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ContractPatch, step 1: Everything Is Negotiable.

by Fred Jennings on August 4, 2016

About a year ago, I got talking with some friends in the tech industry about contracts. And it began to sound like something was very, very wrong.

Working informally through personal networks of engineers, project managers, freelance designers, and many more, I ended up with a small horde of employment contracts, offer letters, work agreements, and all manner of other documents that fall under that umbrella term, “contracts.”

And almost all of the contracts were bad.

Not badly written, though some were. Not legally unenforceable, though some were.

They were bad for the people who signed them.

They waived important legal rights, gave the employer ownership of ideas and projects it had no reason to take, or imposed serious limits on future work.

And people often didn’t realize how bad these were, the risks they’d agreed to, or what rights they’d given up.

Among the few who did, most didn’t realize they could negotiate these terms. Others did, but weren’t sure how to start. Several assumed their employer wouldn’t enforce the more onerous terms.

Nobody should bet their future on that assumption. Doing so is to build one’s career on a house of cards.

But that won’t change until enough people speak up and push back, and have the tools to do so.

That’s where this project began for me.

About a month ago, I sat down over lunch with friends from Software Freedom Conservancy, and learned they’d embarked on a similar project at around the same time. In fact, Karen Sandler recently spoke on the subject as OSCON 2016.

We’re calling it ContractPatch. The idea is to provide strategy and legal knowledge to workers, along with some sample language for better contract terms.

But let’s start with the first step:

Everything is negotiable. Keep repeating that until it sticks.

Merely knowing that is an edge. Companies know it, but often don’t want their employees or potential hires to realize it. Some employers even structure their hiring, renewal, and termination processes to discourage negotiation. This can halt inexperienced negotiators, especially those from historically underrepresented groups who face widespread employer prejudice that can undermine their perceived ability to negotiate. Everyone will enter a negotiation with different leverage, different goals, and unique needs and strengths.

There are no magic words, but anyone can learn the techniques and strategies to approach contract negotiations. Like any other skill, it may not be easy at first. Also like any other skill, it can be broken down into steps, practiced, and will become easier over time.

And we’re here to teach.

In the coming months, we’ll write about legal and strategic points in contract negotiation strategies, pre-negotiation prep and practice, methods for negotiating, and we’ll provide information on your legal rights around contracts.

Down the road, we’ll look at specific contract provisions — especially those that impact tech workers the most, such as non-compete agreements and intellectual property assignment clauses. This will go hand-in-hand with a Github repository with forkable sample language for key contract provisions, such as payment terms, benefits, non-competition and non-solicitation agreements, and intellectual property assignment clauses.

But let’s walk before we run. The first step is knowing you can negotiate. Next, we’ll discuss the balance of power in hiring agreement negotiations, and how to self-evaluate your position before a negotiation begins. After that, we’ll cover timing and strategies around contract renewals, raises, and other opportune moments to renegotiate.

Whether it’s an employment offer, a mid-project contract renewal, or a termination agreement, its terms can be pushed on. Often, they can be changed. And getting there gracefully is an art, more dance than declaration.

And we want you to know as much as you can before your next dance starts.

Tags: conservancy, ContractPatch

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