Five Questions to Consider Before Signing an Employment Contract
One of my greatest privileges as a broadcast journalism instructor is reviewing broadcast contracts with graduating seniors. These students have worked so hard and are excited to begin their new lives as multimedia journalists, producers or production specialists. However, many students quickly learn the grass is not always "greener" on the other side, and are disappointed when discovering a particular contract is not in their favor.
If you are in the process of applying for jobs, here are five questions to consider before signing on the dotted line:
1. Is There an Unusual Amount of Turnover at This Job?
With any company, there is bound to be a bit of turnover, especially with certain positions. This actually plays to your advantage as a potential employee because you can offer to solve this particular problem and use it as a bargaining tool. However, if the company you consider working for has several openings, including management positions, run! More than likely, there has been a huge shakeup and someone has had to "clean house!" You might be thinking to yourself, "This seems like a great opportunity!" Well, it could be. But what many people discover is that if you're hired during this type of transition, you may end up as the default supervisor. In other words, as a new employee, you will be expected to save the sinking ship. You will have no time to learn the ropes and become overwhelmed to the point of wanting to change careers. You will be underpaid and over-leveraged. I always advise students their first job should be a place they can be nurtured and have room to make mistakes.
2. Does My Contract Have Any "Out" Clauses?
What many people don't realize is that breaking a contract or covenant comes with some serious penalties. In many cases, employers could ask for a refund of moving expenses or part of your gross compensation. You could even be sued. Ask yourself this question, "If I needed to move in a hurry after working one year with this company, how would I be penalized?"
At the start of negotiations, it's best to secure some "out" clauses of your own. An "out" clause is not a bad thing. Think of it as a form of insurance just in case things don't work out, or if another great opportunity comes sooner than you think. If you read your contract closely, you will find your employer has many "out" clauses built in. The most popular one is the 90-day probation period. Essentially, during the first 90 days of your contract, an employer can terminate you "at-will" if they find you are unfit for the position, or if they need to trim the budget. "At-will" means they are not required to give you an explanation. To even the playing field, many employers have now opted to make the "at-will" clause go both ways, meaning you can quit during the 90 days if you need to as well, without penalty. Another out clause is the random drug test. As long as I've worked in media, I've seen several cases where employees were "busted" for drug use, but suffered no real penalty due to their status. They were simply asked to attend counseling or watch a video. The random drug test is really a "weed and seed" mechanism, used to terminate a person if needed. Most contracts I've seen include between five and ten "out" clauses for employers, protecting them from liability of a wrongful termination lawsuit from you!
3. Is This Offer Above or Below the Market Rate?
In life, you don't get what you deserve. You get what you negotiate! No matter what industry you're in, there is data collected somewhere showing the average salary for a given position, based on the company's location. For my broadcast journalism students, they have access to an annual newsroom survey created by Hofstra University and the Radio Television Digital News Association. It's a great resource for students needing to know how to negotiate. For example, if a student is applying for a news producing job in West Virginia (for example), what salary is appropriate for that position? The salary survey gives a salary range within that market. Before applying for any job, be sure to know the average salary. To find this information, you may want to join a professional organization related to your field. These professional organizations usually have access to that kind of data.
4. Can I Really Afford to Make a Living on This Salary?
It's no secret that starting an entry-level job could mean living on a tight budget for a few years. When you think of rent, groceries, car payments, and other normal expenses, things can add up quickly. Therefore, you need to make sure any position you take can sustain you and provide a little cushion for savings and getting out of debt. You need to make sure you have margin in your life for the unexpected things. I often refer my students to a great website called Payscale. It allows you to type in certain information about your new job and about the city you will live in. It then gives you an idea of affordability. It makes no sense to take a position halfway across the country just to find out you can't afford to live there.
5. Is this Job Close to Family or a Support System?
When you're starting out in the news business, you can't expect to be offered an on-air job in New York or Miami. That's why many of my students begin their careers in some very remote places. This is not unusual since every community in America needs people to help deliver the news. Since most broadcast journalism contracts are two years or more, it's important to make sure students will be content with where they are living. A large part of that contentment is what happens outside of the job. What do you do on the weekends when you're off work? What do you do if you find yourself broke and hungry? Do you have a support system in place to help make those 2+ years pass by quickly? Having a great support system nearby really helps during the rough times.
In closing, remember to never make a split-second decision when considering a job opportunity. A company should allow you a day or two to review your contract with someone. After all, the company spent hours and lots of money having attorneys write it.
Would you sign a contract if it paid well, but the employer only gave you one hour to make a decision?
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
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© 2019 Leonard Horton