I'm a salaried, overtime exempt permanent employee in the US.

What constitutes the contract legally binding me and my employer? I don't recall a document titled "Employment Contract". My impression is that the contract is in the original offer letter plus the employee handbook, but I'm not really sure.

  • According to a quick search on the topic the handbook can contain a disclaimer that it doesn't constitute a contract and can be changed without notice.
    – Dustybin80
    Nov 18, 2015 at 16:04
  • When you started employment, what did you agree to? Presumably you agreed at minimum to do a particular job (your position/job description) for a specific remuneration (your salary). The specifics of that agreement is your contract.
    – Brandin
    Nov 18, 2015 at 17:03
  • @Dustybin80: huh. You're right---my employee handbook has exactly that language; it's for "informational purposes only". OTOH, the verbiage does sound like it explicitly reflects management policies. Nov 18, 2015 at 17:28
  • @user1071847: I'm curious, what term of any contract with your employer are you questioning? Nov 18, 2015 at 23:14
  • @Dave is Not That Guy: They say that any accrued but unused paid time off must be forfeited upon leaving the firm. That might be OK in the state the firm is headquarted, but it's most definitely not OK under the law of the state where my satellite office is located. Nov 19, 2015 at 13:50

2 Answers 2


The employment handbook should have had some form of acknowledgement.

It varies depending on the situation, but what I have most often experienced is that the offer letter defines the rate of pay and the job title. The listing defines the responsibilities of the title that is used in the offer letter. The signature for acknowledgement of the handbook constitutes the chief contract of employment.

If you didn't sign an acknowledgement of the employee handbook, then I think that would fall into the wheel well of a verbal contract of employment outlined but not bound to the terms illustrated in the job listing and offer letter.

In other words, if you've signed it, then you are bound to what you signed and all that is referenced in what you signed. If you didn't sign anything, then you have a verbal contract and the company has left themselves vulnerable in that if they want to bring an action against you (try to refute a filing for unemployment, try to bind you to a policy in the handbook you didn't sign, etc.) then you can just say "I don't recall any of that. I simply recall a verbal contract outlining that xyz..."


The US has at-will employment and as a result most employees have no separate employment contract1. Legal requirements and responsibilities between employer and employee are defined at both the federal and the state level. They can additionally vary based on the size of the company, its involvement in cross-state trade or government contracts, whether it is a government agency and whether it qualifies as a faith-based organization to name just a few things.

Company policies, whether signed or unsigned, may additionally have some legal power but generally not as much as a contract which is a separate legal concept.

To summarise:

What constitutes the contract legally binding me and my employer?

For most purposes, nothing. You are free to stop coming into work at any moment. An employer is free to fire you at any point for any reason (not specifically related to a protected class). Notice periods are a standard practice but, absent an actual contract, are not enforceable.

This briefly covers the concept of an "employment contract" as it relates to most US employees. For anything specific to your situation, consult a lawyer.

1 One source that I'll care to cite is Alison Green at Ask A Manager: ...unless you have a contract, which most U.S. workers don’t

  • 2
    I'm pretty sure you are talking about "Right to Work" legislation, which is not present in all states, and does not invalidate a contract, it just makes the consequences of not having a contract steeper for the employee. Nov 18, 2015 at 16:48
  • I think you have too narrow a definition of "contract". I assume there are plenty of at-will employees who are governed by a non-compete agreement, which is part of their contract, unless I'm missing something. Nov 18, 2015 at 17:24
  • @user1071847 You refer to "the contract", which I can only assume means an employment contract. If you're talking about multiple contracts then the broader definition could apply but you should edit your question if that's the case.
    – Lilienthal
    Nov 18, 2015 at 19:10
  • @user2989297 Eh no, not at all. Right to Work is related to unions which I don't even come close to mentioning.
    – Lilienthal
    Nov 18, 2015 at 19:18
  • 1
    @user2989297 [legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Right-to-Work+Laws] says that Lilienthal is correct. Their article on at-will employment [legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/at-will+employment] doesn't mention Taft-Hartley at all. Nov 18, 2015 at 23:09

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