Careers advice

Employment in NZ: what to look for in a job contract

We know it’s boring, but you really do need to read your employment agreement.

Quick read: essential items your employment contract must include:

  • Your name, and that of your employer.
  • Your job duties.
  • Where you’ll work.
  • Hours of work.
  • Your wage or salary, and how it will be paid.
  • How to resolve any relationship problems you encounter at work.
  • A commitment that the employer will pay you at least 1.5x the normal amount if you have to work public holidays.
  • Any specific things you agreed on - e.g. the length of your probation period.
  • Where relevant, an employment protection provision if the business is sold or merged, if your work is contracted out.

It’s a great feeling when a shiny, new employment agreement lands in your inbox. You’ve worked hard, and your job search is nearly over!

However, a final crucial task is ahead of you – checking through the document before putting pen to paper.

Because employment agreements, or contracts, can be daunting and dull in equal measures, we’ve created this quick guide to help see you through. We’ll look at the most important elements of a job contract, as well as how long you’ve got to respond to a job offer, giving you the power to accept your new role with confidence.

There's a lot to think about before you put pen to paper.

Things you need to check before signing a contract: what employers must include

Note, the terms ‘employment agreement’ and ‘job contract’ are used interchangeably, and we’ll be doing the same throughout this article – they refer to the same document.

In New Zealand, employment law dictates that every job needs to be accompanied by a written employment agreement. The first thing to check is that yours contains all the following elements, which the government requires from employers:

1. Your name, and the employer’s

This is so it’s clear who's bound by the terms of the agreement.

2. The job description

It’s crucial you check this aligns with what you’re expecting. You don’t want to agree to performing additional duties you haven’t talked about previously, unless they’re minor and tasks you’re sure you could perform well on top of the rest of your workload.

Also, make sure the job title tallies with the role you applied for – admin mistakes happen!

3. Your hours of work

You should have a good idea of your working hours from the job listing and your interviews. As with the description section, all you need to do here is check that what’s written in the employment agreement matches what you were expecting.

Note, your hours of work could be given as:

  • A number per week.
  • Start and finish times.
  • The days of the week you’ll work (if you’re not full-time).

If your employment is fixed term, details about the length of the contract should also be part of the agreement.

4. Salary/wage details

On top of how much you’ll be paid, the employment agreement should specify how you will receive the money.

If you’ve already negotiated your salary up from the initial offer, make sure the employer has included this figure in your employment agreement. Don’t rely on verbal agreements, and don’t sign if the correct sum isn’t in your contract.

5. The location of work

Pretty straightforward, just check this is what you expected.

Study your job contract carefully, and ask as many questions as you need.

6. Info about working on public holidays

If you ever work on a public holiday, your boss is required by law to pay you at least time and a half, and your contract should include a statement committing them to this.

Note: the employer doesn’t have to include your annual leave details in the employment agreement (although they’re legally obliged to give you a minimum of 20 days per year). However, if you negotiated something in particular on your annual leave allowance, and the employer agreed to give you more than the minimum, this info should be in your contract.

It’s also important to know the company’s rules around taking leave, for example if you can carry unused days over to the next year

7. Dispute resolution processes

Hopefully you’ll never need the details in this section, but it’s important that your contract lays out clearly how you’d go about dealing with relationship problems with your employer.

If any of this part doesn’t make sense, be sure to clarify how the process would work before signing the contract.

8. Anything specifically agreed upon

We touched on this with holidays, but if you and the employer made any other specific arrangements to do with your employment, these should be noted in the contract. For example, a trial period or perks you’re entitled to.

In certain businesses, it’s also a requirement for the employer to provide an employment protection provision. This would come into play if the company is sold or transferred, or if your work is contracted out.

Your employment agreement should contain info on the pay you'll receive if you have to work on public holidays.

What else should I know before signing an employment agreement?

While the above is all stuff the employer has to include in your contract, we also recommend looking out for:

  • Notice periods and termination: it’s weird to think about leaving the job before you start, but make sure you’re aware of the notice you’re required to give if you decide to move on. Similarly, check out info on termination, and the rights the employer has to dismiss you.
  • Shift cancellation: if you’re doing shift work, find out how much notice your boss needs to give you if they need to cancel your shift, and what compensation you might be entitled to.
  • Sick leave: in New Zealand, an employer can give you a minimum of ten sick days a year.
  • Restrictive clauses: these are important if you have a side hustle, and for after you leave the job. Common restrictive clauses include not working for competing businesses, and not poaching clients if you decide to set up by yourself.
  • Copyright and intellectual property: usually, work you complete on behalf of the company will be their intellectual property and copyright, so make sure you understand this and stay on the right side of the rules.

Red flags in employment agreements that you should look out for

  • Missing items: look back at the top of the article, if your employment contract is missing any of those items, it’s worth bringing this up. Nine times out of ten, this will be an innocent mistake, but it’s worth checking.
  • Any changes from the job description or what you’ve discussed: is the salary lower than you’d agreed over the phone, or at your interview? Have they added some extra responsibilities to the role’s job description without consulting you? Again, this could be a genuine mix up, but it could also point to an employer trying to be cheeky.
  • Payment under the minimum wage: an employer would be pretty stupid to put evidence in writing that they intend to pay you less than the minimum wage, but it’s always important to check that they have kept up with the latest raises with this figure.
  • Overly-broad non competition clauses: it’s relatively common for employers to try and protect their intellectual property by preventing employers from leaving their organisation and moving to a competitor. To an extent, this is fair enough. However, you shouldn’t be signing away your future opportunities if you feel this clause is too restrictive.
  • Pressure to sign quickly: while it’s understandable that businesses want to finalise their hires (especially for a candidate as great as yourself), you shouldn’t feel hounded to sign the contract without fully understanding it.

How long do you have before accepting a job offer?

Often, you’ll receive an offer letter with your employment agreement that includes a deadline, usually around a week, after which the offer expires. During this period of time, negotiate and ask questions of the employer.

They should respect that making an informed decision is important, and should make someone available to communicate with you on any queries or concerns you have during this period.

Can I negotiate my employment contract?

Yes, yes, a million times yes. Negotiating pay, as well as other aspects of an employment agreement, is very common in New Zealand, and something that businesses expect to deal with.

We’ve got a whole article dedicated to this subject, where we give you some tried and tested tactics for contract negotiations. But here’s a quick list of things you’ll need to know to pull this off:

  • What you want, and whether it’s realistic.
  • Your personal elevator pitch that demonstrates why you deserve better pay or conditions.
  • Where to pitch your starting negotiation to give you the best chance of reaching your goal.
  • When to walk away.

Final questions to ask yourself before signing a job contract

  • Am I happy with the salary, and should I negotiate it? (Hint: the answer is almost always yes)
  • Are there other benefits I’d like to negotiate?
  • Does the company have a good reputation for how it treats its employees?
  • Is the company stable?
  • From what I know, will I get on with the manager?
  • Does this role offer me opportunities to learn and grow?
  • Will I have a good work/life balance?
  • Is the commute going to make me regret this decision?