When you get your first certified-adult job, wrapping your head around all of the employment lingo can be confusing. 

When is it a good idea to sign an individual contract, or a collective contract? Are you allowed to negotiate your salary? What does HR actually do?

Re: News asked Steph Dyhrberg, an employment lawyer with over 30 years of legal experience, to answer questions you might have once you make it to the interview stage.  

Steph Dyhrberg is an employment lawyer. Photo: supplied.

What questions are employers allowed to ask me in an interview? 

Employers can ask you questions about anything reasonably relevant to the job, like your experience, working style, issues you've had in the past, criminal charges, your ability to travel and whether you've been fired or disciplined at a previous job. 

If you have made a complaint against a previous employer, prepare a response for what you will say if your future employer asks you about this. 

It's best to not talk badly about your previous employer and if the issue was settled in a confidential way, let them know that. 

What questions are employers not allowed to ask me in an interview? 

They cannot ask if you have kids, plan to have kids or what your gender, race, sexuality, relationship status or age is — unless the last one is directly related to your job. 

If the employer asks me to do tests or produce samples of work as part of the hiring process, how much of that is reasonable? 

Doing psychometric testing, scenario-based role playing or producing samples of work is normal these days. 

But decisions made by the Employment Court show that if you do work that is beneficial to the company as part of a trial, you are technically an employee and should be paid for that work. 

An unpaid work trial should not go on for more than a couple of hours. 

If you’re showing up and doing a full shift of work, you should ask the employer if they are asking you to do an unpaid work trial and clarify when you will become an employee. 

When should I ask about pay and what happens if the employer’s offer is too low?

You want to ask what the salary range is early on in the hiring process and places like Seek will often require the employer to advertise that range when they list a job. 

If you’re happy with the pay range, you want to work to become their preferred candidate. 

Once that happens, you’re in a good position to negotiate your pay. 

During the interview stage, when the employer asks if you have any questions for them, ask them a few questions about the role before asking them about their salary offer. 

They might flip the question onto you and ask you what you expect to be paid so do some research before your interview about what roles like these are usually worth. 

Employers might also ask you what you’re currently paid — you don’t have to tell them this as it might tempt them to offer you a lower salary if they think you’ll be fine with it. 

You can say: “I’m not comfortable telling you what I’m currently paid but for this role in a business of this size with my experience, I would expect a range of …” 

Men will quite often ask for more than they are offered while young women will often undersell themselves, which is part of the reason the gender pay gap exists. 

An employer’s first offer is usually not their best offer but if they tell you it is and you keep pushing, you might not get the job. 

What are the different types of contracts you can be offered? 

There’s collective employment agreements, which you can sign if you join a union, and individual employment agreements. 

There’s also independent contracts for when you are a contractor and not an employee. You don’t get annual or sick leave when you sign one of these and you have to sort out your own taxes. 

What are the perks of different types of contracts? 

If you join a union and sign their collective agreement, it can be really advantageous because you have an organisation bargaining for pay rises on your behalf. 

If you get into trouble at work, your union will be in your corner. 

Unions are not as strong in New Zealand as they are in other countries because union participation is low here, particularly in the private sector. 

Some employers aren’t keen on unions because they prefer to directly deal with their employees rather than go through a union. 

Unions getting involved in the workplace can be seen as disruptive, particularly if union members decide to strike.

So some employers will attach additional benefits to the individual agreement to incentivise an employee to sign that instead of the collective agreement. 

If you sign an individual agreement, it means you don’t have to pay union fees and can negotiate for yourself. 

However employees can also negotiate for benefits on top of what they get in a collective agreement. 

Whatever type of contract you pick, it's your choice and you cannot be hassled into it. 

What should I look out for when I’m reading over my contract? 

Once you get your contract, take a few days to look at it and get a more experienced person to give you advice on it. 

Check the start date, location, job description, pay rate and how many days of annual leave and sick leave they are offering. 

Check for whether there is a 90-day trial period clause. If there is, your employer could end your contract within the first 90 days for any reason. 

Check if there is a restraint of trade clause that controls what you can do once you leave the job. You might be prevented from doing things like working for a competitor in the same city within six months of leaving the company.

Look at the notice period, which will tell you how many days of notice you need to give your employer if you decide to leave your job. Check whether it's the same as the notice period your employer has to give you before they end your contract. 

Also check if your contract explains what will happen if you get made redundant — will you get redundancy pay? 

If your contract mentions policies that will apply to you in this role, ask your employer if you can read those beforehand. 

If something in the contract looks weird or you don't understand it, ask the employer to talk you through it. 

Am I allowed to know how much money my colleagues make?

You’re not entitled to that information. 

Employers will often ask employees not to share with colleagues what they are paid, especially at pay review time as people may get different salaries or pay rises.

It’s quite common these days for employers to give everyone a 2% increase or give no one an increase. 

If you find out someone else is being paid significantly more than you for doing the same job with the same experience, you might want to seek advice on what to do. 

How does HR work? 

If you have issues in the workplace, human resources (HR) should provide you with information and explanations for how processes are meant to work. 

They should be able to tell you what your options are and make sure processes happen properly. 

Some people assume HR will always be on the manager’s side and going to them with your issues can put a target on your back. 

HR works to keep the workplace fair and safe, and they should respect confidentiality. 

Just keep in mind it is in their job description to protect their company from risk. 

If you have had bad experiences at work that HR has not been able to help sort out, you could take your issues to an employment lawyer, union representatives, Citizens Advice Bureau or Community Law

What if I have issues but there isn’t HR at my workplace? 

Talk to a senior colleague you trust instead of just relying on support from junior colleagues because two 25 year olds putting their heads together doesn’t give you the wisdom of a 50 year old. 

Talk about any issues with family members or see if you have access to EAP counselling. 

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is leave.

What are some common issues young people face in the workplace? 

Young people are more vulnerable to bullying, sexual and racial harassment in the workplace. 

I’ve seen a lot of young people in their first year of work being put on performance reviews because they aren't seen to be performing well enough. 

A lot of employers have forgotten what it’s like to be new to the workplace and I’ve seen them be very hard on new graduates who are smart and wonderful.  

It causes young people to think the workplace is negative and traumatising because they aren't treated respectfully. 

In these situations, I'll often ask employers if they have supported their young workers enough or properly taught them how to do their jobs. 

If you're struggling at work, ask questions and get clarity and guidance. Don't suffer alone in silence, and get support from HR or your union representative. 

You must be treated respectfully. Everyone deserves that. 

May 22 2024: This article has been amended to clarify some of Steph Dyhrberg's answers.

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