6 things to check before signing your first employment contract
So, you’ve just had your first official offer of employment. The contract comes through and you flick excitedly to the salary and benefits section – because we all know that how much you are being paid is the most important thing, right? Wrong!
Here are 6 things that you really need to read through when your first employment contract arrives instead. We’ve updated this article to add on a couple of points to look out for following the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. Probationary period
The first 3 months (usually) of your employment are your probationary period. That means that during this time, even if you aren’t aware of it, you are being assessed: your performance, your attitude, your willingness to be a team player, your capacity to take instructions and improve; and whether you can handle a drink on work socials! Essentially, you should be on your best behaviour!
If the company thinks you might need a bit more training to get where they need you to be, or they are unsure of your fit for the role, they can extend the probationary period for a reasonable amount of time (around 3 months). Usually this right should be in the contract.
At any point during the probationary period, you and your employer can part ways, typically by giving a week’s notice. As long as the employer doesn’t have other reasons for asking you to leave that are unlawful, such as discrimination, they don’t really have to follow much of a procedure. It’s best practice that they do, though, even if it is a shortened procedure, and you should ask for feedback on their decision.
If you are successful in your probationary period, you will now be a permanent member of staff – hurrah!
At most levels, unless your role is very junior, you will almost definitely have restrictions in your contract. They are usually listed near the end, really boring to read (unless you’re a lawyer and enjoy that kind of thing!) and, as a result, employees sign them without reading or understanding them.
The usual ones included stop you from competing with the company for a period of 3-6 months after you leave and stop you from poaching clients/customers and employees for 6-12 months after leaving. Often, the contract will prevent you even from speaking at all to these people (called a non-dealing clause).
Once you’ve signed the dotted line, restrictions are tricky to get out of, so it’s always best to get some advice and/or ask your employer what they mean in practice.
3. Mobility and Home-working clauses
You will have a set office address where you will do the majority of your work, however, be aware that your employer can move you to any reasonable location if they need you to - any location in London will usually count as “reasonable” – for example if the company moves offices; if they want to place you in a different associated business; or if they want you to be onsite with a client for a couple of weeks etc.
Whilst it’s good practice for your employer to run this past you, they don’t actually need your agreement.
With so many people working at home over this past year, any new employment contracts will likely feature homeworking clauses. This means that you will have to make sure you take appropriate breaks during your working day, that there’s nothing in your lease or mortgage that states you cannot work from home, and that you consent to your employer coming into your home to check its safe every once in a while (although I don’t think many employers actually do this!).
This is a biggie for employers: you are being entrusted with the inner workings of their business. You must not disclose any confidential information during your employment and after it has ended - and that’s for forever!
Confidential information includes: client and customer details, employee details, budgets, marketing plans, software knowledge, the list goes on.
When you leave, you will be expected to return all your notebooks and any printed confidential information. You will also need to wipe your phone and laptop of anything at all company-related.
5. Working hours
If you’re doing shift work or manual work, your contract will state set times, and anything worked over that will likely be paid as overtime. There will be a procedure you have to follow to ensure that overtime is paid, however, such as getting it agreed with your manager in advance.
For the majority of office-workers though, you will have set hours in your contract, but you will be expected to work over and above these to get the job done. And you won’t be paid extra for this.
Some companies may also require you to sign an opt-out form which means that you agree to working over the 48-hour weekly maximum. Technically you can withdraw your agreement after signing this with 3 months’ notice, but in reality, no one ever does!
6. Lay off or short-time working clause
You will have heard the word “unprecedented” too many times over the past year in relation to the pandemic. And in such unprecedented times, employers will want to have everything in place to protect their business should we be struck by another pandemic, and should the government not be able to run the furlough scheme again. In this scenario, an employer may seek to impose a lay off or short-time working clause in the contract.
A layoff clause means that you will have no work, and no pay (except in some cases a minimum statutory amount) for a period of time, whilst still remaining an employee. A short time working clause means that you will work less hours for less pay. Whilst these may not seem like the fairest of terms, and the last thing you want to do is be sitting at home with no pay, the reality is that they are alternatives to being dismissed/made redundant. The key point here is that the position should only be temporary.
If you're still not sure about your contract, it's always best to seek further advice. Jane Johnson is a director of JLJ Legal - you can reach her on firstname.lastname@example.org for queries on your employment contract or anything employment law related.