Oral Employment Contracts

An oral employment contract is just as binding as one in a written agreement -- but it's much harder to prove in court.

Updated by , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law

Oral employment contracts (sometimes called "verbal" contracts) are simply contracts that are spoken and agreed to aloud rather than reduced to writing.

If, like most employees, you don't have a written employment contract with your employer, it doesn't necessarily mean you have an oral contract. Instead, you might simply be an at-will employee, which we'll discuss in greater detail below.

Here's what you need to know about oral employment contracts, including how to form one and how to prove one exists.

What Is an Oral Employment Contract?

Oral employment contracts are agreements between an employer and an employee that are made verbally, rather than in writing.

It's common for employers and employees to enter into short oral contracts at the start of the employment relationship.

For example, "if you can start tomorrow, the job is yours," followed by "I accept; see you tomorrow!" is a form of oral contract.

Just because you can create an oral contract doesn't mean you should, however. Oral contracts are difficult to prove and enforce. If you and an employer are making a deal about something important, you should put it in writing.

Oral Contracts and At-Will Employment

In the United States, most employees work at will. That means they can quit at any time for any reason, and they can be fired at any time, for any reason that's not illegal. (Illegal reasons for firing include discrimination and retaliation, for example.)

If you have an employment contract promising you a job for a set term or stating that you can be fired only for good cause (or other reasons, such as defrauding the business), you are not employed at will. If the employer fires you during the contract term for a reason that isn't set out in the contract, you can sue for breach of contract.

An oral contract can change your at-will status. For example, if your manager tells you that the company doesn't fire anyone without good cause, or states that you will have a job at the company as long as you meet certain performance standards, that might change you from an at-will employee to one who can be fired only for those reasons.

Oral Employment Contract Requirements

An employment contract, whether oral or written, must contain three elements to be valid: an offer of employment, an acceptance, and consideration (something of value exchanged between the parties).

In the context of an employment contract, the employer might promise a pay and benefits package to the employee as consideration for their services.

While both oral and written contracts have the same requirements, oral contracts are generally harder to enforce. Proving the existence of an oral contract usually relies on witness testimony and circumstantial evidence.

Proving an Oral Contract

It can be very difficult to prove the terms, or even the existence, of an oral contract. The problem may be a simple misunderstanding: Perhaps you and the person who hired you remember the conversation differently. Or, the problem could be intentional: Someone could lie in court about what was really said.

Either way, it will come down to one person's word against the other. The judge or jury will ultimately have to decide who is telling the truth, and there's no guarantee that you'll win the fight. The better strategy is to always insist on getting agreements in writing. If there's a misunderstanding about the terms, you'll find out right away. And, if there's a dispute down the road, you will have solid proof of what everyone agreed to.

Contact an Attorney

If you're struggling to prove the existence of an oral employment contract, consult an experienced employment law attorney to discuss your legal options. Even if you don't have a written employment contract, you might still have a case against your employer for breach of contract, wrongful termination, or another claim.

Get Professional Help
Talk to an Employment Rights attorney.
There was a problem with the submission. Please refresh the page and try again
Full Name is required
Email is required
Please enter a valid Email
Phone Number is required
Please enter a valid Phone Number
Zip Code is required
Please add a valid Zip Code
Please enter a valid Case Description
Description is required

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you