Nov 20 2007 by Jason

What Are Typical Employment Contract Terms and Severance Benefits for a Startup?

Q:  I have read the your article on typical compensation for senior management of venture backed companies.  There was no mention of severance and length of contract terms. Can you opine?

A: (Jason)  Most everyone in the startup world is an at-will employee and does not have an employment contract.  For those of you unfamiliar, “at-will” means “can be fired at any time for any reason.”  Most employees have offer letters which outline basic terms of their employment, but are silent with regard to severance benefits.  Basic terms include provisions on confidentiality, assignments of inventions and the like. 

I’d estimate that less than 10% of folks working for startups have employment contracts.  The contracts are usually one year in nature.  The ones that I have seen still make it clear that the employee is at-will, but provide some sort of severance benefits, whether this is accelerated vesting or some small cash payout.  Sometimes for high level executives you’ll see 3-6 months of vesting and / or cash comp, but it is not the norm. 

Remember, startups are normally resource constrained – they don’t have extra cash or equity to pass out to people, so don’t expect any types of severance benefits that you would see at a large company.