part one: Putting a contract out on your staff

Employment rights apply even if there is no written contract, so employers need to read the small print even if it is not there

By Adam Bernstein |

Published:  14 January, 2019

There is a common belief amongst employers that if an employee does not have a written contact there is no contract in place, leaving the employee without any rights.
    
However, from a legal perspective, Philip Richardson, a partner and head of employment at Stephensons Solicitors LLP, says: “a contract of employment will be in place at the point where the prospective employee accepts an unconditional offer of employment.”
    
This means, quite simply, that a contract and the obligations under it are often in existence prior to the employee’s first day or signature on a written contract; employers should be mindful of how they conduct themselves from the moment the offer is made.
 
Fundamental terms
Philip says that while it’s true that there is no legal obligation for the employer to provide a written contract of employment, “the employer is under a duty to give employees a written statement of employment particulars. This sets out the fundamental terms of the employment contract such as the names of the employer and employee, brief job description and hours of work along with other key terms of the employment relationship.”
    
It’s worth pointing out that an employee’s right to a written statement arises where the contract lasts for at least one month; the written statement must be given within two months of the start of employment. If the employer fails to provide the written statement within the stipulated period Philip says the employee may be able to obtain an award of up to four weeks for compensation from the Employment Tribunal.
    
“In practice,” says Philip, “it’s beneficial for the employer to draft a full contract of employment as soon as possible so that it can clearly set down its expectations of how the relationship will progress.”

Express and implied
There are two types of contractual term – express and implied. Philip says that an express contractual term is one that is explicitly agreed upon by the parties and as such is binding on both – “the terms included in the written statements or terms referred to above would all be considered to be express terms of the contract.”
    
An implied term is one that has not been expressly stated but is considered to be included in the employment contract. Philip explains that these are often clauses that are implied by law for example the employee’s right to the minimum wage. He says that other terms are implied where they are too obvious to mention, including the duty of care owed by the employer and employee, the duty of mutual trust and confidence, the duty to pay the employee and the employee’s duty to provide the work personally.
    
This is where Philip sees problems for employers, as some believe that providing the term is not in writing, it isn’t relevant. “However, this isn’t the case and the employer ought to have regard to the terms mentioned.” He adds that implied terms are usually based on the perceived intention of the parties and notions of good practice and reasonable conduct.

Variation
Any variation of a contract must be agreed by both parties in order to be valid. However, as Philip notes, this does not mean that the employer’s hands are tied in varying the contract. “One way in which the employer may be permitted to make changes is if the contract includes a carefully drafted flexibility clause. Employment relationships often naturally develop and evolve over time and such a clause gives the employer capacity to make changes to the employment contract without the need to obtain the employee’s consent.” That said, he says a fundamental point to note with a flexibility clause is that there is an underlying duty for the clause to exercise reasonably: “If the clause is drafted too widely or the employer unreasonably exercises the right to vary the contract then the employee may argue this has broken the mutual trust and confidence in the relationship and could resign, taking legal action against the employer.”

From a practical perspective if the employer is seeking to vary the contract of employment it is also important to discuss the changes with the employee first. Often employees will be in agreement with the changes if they fully understand the reasons behind them.



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