I am leaving my current hospitalist company, and they are telling me that I have to pay them back the $10,000 sign-on/relocation bonus that was originally given to me. When I looked at the contract that I was given at the onset of our interview meetings, there was no clause stating a timeframe or any mention of me paying this back if I left the company. However, when I stated that I was giving my three-month notice, they said that their reasoning was based on a clause in the contract that says if I left before the end of the first year, then I would need to return the bonus.
I have worked for this company for nine months and moved to this city specifically for the purpose of this job. I didn’t believe what they were saying because I had read over the initial contract very well ... but then I compared that initial contract and the one that I actually signed. They changed some things that we never talked about; for instance, they changed the insurance from occurrence type to claims made, and they added a sentence at the end of the paragraph discussing the bonus.
I just think this was not very honest of them. Do I have any recourse? I wouldn’t even mind paying back a portion of it, but it makes me so mad that they obviously were being sneaky in changing the 14-page contract.
Cindy Nichols, MD
Dr. Hospitalist responds: I am sorry to hear of the troubles. When I read your note, I thought unfortunately of the English playwright Noel Coward, who once said, “It is discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.” Unfortunately, this happens all too commonly. Sounds like you are the unfortunate victim of nothing more than a bait-and-switch. I am not a lawyer and am not offering legal advice, but I suggest you contact a healthcare attorney familiar with employment contracts in Texas. But it would seem to me that since you did sign the contract, I suspect you have little recourse.
Although you are going to be out some money, I actually think this is more damaging to your employer than it is to you. You might have to repay the $10,000, but this could cost your employer much more. In today’s environment, in which anyone who has access to the Internet or a smartphone, one’s reputation can be reviled or revered at the whim of one’s keystroke. It does not seem to me that it makes much sense to engage in business in such a deceitful manner. Word can spread easily about a dishonest employer, even though the contract handed to you could have been the action of a single dishonest employee, rather than a corporate strategy. If the company is fortunate, you will take the time to let someone senior in the company know what happened to you. With this information, they can review their practice and assure that it doesn’t happen to another employee.
More likely, I expect that you are not likely to waste your time speaking with anyone else in the company, but that instead you will tell friends and colleagues about how you were victimized by this employer. It is a small world and this company’s image will suffer immeasurably from these water-cooler discussions. But I encourage you to take the high road: Contact a higher-up in the company and hold a professional discussion with them.
Best-case scenario: They respect your feedback and honor the original contract. Worst-case scenario: You walk away from people you really don’t want to work with, and you walk away with your dignity intact. TH