columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I was in the awesome position of interviewing for two roles through recruitment agencies and receiving offers for both. Both roles were aware that I had another strong offer on the table, and negotiations started between myself and the two agencies.

As I was available immediately, both roles wanted me to start ASAP and had suggested start dates that were within a working week of the initial offer. Within a few days, I made my decision and I explained my choice in an email to the recruiter of the role I was turning down.

The recruiter wanted to discuss the matter further, and I declined. He indicated by email he was upset that I was turning down the role so close to the start date.

A month later, I received an invoice from the accounting team of the recruitment agency -- no other communication -- just an invoice made out to me for $50 for a background check they had completed. I responded to the accounts team saying that I believed this cost was for their client, and as I had no relationship with them, it wasn't an invoice for me personally (assuming it had been mistakenly sent to me as the subject of the background check).

The next day, I received an email from the recruiter directly, who informed me that as I had behaved unprofessionally and without integrity, as an act of good faith I should pay this "insignificant amount" rather than ask the (very large international) agency to absorb it.

I wanted to write a strongly worded response about my ideas of professionalism, but I am going to sit on it for a day or two. Ironically, if he had emailed me and outlined his point of view earlier -- without attacking me -- I probably would have paid the invoice out of feelings of guilt or good faith.

So, am I obliged to pay this? And, if I'm not obliged, should I pay it to save face professionally?

Green responds:

What the actual hell?

No, you categorically should not pay this. The same way they should not pay for your interview suit or your time spent interviewing or the Xanax I will need to calm my slightly crazed laughter after reading this letter.

Background checks are a normal cost of doing business for recruiters. There are a few industries where applicants are expected to pay for their own (teaching is one), but those are (a) rare and (b) disclosed ahead of time. That second part is the real tell here -- you don't spring costs on people after the fact that they never agreed to. That's not how this stuff works. People have to agree to it up front; you can't decide to charge them later because you're bitter.

This guy sent you an invoice in a weirdly misguided attempt to penalize you for turning down an offer (and losing him his commission). That's unprofessional, hostile, and out of touch with professional norms.

There's nothing unprofessional about turning down an offer -- and that goes double when you were up front with him throughout your deliberations. You were under no obligation to accept an offer, just as they were under no obligation to make you an offer.

He sucks, you have no obligation to pay this, and you certainly shouldn't pay out of guilt or to save face. In fact, that would be the opposite of saving face -- it would be agreeing that you did something wrong when you haven't.

Ignore the invoice, ignore his letter, and never work with this agency again. As for sending a letter back to him, I'd skip that entirely. But if you feel you must send a response, send it to someone above him; there's no point in engaging with someone who has already demonstrated that he's hostile and irrational.

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