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Is It Illegal To Hire an Employee Under False Pretenses or Promises?

Legal options if your employer hired you under false promises

Imagine a hiring manager wants to recruit their competitor’s best salesperson. They know they will have to make the conditions of employment look very attractive to get them. So, the hiring manager tells the salesperson that if they join the new team, they will:

  • Have access to a much larger sales market
  • Lead big sales projects
  • Be able to make much more money, including annual bonuses
  • Be promoted within the first year

Based on these promises, the salesperson takes the job. But the new employer doesn’t follow through on their promises. The salesperson makes less money than before and never gets promoted. The job isn’t what the new employer said it would be.

Employees have a few legal options to recover in situations like this. However, says employment law attorney Christopher Lenzo, the success of a claim “really depends on the specific facts.”

This article covers some of the legal options employees have if their new employer made false promises— and why employers should never make promises they can’t keep.

Legal Options

Employees have a few possible legal options if their employer makes false promises to them about employment.

Promissory Estoppel

One legal claim you might have is called promissory estoppel. Lenzo explains it with an example: “Say an employer offers you a job and then says there’s no job before you even start. You’ve incurred expenses based in reliance on the promise of the job. In this case, most states will acknowledge a promissory estoppel claim.”

Promissory estoppel is a theory in contract law that lets you recover losses from relying on a broken promise.

Each state has statutes or case law governing promissory estoppel, but here are the general requirements:

  • An employer promised something to a current or prospective employee
  • The employer didn’t fulfill the promise
  • The employee relied on the promise in making a job decision (for example, to keep a job, take a new job, relocate)
  • The employee suffered losses as a result of relying on the broken promise (for example, lost income, job security)

If you prove your promissory estoppel claim, what do you get? If successful, courts will reward reliance damages that compensate for losses incurred in reliance on the promise. This could include things like moving costs or lost wages.

An employment attorney can help you assess your specific state laws around promissory estoppel and what you could get in damages.

Fraudulent Inducement

Another legal claim you might be able to bring is called fraudulent inducement of employment.

The requirements for fraudulent inducement are:

  • The employer intentionally made a misrepresentation to get an employee to accept a job offer
  • The employee reasonably relied on the false representation in taking the job (and maybe wouldn’t have taken the position otherwise)
  • The employee suffered losses as a result (for example, lost income, lost job opportunities, reduced financial security, poor working conditions)

This might look similar to promissory estoppel, and it is. But, Lenzo says, what makes fraudulent inducement different is that the “employer made false statements and knew they were false at the time they made them.”

Proving that an employer made a false promise intentionally can be difficult. For example, an employer might claim they made a mistake or were merely expressing an opinion or possibility.

Because of this difficulty, you need as much evidence as possible to show that an employer was intentionally misleading. Evidence can include emails, messages, meeting records, or phone call records.

Another important difference between promissory estoppel and fraudulent inducement is what you can get if you win. With fraudulent inducement, you can get both reliance damages and expectation damages, Lenzo says. Expectation damages are what you would have gotten if the employer followed through on their bargain.

If you have a promissory estoppel claim, you may also have a fraudulent inducement claim. However, this is not necessarily true. Proving a fraud claim might involve more proof. An employment lawyer can help you assess your case and find the best options for bringing a claim.

Breach of Contract

In some cases, false promises might involve a breach of contract. Say you signed an employment contract with a prospective employer. The employment agreement laid out the job requirements and your salary, benefits, vacation time, etc.

But when you start working, your employer doesn’t fulfil one of these key provisions. In this case, your employer may be in breach of the contract.

Depending on the specific facts of your case, you may be able to sue for both fraudulent inducement and breach of contract. Other times, the contract’s provisions may be in tension with earlier promises the employer made.

An employment lawyer can assess which claim is best in your situation.

At-will Employment

With varying exceptions, every state has some form of at-will employment.

Generally, at-will employment means that both employer and employee can end the employment relationship at any time and for any reason.

So, if there is no contract and an employer doesn’t violate discrimination laws or other public policies, they can terminate an at-will employee or change conditions of employment at any time.

At-will employment can cause problems for people seeking recovery for false promises. Lenzo gives the following example: “Say that a week after an at-will employee is hired, they get fired. In this case, they’re generally out of luck.”

However, if an employer made promises about employment, they may still be liable. Cases involving an employer’s false promises are very fact-specific, Lenzo says. Speaking to an employment law attorney is the best bet for figuring out your specific course of action.

Questions for an Attorney

Fortunately, many attorneys provide initial free consultations to prospective clients. These meetings are an excellent way to get sound legal advice. They allow the attorney to hear the facts of your case and for you to determine if the attorney meets your needs. To see whether an attorney is a good fit, ask informed questions such as:

  • What is your fee, and what billing options do you offer?
  • What is your experience as an employment lawyer?
  • What are my chances of success in legal action against my employer?
  • What kind of damages could I get in my case?

Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs

It is essential to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can give you legal help through your entire case. You can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location. 

If you were employed through false promises from your employer and wondering about your legal options, consider looking for a lawyer practicing employment law.

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