Starting a new job? Take the time to read any employment contract put before you. We walk you through what to watch for in your contract, and how to protect yourself.

What you should know

A new job often involves signing a written contract. But it doesn’t have to. There’s always a contract between a worker and an employer. Even if nothing is in writing, an employment contract still exists. A worker’s agreement to work for an employer, and the employer’s agreement to pay the worker in return, forms a contract.

The terms of your employment contract may not all be in one written document (or they may not be written at all). For example, they may be expressed in:

  • the job advertisement
  • letters or emails you received from the employer before you start working
  • anything you’re asked to sign before or after you start working
  • an office policy manual or staff handbook

Your employment contract gives you and your employer certain rights and responsibilities.

Some terms are spelled out. Typically, these explicit terms will cover things such as your job title and responsibilities, your pay, hours of work, and the term of your employment (if there is one).

Other terms are implied by the law into your employment contract. For example, as a worker, you owe a general duty of loyalty to your employer. You must act in their best interests and protect their confidential information.

Meanwhile, your employer must direct the work you do, pay your wages, and provide a safe place to work.

There are certain legal rights you have as a worker, whether or not your employment contract mentions them — and even if the contract says something different. For example, regardless of the terms in the contract, the following apply:

  • human rights laws

  • health and safety standards

  • any rights you have under the Employment Standards Act, which sets minimum standards for wages and working conditions in BC

More on this last point. In your employment contract, you can’t agree to give up any rights you have under employment standards law. For example, that law sets minimums for overtime pay. If you’re covered by that law, any term in your employment contract that provides for less overtime pay is not valid.

Need help figuring out if employment standards law applies to you? See our information on who's covered.

Although usually signed at the start of the relationship, the employment contract is not frozen in time. In fact, it typically evolves after you’re hired. If you get a raise, that’s a change to a term of your employment contract — your pay. A promotion represents (typically) a change to your job title and responsibilities, another term of your contract.

Protect yourself!

When presented with an employment contract, it’s natural to feel you’re under pressure to act quickly or perhaps lose the job. But slowing down and taking these steps will prevent problems down the road.

Step 1. Review the employment contract closely

Step 2. Make sure you understand it

Step 3. Ask for changes to the contract

Step 1. Review the employment contract closely

Read the contract carefully. Check that it lines up with the role you applied for (does the job title match the job posting?). Make sure it includes any special promises made to you during the application process.

Pay close attention to these terms:

  • Your job description. Does it match what you’ve been told your work will involve? The more broadly the duties are defined, the more flexibility your employer will have to require you to take on more work.

  • Your pay. Does it match what you expected?

  • Place of work. Does it give your employer the ability to move you to other locations? Is working remotely at home a possibility?

  • Hours of work. What work schedule are you committing to? Are flexible working arrangements possible? Is overtime pay offered?

  • Time off allowances. What annual vacation is given? Are there paid sick days?

  • Termination. How much notice must either of you give to end the employment? The contract might say the employer can give less than what would be seen as “reasonable notice” in the absence of a contract.

  • Post-employment restrictions. Are there terms that prevent you from competing with the employer or soliciting their customers after you leave the job? These clauses are often drafted in language that heavily favours the employer’s interests.

Step 2. Make sure you understand it

Never sign anything you don't understand. If problems arise while you’re in the job, your employment contract will be the go-to document to help you resolve these.

If you need help understanding what the contract says, consider asking for more time to review it. The employer must give you a reasonable amount of time to review and consider the contract before you sign.

Step 3. Ask for changes to the contract

As with any agreement, employment contracts can be negotiated, depending on the issue and the strength of your pitch. If there is something you don't like or is missing in the contract, ask for changes.

For example, you might be concerned about a short notice period for the employer to end the employment. Ask if they would be open to a longer notice period.

We have more on this topic, if you want to go further. See our in-depth information on the employment contract.

Who can help

Consider reaching out to these agencies for help relating to your employment contract.

Employment Standards Branch logo
Employment Standards Branch
Can help you understand your rights as a worker in BC.
Employment and Social Development Canada logo
Employment and Social Development Canada
Can help if you’re a worker in a federally-regulated industry.

If you don't understand the terms in the employment contract, consider getting legal advice.

Access Pro Bono logo
Lawyer Referral Service
Helps you connect with a lawyer for a free half-hour consult.
Access Pro Bono logo
Access Pro Bono Clinics
Volunteer lawyers provide free legal advice to people with limited means.
People's Law School logo
People’s Law School
See more options for free or low-cost legal help.

This information applies to British Columbia, Canada

Reviewed in April 2020

Time to read: 5 minutes

Reviewed for legal accuracy by

Mary Thibodeau, Victory Square Law Office

Mary Thibodeau

This information from People’s Law School explains in a general way the law that applies in British Columbia, Canada. The information is not intended as legal advice. See our disclaimer.

Related

On Dial-A-Law

Dial-A-Law has more information on Your work status in the section on Work.