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Employment contract: What you need to look for
An employment contract can be a confusing and complicated document but we've highlighted some of the key things you should look out for before signing your name on the dotted line.
In the excitement of being offered the job, newly hired employees are often quick to overlook the details of their employments contracts, but it's important to familiarise yourself with some areas that could prove to be restrictive in the future.
Whether it's a unique piece of code or a wonderfully worded blog post (I thank you) any creative endeavors pursued during your time under contract is likely to be the intellectual property (IP) of your employers. This stance over IP is generally assumed by UK law and may be devoid of mention in your employment contract, however any work created during office hours or via business equipment will be the company's, not yours.
Not all ownership is lost though as employees will typically keep moral possession of any artistic works. This will allow you to retain authorship and contest any changes, though you still won't have any commercial rights. It might be wise to look for clauses that could explicitly oppose or distort these commonly accepted entitlements, while you may also want to highlight any works that are being undertaken away from the office.
Though it can't always be enforced, nearly 70% of UK employment contracts contain a 'non-compete' clause that prevents employees working within direct competition of the employer after leaving the company. While it may seem restrictive on the surface, staff are typically exposed to sensitive company information that could be used to their advantage if they decided to join a competitor or start a rival venture.
Your intentions aren't always so immoral though and employers have to go some way to justify the enforcement of the non-compete clause. Simply stating that they don't want another industry competitor isn't good enough for the courts and employers will have to prove that such a career move on your part is harmful to their business interests. Even if the clause is upheld, it usually becomes void after a specified amount of time.
A level of flexibility is expected in all job roles but a flexibility clause in your contract will effectively give an employer the power to change your duties and responsibilities at his /her whim. When starting a new job, you expect it to be the job that you were sold in the interview and not for it to alter the moment you sign your working week away.
If you're concerned that this could happen, be sure that your job description is explicitly outlined and that any changes have to be mutually agreed. If a flexibility clause isn't present, any alterations to your responsibilities have to be approved by all relevant parties.
Legal jargon has long glazed the eyes of newly hired hopefuls and was once thought of as a crafty way of hiding unbalanced clauses beneath indecipherable prose. Legalese may make your employment contract look official and impressively complex but it doesn't always help you in understanding your rights and obligations.
Increasingly though, courts are starting to favour the employee if disputes are created through a lack of 'common language' in their contract. If staff are able to argue that they didn't understand the document, the powers at be will often rule that the contract can't be enforced. This won't always be the case though, so it's best to question any clauses or language that you don't quite understand before reaching for a pen.
Cause for termination
There will come a time when you leave your current position and though we all want it to be on our own terms, occasionally this decision is a little more employer led. Your dismissal could be prompted by a number of objectionable reasons, however many contracts simply list 'for cause' as an excuse for termination.
This vague phrase can denote a number of dismissal worthy acts but is also open to interpretation by employees who perhaps think their leaving is more personal than professional. Before agreeing to the terms, soon to be staff should ask for this clause to be a little better defined to ensure that they can't be let go for any little reason. It should also protect you if you find it necessary to claim unfair dismissal in the future (but hopefully not!).
Employment contracts are daunting to many new employees and intricately worded clauses can often create a lack of understanding to what they're actually signing. If you're not quite sure of ANYTHING in your contract, you should always ask your employer to outline or define these specific sections before starting work.
Companies will create contracts to protect themselves, not to hurt you, but it's important to be aware of some of the clauses that could impact you at different times of your employment. N.B. If you are confused or unsure about anything in your contract, Agency Central recommend talking to an employment solicitor.