You’ve been offered a brand new job with a small business as a greenhorn and now comes the fun part; legalities (aka The Contract).  As a new designer straight from design school dealing with contracts it wasn’t brought up in course material.  I really wish this topic had been brought up during my schooling, unfortunately it was never discussed, so I wanted to share my insights in dealing with contracts as a new designer at a new job.

As a new designer, I was unaware of what to look for in my first contract with a start-up business. So, I  used my past experiences to negotiate what I thought should be in a contract so I wouldn’t get burned in the future. Everything seemed fine when I signed it (with only a minor change), but in hindsight (after departing ways) it wasn’t in my favour in the least bit. That’s why I am offering you key points to look for when you deal with your first employment contract.


What to look out for in a new contract.

When dealing with a small business the biggest thing to look out for is: Hours. Does this business have enough work coming to give you guaranteed full-time work? With small businesses, your employer needs to not only cover their bills, but be able to provide you with enough hours so you can live (especially if this specifically a full-time job). It’s my belief, as a business owner, that if I’m to hire an employee it’s my responsibility to make sure that:

A. My employees are happy and productive.
B. That I know that I have enough income coming in to cover my bills and my employees get a decent salary so I knew they won’t think about finding another job.

I say this because when business starts to slow down your employees look to you to make sure that there’s enough to pay them. It’s your responsibility as a business owner to ensure that there is money to cover what your employees work hard for.

Also, make sure that the contract details how many hours are guaranteed to you weekly; an employer may say, “OH, we’re so busy you’ll never have to worry about having enough hours! Don’t worry.”  Then two months down the road, your hours slowly decrease and you are left wondering what the heck is going on. So, please ensure the number of hours are detailed in a contract.


Next up is Raises. Any business small or otherwise should have the section in a contract that covers raises. Whether it be annually or quarterly, productivity & great work should be acknowledged and rewarded. Make sure there is mention of this in the contract between you and the business. If it isn’t, request that it be amended with mention of a raise (even if it’s a dollar raise every year).


Showing your work.

Moving over to: Design work. When creating design work for a company it is often stipulated that any work you’ve created on their hours is rightfully theirs. That’s completely fair, totally agree with it. But, there’s a negative aspect to this; if you’ve created design work solely for the company for months and you’ve left the company (for whatever reason) your portfolio will be left looking empty. In reality,  the truth is you’ve done a ton of work on business cards, logos, brochures etc etc etc, but to everyone else… you’ve got very little to show that’s yours. This is why updating with your own designs regularly is key. But, if your new boss is agreeable, ask that a section be added to your contract to allow a designs you’re particularly proud of be added to your portfolio with written permission, by the employer. Selected artwork can be then displayed in your portfolio with correct acknowledgement of the company.


Your Cheques.

Now the good stuff: Payment. Unlike big companies, most small businesses won’t have direct deposit. Most likely your pay will either be by cheque or email money transfer (if you are getting direct deposit, sweet!). I’m bring this up because some small businesses will give you a cheque, but not a pay slip; this should make an automatic red light appear. Make sure that your cheque  includes details all hours worked, vacation time, CPP, EI, and any other deductions. Also, when dealing with cheques, ALWAYS photocopy each cheque. This may sound absurd, but if your employer isn’t all gum drops and lollipops he or she would have no problem burning you when it comes to dealing with who is paid what and how much was paid out for final pay. So, my word of advice; photocopy all pay cheques.

Also, check to see if there is mention of severance pay. In Canada if you’ve worked with a company for over 6 months and are let go (not fired or quit, but laid off), your employer is legally obligated to pay you severance pay. If this is not included in your contract, get it amended.

Furthermore, be sure that your contract shows your salary whether it be hourly, weekly, bi-weekly or salaried.


Other topics to think about are: vacation time, sicks days, expenses and overtime so there are many other considerations to take into account with contracts, but these are the top instances that could effect both parties badly if not in place for both you and your employer. If your employer is wholeheartedly a good person, he or she will already have this covered in their contract. If he or she does not, and skirts around these issues take it as a sign of things to come.

Further reading.

To learn more about labour laws in Canada or the US, I’ve included links to where you can find more information about your rights below.

Canada Labour Laws

United States Labour Laws