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Promised a Raise? Is It Legally Enforceable?

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

Did your boss ever promise you a raise, but then fail to follow through on it? If so, you will want to find out whether that promise was enforceable.

Depending on the circumstances of your situation, your employer's promise may actually be an enforceable term of your employment contract.

Was the Promise in Writing?

Employment contracts take many different forms, but are most commonly enforced as written or verbal agreements.

In general, anything in writing that describes any terms, benefits or conditions of employment can be enforced. If the promise was stated in your employment contract, it will likely be enforceable. If it's a letter, or even a note, the question will turn to whether you were financially injured by relying on the promise of a raise.

Even in a casual conversation, it's possible that your employer's promises about a raise could be contractually enforced. Even generally unenforceable oral contracts can be enforced when a person complies with the terms and detrimentally relies on that promise.

Where Else Can You Look for Support?

In addition to looking at promises or the employment contract itself, there are a number of other sources you can examine to determine whether the dangling of the carrot raise is enforceable.

For example, employees could find extra guidance by looking at:

  • Actual actions and previous conduct. Take a look at how you and your employer have actually behaved regarding the raise issue. Also, think about how your employer treated other employees and previous employees in similar circumstances with regard to raises. Such actions may form the basis of an implied contract.
  • Employee handbooks. Does your employee handbook state promises or set forth a protocol for doling out raises? Depending on where you are, that may be a legally enforceable promise. At least 30 states, including California, will enforce terms stated in an employment handbook or personnel manual. The term needs to be specific and typically can't contain a disclaimer.
  • Personnel files. Your personnel file may contain valuable information about notices of raises, your evaluations, praise you received, and any disciplinary issues. If you are able to gain access to your personnel file, check it for documents that pertain to all raises, promotions and praise that you received.

For extra help, you may want to "raise" your concerns with an experienced employment attorney near you.

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