First-Day Paperwork for New Employees: Understand What You're Signing

New employees may have to sign a number of documents before starting work.

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Many new employees -- especially those first entering the workforce -- are surprised at the mountain of paperwork that greets them on their first day. What's in that pile? Some tax-related forms, some forms the government requires for other reasons, some benefits forms, and probably some forms your employer has generated for its own use. Most first-day paperwork is routine, but there are a few things you should watch out for. This article explains the most common forms for new employees.

Tax Forms

You will be asked to complete and sign IRS Form W-4: Employee's Withholding Allowance Certificate. This lets your new employer know your tax filing status (to find yours, see Nolo's article What's Your Tax Filing Status?), how many allowances you are claiming, and how much to withhold from each paycheck. Many states have similar forms for state income taxes.

Other Government Forms

In addition to tax forms, there are other government forms you will be asked to sign when you start work. The federally required forms are:

  • USCIS Form I-9: Employment Eligibility Verification Form. You must complete the first part of this form, which is used to ensure that you are legally authorized to work in the United States -- and that you are who you say you are. You will also have to provide documentation proving your identity and work status, such as a passport. Your employer may make copies of these documents, but must return the originals to you.
  • New Hire Reporting Form. This form requires you to provide basic identifying information about yourself, which the state government will use to determine whether you owe child support.

Some states may require additional forms.

Benefits Forms

If your new employer offers benefits, you will have to sign enrollment forms. You may have to provide information about family members, choose among various plan options, and designate beneficiaries (for example, if you sign up for life insurance or a retirement plan).

Other Forms

Your employer may have additional forms it wants you to sign. Many employer-generated forms are routine. For example, many employers ask employees to complete forms naming an emergency contact, providing identifying information for the vehicle they will be parking in the company lot, or giving the routing numbers and other banking information necessary to process a direct deposit request.

Some employers, however, ask new employees to sign forms that affect their legal rights. Although you may decide to sign these forms anyway (in fact, you may have to sign them as a condition of employment), you should fully understand what you are agreeing to. Let's take a closer look at some of these forms.

At-will agreement. Many employers ask new employees to sign a statement acknowledging that they are employed at will: that is, that they can be fired at any time, for any reason. You may have already signed such a statement as part of the application process. If not, however, and if you were led to believe that you would have job security or could be fired only for good cause, you should think carefully before signing this type of agreement. For more information on at-will agreements and when you might want to think twice about signing one, see Nolo's article Employment At Will: What Does It Mean?

Noncompete agreement. Some employers ask new employees to sign a noncompete agreement, in which the employee promises not to start a competing business or go to work for a competitor after leaving the current employer. These agreements are not legal in every state. Even where they are legal, they must be reasonable, which is usually interpreted as limited in terms of time period, geographic area, and number or type of competitors they cover. If you are presented with a noncompete agreement, you may want to talk to a lawyer to make sure that it's legal -- and find out whether you should try to limit its application (for example, so that it is effective only if you quit your job, not if you are fired). For more information, see Nolo's article Must I Sign My Employer's Noncompete Agreement?

Nondisclosure agreement. A nondisclosure agreement (NDA) is a contract in which you promise not to reveal the company's confidential information. An employer may ask you to sign one if you will receive, for example, confidential customer lists, formulas for products, or manufacturing specifications to do your work. If you are asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement, read it carefully and make sure you understand the terms, including which information is considered confidential, how you should handle that information, and what penalties you might face if you breach the agreement. For more information on nondisclosure agreements generally, see Nolo's article Nondisclosure Agreements.

Nonsolicitation agreement. In a nonsolicitation agreement, you agree not to solicit the company's customers and/or its employees to a competing venture once you are no longer working for the company. Are you bringing customers or clients to your new employer? If so, you might want to try to exclude those people (or some of them, such as your friends and family members) from the nonsolicitation agreement. You should also make sure that the agreement prohibits only solicitation, not customers or employees who voluntarily follow you out the door. This is another area where it might make sense to talk to a lawyer before you sign. You can find an employment law attorney by searching Nolo's Lawyer Directory, where you can view in-depth attorney profiles of attorneys in your local area.

Arbitration agreement. A typical arbitration agreement requires you to give up your right to file an employment-related lawsuit against your employer (for wrongful termination, discrimination, or violation of wage and hour laws, for example) and instead bring any disputes to arbitration. Arbitration is a private proceeding, which typically provides limited rights to gather and present evidence and no (or very limited) rights to appeal the arbitrator's decision. If you are asked to sign an arbitration agreement, it's a good idea to ask for a lawyer's advice on whether you should sign and how to ensure that the agreement is fair. For more information, see Nolo's article Signing an Arbitration Agreement With Your Employer or by searching Nolo's Lawyer Directory.

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