Photo courtesy of Christa Dodoo
The economy is in flux, and millions of Americans are either on furlough, temporarily unemployed, or employed with an uncertain future. Although you need to address the mental and logistical challenges that come with this, you also need to address the legal aspects of your job.
Did you sign an employee contract? What did your employee contract actually say? Did you sign a non-compete for a year after leaving? Are you still under contract even if you’re not technically working? Do you have any legal obligations or contracts to sign when leaving your job? It’s confusing, but it shouldn’t be.
Contracts will vary depending on your industry, but here’s an overview of what’s in an employee agreement and what’s expected of you.
What is a furlough?
A lot of employees are being furloughed right now. Furloughs often occur during government shutdowns. Essentially, it happens when an employer requires their employees to take an unpaid leave of absence. Many businesses have been told to shut down due to COVID-19, causing thousands of companies to temporarily close their doors and leaving many employees without work. A furlough helps a company save on costs during times of crisis (ex. a pandemic), but they can feel disheartening for employees.
If salaried employees work any hours during the week, then the employer is required to pay them for a whole week of work, but otherwise, they will not be paid when they are not working. This is different for non-exempt employees (contract/hourly) who aren’t paid at all if they aren’t working. However, some employee contracts, depending on your job, may prevent you from being furloughed or they require you to keep working without being paid (ex. government employees). A few things to note here: When furloughed, you usually don’t have access to your work accounts, but you do typically have access to your insurance and additional benefits. It’s also not legal for you to be furloughed specifically because of your race, ethnicity, gender, pregnancy or maternity leave, etc.
What does a confidentiality agreement entail?
A confidentiality agreement is also called a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Employees, clients and/or employees will sign NDAs in order to prevent crucial company information from being shared outside that engagement. I have signed many of these: when receiving a manuscript ahead of its pub date and when working with certain high-profile clients. The employer has an employee sign one in order to prevent the employee from publicly sharing private information.
That private information can include any of the following: financial information, pricing structures, client lists or client information, company systems or strategies, trade secrets, inventions, supplier information, government information, etc. It may list a set time period or it may be indefinitely.
When you work for the government, you may be issued a security clearance. There are three levels. With clearance, employees are given a certain level of access to government information in order to fulfill their job duties. This information is not allowed to be shared outside the job itself.
What is a non-compete clause?
Non-compete clauses (or agreements) help protect employers. If you take a position with an agency and sign a non-compete, for example, (regardless of whether you’re a contract or full-time employer), you are likely agreeing to not do any agency-related work for any other competitor (including another agency or client). Some non-competes prevent you from doing competitive work for a set period of time after leaving your job. Make sure you read the exact terms and conditions of your contract.
Not all states allow non-compete agreements. For example, California, Montana, Oklahoma, and North Dakota ban them, with exceptions. Essentially, if you sign this or a non-solicitation clause, you likely can’t go and work for a competitor immediately or take a client from your former employer.
How does severance work?
Some companies offer severance, which is essentially a promise to keep paying you or offering you benefits (such as insurance) after you leave a job. Employers are not required to pay severance, but it is typically given to long-term/senior employees. The length often determines the severance details. Severance packages are negotiable and may include a lump sum or a benefit of insurance for months after leaving the job.
If you want to make a legal dispute, what should you pay attention to?
In the “choice of law” or “governing law” section of a contract, there will be a city listed. If there is a legal dispute or lawsuit, for any reason, you are expected to abide by that city’s jurisdiction. If you live in Virginia but work for a New York–based company, for instance, you will likely be subject to New York laws. This is also implemented for international staff and saves both employer and employee from having to hire international lawyers.
Are you required to sign paperwork when you leave a job?
You are not legally required to sign anything when you quit or when you’re let go. However, you will receive payment for any work you conducted prior to leaving the company. To properly leave a job, it is best that you not delete the work you did (including emails or projects), that you write a letter of resignation, that you give proper notice, and that you offer to train the next employee (if relevant).
When you join a company, you should receive an employee handbook. Scroll back through your emails or check with your employer and re-read that handbook, as well as any contracts you signed. If you’re a new employee, make sure you read, in detail, to make sure you actually agree to the clauses you’re signing. You can make changes and negotiate the terms, and you should not be afraid to do so. I, personally, had made many, many changes to contracts. I have included my own clauses as well. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself when agreeing to legal terms.