is just a formal agreement. Almost everyone in the US has a contract that specifies work hours, how they will be compensated, what benefits they are entitled to, and any terms that apply when employment is terminated, like whether there is severance, or whether an employee who leaves can be compensated for unused leave. It might not be what someone in another country sees as an "employment contract", but these are still contracts that govern the terms of employment.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 7, 2023 at 15:56
  • As already written in my answer: "in most cases in the US you are free to leave a job at any time and your employer is free to fire you at any time, as long as they don't violate other rules in doing so"
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 7, 2023 at 15:57
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I have been in a similar situation; I suspect it is all too common at state universities in the US.

Here's what may be the case.

The department has permission from the university to search for and hire. Everything on campus has been done - all the way up through deans and chancellors. But the state legislature has not yet officially passed a budget that includes the financing they negotiated with the university. So the letter needs that boilerplate "subject to university funding availability" so if the money does not appear they don't have to make good on the offer.

In my case and in every case I know of the hire went through. Of course you will have to get a visa and a criminal background check if they are required. That's up to you, not to the state or the university (though they should help with the visa).

Finally - congratulations. Tenure track offers are hard to come by; you seem to be on the track you set out for yourself a year or so ago.

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  • My old HoD when I was an undergrad got into a delicate pickle on this one. The college president enticed him to join as a department Head of a new university - a step up from Senior Reader at his previous college in UK - but the pres didn't have approval for the full amount of his salary. By the time limited salary funding was approved, the professor had sold his old house and had to vacate by July . . . The president assured him he'd have a house near his new job far bigger even on the lower salary. But it must have been stressful for him.
    – Trunk
    Apr 10, 2023 at 11:22
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It seems that you do not have anything yet that is enforceably legally binding in EU law. US employment law may differ in this respect - though I doubt it based on what I read in employment lawyers' websites. Please consider reposting your question in Law Stack Exchange.

In UK/EU an offer isn't an enforceably legally binding offer till it is made in writing, accepted in writing and its acceptance - including satisfaction of all contingent matters that might cause withdrawal of the offer - confirmed in writing.

  1. You need to obtain written confirmation of your acceptance of the initial job offer or a letter whose contents, e.g. arrangements for meeting new boss, admin meeting, ID issue, etc, imply the receipt of your acceptance of the offer.

  2. Apparently in this case security clearance has not yet been obtained. The processes entailed in this should soon be advised by the employer to you.

  3. Other things like

  • medical examination

  • proof of no restrictive covenants on your working for an employer such as that making the offer

  • inadequate qualifications

  • unsatisfactory references

  • false information on job experience or personal history, e.g. convictions/prison

could also be a basis for legally withdrawing an offer that would otherwise be legally binding.

If the job has a probation period inherent in it, an employer may terminate the contract for any or no reason within the agreed notice period, e.g. 1 month.

Furthermore, in cases where staff are recruited contingent to a fixed quota of vacancies there may a final hitch.

The biggest danger in changing employers is that you may be encouraged to submit notice to leave your current employer prior to receiving a full legally-binding offer from the would-be employer.

So do not submit your notice until you have a letter attesting to all the above conditions being satisfactorily dealt with and a starting date, salary and general conditions being referenced.

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    OP has an offer from the US.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 7, 2023 at 15:00
  • @Bryan Krause Considering all that's at stake here, maybe the OP might be better transferring his question to the Law Stack Exchange forum ? They have the knowledge of all the details relevant here.
    – Trunk
    Apr 7, 2023 at 15:13
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    At least in the UK neither job letter nor acceptance need to be in writing, and no final confirmation of acceptance is required at all. All of those things help validation, but aren't a legal requirement. The important bit for questions like the above is the conditions - they give an out to the employer, although only in those specific conditions (so they can't withdraw offers for things not mentioned). But if you're concerned they may not be met, I definitely agree with the last point to wait that they're confirmed before handing in notice etc. Apr 8, 2023 at 11:51
  • At least in the UK neither job letter nor acceptance need to be in writing, and no final confirmation of acceptance is required at all. This may be strictly true. Bit it reads like a charter for scamps to pick out a job for themselves ! Merely proving that an oral offer was made is adequate for a major academic appointment ? Seems like a he-said-and-she-said. That's a situation in which an established institution (versus a 20-something emigré plaintiff) would hardly come out a loser . . . A side issue is if OP by submitting written acceptance has prevented himself accepting other offers.
    – Trunk
    Apr 8, 2023 at 15:15
  • Sure, purely verbal agreements can be hard to enforce, but that's entirely separate from their legal status. People can lie and try and renege on any sort of deal (with varying degrees of success), after all. But "legally binding" has a particular meaning, and as used in the answer above is not correct, at least in the UK and I think (most?) EU countries. Apr 9, 2023 at 7:30

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