After accepting a new job offer, the prospect of a new position and the resulting opportunities can produce a rush of excitement. But that doesn’t mean you should rush through your onboarding paperwork.
You’ll want to review all employment documents carefully — and this includes more than just choosing the correct withholdings on your W-4. “What is in the hiring documents likely will play a substantial role in governing how any issues will be resolved,” said Matt Koski, the program director at the National Employment Lawyers Association.
Here are some common documents included in an onboarding package at a new job and what you need to know about each one.
1. Employment contract
The most obvious document to review is your employment agreement or contract. It doesn’t have to be written — an oral agreement of employment is valid, too, according to legal site Nolo. But it’s often recorded in a document that you can review and sign ahead of or on your first day at work.
Most employment agreements will cover the details of the job you’re being hired to do — the length of employment, your duties and responsibilities, and your compensation including salary, vacation time, and other important work benefits.
The other documents on this list might be included as sections of your employment contract, too, or presented as separate documents.
What to look for: Before signing on the dotted line, thoroughly review all details outlined in this contract to be sure it jives with any discussions you’ve had with your potential employer. For instance, if the hiring manager agreed to offer a signing bonus, you’ll want to make sure it’s included in the document, along with as any conditions about pay.
2. At-will agreement
An at-will agreement is a common document or clause included in your hiring documents. The agreement states you’re employed at the will and convenience of both parties — either you or your employer can choose to terminate your employment at any time.
Montana is the only state with laws that prohibit at-will employment agreements. For workers in the rest of U.S., at-will agreements are common enough to be considered the rule and not the exception. If you’ve ever had a job, chances are you’ve signed such an agreement.
What to look for: If you’re presented with an at-will agreement, that’s probably part of the official policy of the company. Review your hiring documents and watch for language that would indicate whether it’s at-will employment or not, such as a company stating its right to terminate employment for any reason, with or without cause.
Not all companies have at-will agreements, however. Some companies outline when and for what reasons an employee can be terminated, and these rules would mean you’re not an at-will employee. For companies with such policies, request to review them before signing anything.
3. Noncompete, nonsolicitation, and nondisclosure agreements
Many employers will provide you with legal contracts or clauses designed to protect themselves and their business interests. By signing them, you agree to follow certain restrictions during and after your employment with the company.
Here are some common agreements that could be in your hiring documents:
A noncompetition agreement: It usually restricts you from leaving a company to go work for a competitor and is meant to protect the employer’s business interests, according to legal resource FindLaw.
A nonsolicitation agreement: It bars you from reaching out to clients or customers of a former employer to benefit yourself or your new employer, according to Nolo.
A nondisclosure agreement: It restricts you from disclosing certain proprietary company information that’s valuable and confidential, according to The Balance Careers.
What to look for: Noncompete, nonsolicitation, and nondisclosure agreements are common inclusions in many hiring packets. But not all agreements are the same, and you’ll want to read and review all the terms carefully. Say you do freelance work as a side hustle, for instance — you’d need to know if that would violate any noncompete agreement.
Most courts won’t enforce a noncompete doc that’s considered unreasonably long or harsh enough to keep you from making a living. If a noncompete, nonsolicitation, or nondisclosure agreement seems unreasonable, don’t sign it until you’re satisfied that it won’t pose a threat to your future career or current side hustle.
4. Arbitration agreements
In arbitration agreements, you and your potential employer agree to settle disputes outside of court and through an arbitration process, instead.
Recent events have put a spotlight on arbitration agreements in light of sexual harassment and other workplace disputes, Koski said, but they’re commonly included in employment documents.
What to look for: Arbitration agreements usually outline the terms of potential arbitration: which party chooses the arbitrator, how the process is paid for, limits on costs, etc., according to Nolo. Review the agreement fully and consider asking about or even negotiating any terms that seem confusing or unreasonable.
The do’s and don’ts of reviewing your employment packet
The interviewing and hiring process can contain potential faux pas and miscommunications, but you’ll want to make a good impression. If you have questions about your hiring packet, you might fear that raising them will make you seem annoying or difficult.
Even so, your careful review of these documents is central to your due diligence ahead of starting a new job. Find out what to do and not do as you navigate and negotiate this tricky process.
Do read all documents before signing anything. If you’re not sure what you’re signature is indicating, ask and understand before moving forward.
Don’t assume that an employment agreement clause won’t apply to you, and don’t take your employer at its word if it says it won’t enforce a clause. It might not do it now, but your life and the company you work for could change in the future.
Do look at these legal agreements from all angles. “Attempt, to the extent possible, to think about how the employment relationship or one’s own personal life may be different months or years down the line,” Koski advised.
Don’t run away when you encounter the first clause or contract that looks confusing. The documents outlined above are common, and “their inclusion in an employer’s hiring documents does not necessarily indicate an elevated risk of unfair policies or practices,” Koski said.
Do take your time in reviewing all the documents. “Any prospective employee who has the opportunity to do so should ask her potential employer about these clauses, and if possible, seek independent legal advice about any provisions she may not fully understand,” Koski suggested.
Don’t make demands if you’re not willing to lose a job offer. “[Job-seekers] tend to be presented with hiring documents on a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ basis, without any meaningful opportunity for negotiation or even discussion,” Koski said. You can ask for adjustments, but weigh the request with the risk of missing out on this job offer before doing so.
The prospect of starting a new job can be thrilling and exciting, but it shouldn’t make you too hasty. A thorough review of employment contracts will help you catch any red flags and protect your interests.
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