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ContractPatch, Step 3: It's never too late

by Tony Sebro on November 30, 2016

We understand that we may lose a little credibility with the other side when we look backwards. We're reluctant to break the psychological bond we formed when we reached agreement — even if that agreement was communicated by little more than silent assent. We worry that we look sloppy and unprepared, since we had a chance to bring up whatever concerns we had the first time we discussed that point, and we didn't.

Employees in particular can feel that way about the agreements they signed with their employer.

As Karen stated in our last entry, people likely will never have as much power over their employer as they do the moment just before they sign their employment agreement. I certainly agree, and we would all be wise to use that leverage as best we can while we have it. But what about the rest of us, who have already signed that agreement? All is not lost. Despite what our psychology tells us, it's never too late to go back to the negotiation table with your employer.

The stakes and the power dynamic are different, to be sure. From the employer's perspective, a recruit with a job offer in hand is potential personified; whereas an employee has an actual performance record and history of relationships — and, of course, a demonstrated willingness to work for the employer at the terms they already agreed to.

So, perhaps you're in a situation where you have some regrets about the employment agreement you signed. Or, perhaps you're up for a promotion, or a transfer, or some other change in job duties. Or, perhaps your priorities have changed, and you'd like to adjust where you're willing to give and to get accordingly. You should consider at least two factors when deciding how best to proceed.

Factor #1: is the juice worth the squeeze?

While it's certainly possible to renegotiate an employment agreement, every employee should recognize that the subtle cost of doing so is real. Your employer is presumably fine with the status quo, and you'll be asking them to spend time and/or resources considering your requests. As a threshold matter, you should be candid with yourself about the stability of that status quo: the cost of attempting to renegotiate might be much higher if your position with your employer is shaky than if you're a rising star. In addition, changes in responsibilities and/or title may afford you a unique opportunity to reconsider the terms of your employment.

You should also do your best to determine what others in comparable positions receive from their respective employers. Market data will give you a better sense of what your employer might be willing to concede in a renegotiation. Obtaining this data isn't always an easy task: salary benchmarking for various industries is generally available on the web, but information about industry practices regarding other terms of employment is harder to come by. One of our long-term goals with ContractPatch is to gather and present information that enables both employees and employers in the tech sector to efficiently negotiate better employment agreements.

Lastly, you should compare the value you place on each of your requests to their cost to your employer. Employers usually manage their employees' salaries closely, so a straight-forward request for a raise is usually a zero-sum game: more money for you, less remaining in the employer's budget for something else. But it might be harder to quantify the employer's cost for other requests — particularly if they relate to more non-monetary requests like ownership of copyrights in your work, flexibility to pursue and contribute to extra-curricular activities, etc. You'll likely need to rely on your understanding of your employer's culture and business model to estimate the cost (if any) your employer would incur to grant those non-monetary requests.

Obviously, the easiest renegotiations are the ones where you're confident in your standing with your employer, you value your requests a great deal, your requests are in-line with industry practices, and you think your employer will incur minimal costs in granting them. And, of course, context matters: an employer who has given you a promotion but who doesn't have the budget to give you a commensurate salary bump is likely to treat non-monetary requests differently than an employer who has just backed up the Brinks truck for you. Your risk/reward calculus will depend on your assessment — and will go a long way in determining when and how to reopen discussions with your employer.

Factor #2: what does your existing employment agreement say about it?

I know this should go without saying. But many an employee has signed their employment agreement without fully understanding all of the terms they've agreed to. So, as you consider whether to renegotiate your agreement, make sure you're familiar with the existing agreement. If you don't have a copy handy, you should request a copy from your employer to have on file.

Once you've reviewed your existing agreement, compare the current language with your wish list of requests. In particular, you should know whether your requests would require actual amendments, or if you're merely looking to clarify vague or even seemingly contradictory language.

So, if you have a firm grasp on your current employment agreement and how you'd like to see it changed — and if you're comfortable that obtaining some or all of those changes is worth the risk — you're ready to start renegotiating. If your assessments are accurate, you might be surprised as to what your employer is willing to concede the second time around.

Over the course of this series, we'll start to drill down into specific subject areas commonly covered (sometimes expertly, other times poorly) in employment agreements for employees in the tech sector. If there are particular topics you'd like us to cover, you can sign up for our mailing list and offer suggestions. We look forward to continuing the conversation.

Tags: conservancy, ContractPatch

ContractPatch, Step 2: Understanding the power balance

by Tony Sebro on September 26, 2016

Employment agreements are one of the things that I'm asked the most regularly about in the free and open source software world, almost rivaling questions about licenses. My responses have always been the usual lawyerly responses of This Is Not Legal Advice and while I Am A Lawyer, I Am Not Your Lawyer (I'm generally not acting as a lawyer on behalf of Conservancy as its Executive Director either). But even from my early days of being involved with free software, I have seen that there's a lack of understanding about employment agreements and the ability of employees to get their agreements modified. Last month, Fred announced a new initiative that we are working on together, called ContractPatch. With ContractPatch, our goal is to help provide knowledge to employees, along with sample language for better contract terms. The first step in this process is understanding the dynamics at work in employment arrangements. Step 1 is knowing that everything is negotiable and step 2 is knowing where you stand in the negotiation. Quite simply, you likely will never have as much power as you do the moment just before you sign your employment agreement.

At the point you are presented with a job offer, your prospective employer really wants to hire you. Chances are, they've screened and interviewed a number of candidates and put a lot of work into the process. Your manager has thought deeply about who they want in the position and has probably imagined how it will all work out with you in the role. Both you and the hiring decision-maker(s) are probably very optimistic about what you'll accomplish in the role and how well you'll get along working together. At this point, no one wants to go back to the drawing board and start the process over again. You will be excited to start the new job but it's worth taking a step back to appreciate the unusual position you are in with your new employer.

As part of the hiring process, you'll be expected to negotiate your salary (this can be complicated) and finalize all of the terms of your employment. Terms of employment can also be looked at through the lens of compensation, and asking for more favorable terms in your employment contract can be another kind of perk an employer can give you if they have a tight budget. A classic contract negotiation tactic (I even learned this in law school) is to make an agreement stronger in the first draft than you really need it to be, just so that you can give something away when pushed. This is certainly true of many company's standard agreement templates. The only way to find out is to ask.

Once you take the job, it's harder to change your terms of employment (though it's possible, as we'll cover later). Think hard about the long term impact of signing the agreement and whether things could happen down the road that would make you feel less comfortable with working under those terms. We'll be giving you some examples of situations you want to be prepared for when we talk about specific contract provisions.

Asking for more favorable terms doesn't have to be an adversarial process. You can ask for an agreement to be amended in a friendly way. Employers often respect workers more when they advocate for themselves.

So, we'll help you think about how to engage with your employer while anticipating things that could go wrong down the road and how to ask for more favorable terms. You can sign up for our mailing list to be part of the conversation. While it may be easier to avoid negotiating your agreement, don't trade short term comfort for your long term benefit.

Tags: conservancy, ContractPatch

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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