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Ask the Expert: What is the difference between an offer letter and an employment contract?

Each month, we will tackle one of those burning questions that keeps you awake at night or causes heartburn during the day. Our team of experts will help you stay in the know. We'll cover topics like recruiting trends, legislation, workplace issues and more. You'll get information and answers that help you hire and retain top performers. 


This month’s question is “What is the difference between an offer letter and an employment contract?” This is a great question because there is often confusion for both employers and new employees about these documents.  


There are legal implications at play with these documents. Employment laws vary by region or country, and some jurisdictions may require specific information or clauses in employment contracts. Always consult with legal counsel to ensure that both the offer letter and the employment contract comply with relevant laws and adequately protect the interests of both parties.  


Let’s break down the purpose of these documents.  


Offer Letter 

An offer letter is a formal document an employer gives to a prospective employee. It outlines the basic terms and conditions of employment. These include information about the position offered, salary or compensation details, start date, work hours, and any conditions of employment (such as background checks or drug tests).  


It is not a legally binding contract. It serves as confirmation of the job offer and the initial terms offered to the candidate. It's usually used at the beginning of the hiring process to officially extend an offer to a candidate and to ensure mutual understanding of the basic terms. A formal employment contract may or may not follow. 


Employment Contract  

An employment contract is a legally binding agreement between an employer and an employee. It details the terms and conditions of employment. It includes job duties, responsibilities, benefits, termination clauses, confidentiality agreements, non-compete clauses, intellectual property rights, and more. Employment contracts formalize the relationship between the employer and the employee, providing both parties with clear expectations and legal protections. 


Using Offer Letters and Employment Contracts 

You would use an offer letter at the initial stage of offering a job to a candidate. It's often used to secure the candidate's acceptance of the job offer. 


You would use an employment contract after the candidate has accepted the job offer outlined in the offer letter. It is often signed by the employer and employee before the employee begins work. 


To ensure you use these documents correctly, follow these guidelines: 



Make it clear in the offer letter that it is not intended to be a legally binding contract. You can explicitly state that the offer letter is not an employment contract. If your organization is using an employment contract, you can include a statement that a formal employment contract will follow. 


Language and Tone: 

Use language in the offer letter that indicates it is not a contract. Avoid using terms that suggest a legally binding agreement.  


Limited Details: 

Keep the offer letter concise and focused on terms such as position, salary, start date, and any conditions (Form I-9, background checks). Avoid including clauses typically found in employment contracts, such as non-compete agreements, intellectual property clauses, or detailed termination procedures. 


Reference to Future Contract: 

If you are using an employment contract, include a statement in the offer letter explicitly mentioning that a formal employment contract will follow.  


Most Importantly, Seek Legal Advice: 

Consult with legal counsel knowledgeable about employment laws in your jurisdiction. They will provide specific guidance on how to structure the offer letter to ensure it doesn't inadvertently create an employment contract. 

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