Many professionals frame their diplomas and display them on the walls of their offices, but if you ask them about the proudest moment in their careers, they will probably tell you that signing an employment contract was even more of a high point than graduation. It is so easy to get caught up in the excitement of receiving a job offer with enough job security and perks that you get a written contract that most new hires do not even read their employment contracts carefully before they sign them. If you are such a big deal that you have your own entourage of lawyers who travel with you everywhere, then you already know the importance of reading every line of the fine print before you sign any business deal, including an employment contract.
The rest of us, though, are at a distinct disadvantage; by signing your employment contract without negotiating certain details, you could be signing away rights that you would want to exercise in the event of a layoff or a contract dispute. The Spokane employment contract lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys LLP can help you resolve disputes with your employer before or after you sign an employment contract.
The Basics of Employment Contracts
An employment contract is a written agreement between an employer and an employee. It formalizes the relationship between the parties and outlines important aspects of their rights and obligations with regard to each other, such as job duties, compensation, and benefits such as health insurance coverage and paid leave. They also include numerous self-referential statements (sentences that include phrases like “this contract” and “this agreement”) that, to the uninitiated, sound like so much legal boilerplate but which are just as important as the parts about how much you get paid and the date until which your employer is obligated to continue issuing your paychecks. These are some of the less glamorous provisions that can nonetheless make or break your case in the event of a contract dispute:
- Whether the contract automatically renews itself and, if not, what you must do if you wish to renew it
- Force majeure clauses that protect you or your employer from legal liability in a breach of contract lawsuit in the event of a majorly disruptive event such as a war or natural disaster
- Prerequisites to filing a breach of contract lawsuit, such as notifying your employer in writing of your intent to sue
- Provisions about which courts have jurisdiction to rule on lawsuits arising from the contract or even requiring arbitration instead of or as a prerequisite to arbitration
- Non-compete clauses that restrict the employee’s professional activities for a certain period after the employment relationship ends
Can Your Employer Hire You Without an Employment Contract?
Most states, including Washington, are at-will employment states, meaning that they allow at-will employment relationships. In an at-will employment relationship, both parties are free to terminate the employment relationship at any time; far more people currently working in Washington are employed on an at-will basis and have not signed employment contracts that guarantee their jobs until a certain date. Employee handbooks outlining the at-will nature of the employment relationship often take the place of individualized employment contracts in at-will arrangements.
Even if you were hired on an at-will basis and do not have an employment contract, you still have the right to file a lawsuit against your employer if your employer violates federal or state labor laws. Employment lawyers can represent employees in the following types of claims against their employers:
- Wage and hour disputes related to minimum wage, overtime pay, or employer misclassification
- Discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful termination of employment
- Whistleblower actions
Disputes Arising From Employment Contracts
On the one hand, if you have an employment contract, you are in a stronger position than many other employees in the event of a disagreement with your employer. This is because it is impossible for your employer to deny that they promised you something if this promise is clearly stated in the contract. Many disputes between an employer and an employee fall within the category of breach of contract disputes. This means that, from a legal perspective, they resemble contracts relating to sale and purchase, business partnership agreements, or any other kind of written agreement. In a breach of contract lawsuit, including one that involves a breach of an employment contract, you must prove the following claims:
- You and your employer signed a legally valid contract.
- Your employer failed to fulfill one or more of the promises in the contract.
- You fulfilled all of your obligations pursuant to the contract, except in cases where your employer’s actions made this impossible.
- You suffered financial losses as a result of the employer’s actions.
Employment Contract Red Flags
Most employment contract disputes are preventable. The ugliest ones tend to stem either from non-compete clauses or from mandatory arbitration clauses. If your employer has tried to use a non-compete agreement to intimidate you out of quitting your job and finding new employment, the law is on your side. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been cracking down on the unfair use of non-compete agreements.
Mandatory arbitration is another underhanded tactic that employers sometimes use to try to control employees. The law gives individuals and companies the right to file lawsuits in civil court against parties that have caused them to incur preventable financial losses, but they can waive this right by signing mandatory arbitration agreements. Before you sign an employment contract, make sure it is not requiring you to do this. Arbitrators are supposed to be neutral, but big companies have a clear advantage over employees when resolving disputes through arbitration.
Contact HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP, About Employee Counseling
The Spokane employment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP can help you make the best decisions about employment contracts and negotiate for better terms before you sign your contract. Contact the employment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys LLP in Spokane, Washington, to set up a consultation.