Offer Letters and Employment Agreements: Is There a Difference?

Author:Demaria, Alfred T.
Position:HR UPDATE

A common question that often arises when hiring new employees is whether to use an offer letter or an employment agreement. Both the offer letter and employment agreement serve the same basic purpose--to memorialize in writing the terms and conditions of employment. But each also serves additional purposes and understanding the differences will ensure that you use the right document in the appropriate situation.

Offer letters are typically short documents containing very basic terms and conditions of employment. A hallmark of an offer letter is the "atwill" employment provision, which provides that an employee can be terminated for any reason or for no reason at all (except an illegal one). Employment extended through offer letters can also be made contingent on successful completion of background checks and employment eligibility verification. Importantly, they should contain language specifying that the letter is not a contract. This gives the employer the ability to change terms as new circumstances arise.

Employment agreements on the other hand are lengthier documents that include more complex and sophisticated terms covering such things as non-solicitation, confidentiality, compensation, benefits, job duties and the circumstances under which the employee can be terminated. They are intended to be binding on both sides.

Which One Should Employers Use?

It depends on the type of hire. The more formal employment agreement is most commonly used with high-level employees due the complexity of their relationship with the employer. Employment agreements are also used to help protect the employer's assets, such as preventing a departing employee from taking IP, clients, customers and other confidential information. By contrast, the more informal offer letter should suffice for mid to low-level employees whose relationship with the employer is not as complicated.

What Should I Include in Employment Agreements?

Employment agreements come in different shapes and sizes, but will almost universally contain these same basic provisions:

* Term of Employment

* Title and Duties

* Exclusivity

* Compensation and Benefits

* Confidentiality

* Termination

* Severance Pay

* Arbitration

What Should I Include in Employee Offer Letters?

At a minimum, an offer letter should contain the following provisions:

* Position

* Start Date

* Compensation

* At-Will Employment Statement

In addition to the offer letter, many jurisdictions require that employers provide...

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