Employment Agreements

Employment agreement

Even for entry-level jobs, many employers require new hires to sign employment agreements these days.  These agreements set out the basic legal relationship between the employee and the company and generally they are a good thing.  It doesn't really matter what they say, because unless you are a high-level and much-sought-after employee, you're not going to have much success in getting them to change any of the terms.  But you should read the agreement and make sure you understand it.  Probably the most important time to read it is when you quit or (god forbid) you are fired, because some of the terms survive your employment.

Some employers will just include some of the items in an employee manual or handbook, rather than have you sign an agreement.  Below are some things you might see in an employment agreement.  BTW, I'm not giving legal advice here, just describing what I've seen in employee agreements.  If you have any questions about the legal document you are signing, you'll have to talk to a lawyer.

  • Responsibilities - This is can be as simple as a job title or it may be a full description of the responsibilities you are expected to perform.  You may also see a 'Best Efforts' clause which says you agree to perform the job 'faithfully, industriously and to the best of your ability, experience and talents' at a location which the company dictates.  You'll probably have to agree to abide by the rules and regulations of the new company, too.
  • Compensation - What you'll be paid, and when.  It may also mention the vacation pay policy (whether you get paid for unused vacation or sick time).  If you get a commission or part of your pay depends on performance, it will be spelled out here too.
  • Confidentiality - Your employer will want to make sure that you are legally bound not to divulge any company secrets to anyone, unless you are compelled to by a legal proceeding against the company.  Take this seriously.  There will usually be a clause which states that your obligation of confidentiality will last for some period (6 months to 5 years, for example) after you leave - whether you are fired or quit.
  • Previous employer information - To protect themselves, your new company may want you to confirm that you aren't bringing any confidential information from a previous company - which could include business plans, customer lists, software libraries, or any other proprietary information.
  • Ownership of company information - the company may want to establish that any documents or media that contain company information or information about the business, operations, plans and personnel are owned by the company, even if you prepare them.  They may require that during your employment you not remove any company information from the premises unless you have to for your job, and that you return all company information when you leave.
  • Ownership of workproduct and inventions - Especially if you are in a technology company, you will be required to assign all copyrights, patents, and other intellectual property rights in anything you do for the company to the company.  And you'll agree to provide them with whatever assistance they need to file for patents, etc. (maybe even after you leave).  Some companies take the position that ANYTHING you produce while in their employment belongs to them, even if you do it on your own time.  If you are building a killer app at night and on weekends, you had better find out whether your employer is going to own it when you are done.
  • Term and termination - For the most part, you can expect to be an 'employee at-will' - meaning there is no set period for your employment, and you can quit or be fired at any time for any reason - or no reason at all.  It also means that your job duties, title, compensation, benefits and the company's policies and procedures can be changed at any time.  If you are entitled to any severance (rare for a junior employee), it will be spelled out here.
  •  Non-compete agreement - Some companies will demand that you not work for a competitor for some period after leaving.  THIS IS ILLEGAL IN SOME STATES.  In California, the company cannot restrict who you subsequently work for, unless you have a special arrangement with the company.  
  • Non-solicitation of company employees - You may be required not to hire or interview any current employees of the company for some period of time after you leave.
  • General stuff - At the end of every agreement is some boilerplate stuff about how this is the whole agreement between the parties (no side agreements), how the agreement can be modified, and that even if one part of the agreement is found to be illegal or unenforceable, the rest of the agreement is still enforced.
Most of this stuff is pretty straightforward, and as I said, you don't have much leeway to change it anyway.  One area of concern is if you have any side interests which might be considered similar to the company's business.  Let's say you are a programmer and you've written an app that enables your buddies to play 'beer bingo' (email me if you want to know what this is - I just made it up).  You get a job at a social networking company and a year later your app goes viral.  The company could try to claim your app is sufficiently similar to their business that they own the app.  You don't want to be in this situation, believe me.  If you have any personal intellectual property you are bringing to a company, go to HR BEFORE you are hired and have them draft an agreement that excludes it.  And if you start working on something interesting on your own after you are hired, go to HR and make sure they agree it is your own.  You may think you can hide it and it would be awkward to talk to HR, but it is much easier to get their agreement ahead of time and it will save you a lot of grief.
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