part two: Putting a contract out on your staff

Adam Bernstein examines the measures employers can put in place as a part of employee contracts

By Adam Bernstein | Published:  05 February, 2019

Good contracts go to the heart of good business, and employment contracts are part of the story. In the last issue we noted the importance of having a written contract, how they are constructed and varied. But what other practical considerations should employers take notice of?
    
The first is, according to Philip Richardson, a partner and head of employment at Stephensons Solicitors LLP, to understand what a breach of contract is. “This,” he says, “is where either party breaks an express or implied term of a contract. Examples of an employee’s breach include violence, theft, fraud and gross negligence. If the employer finds this has happened they may be entitled to dismiss the individual immediately.” However, he adds that it is important that the employer has genuine grounds for taking such action otherwise it could face a legal claim from the departing employee for unfair dismissal and breach of contract. He offers examples of an employer’s breach that include demoting an employee or failing to pay them without good reason – “if this happens then it may give the employee the entitlement to bring a claim against the employer in the Employment Tribunal.”
    
At the outset of the employment relationship, disputes aren’t usually envisaged. However, Philip says “a shrewd employer will often put mechanisms in place in the employment contract to protect its position should a dispute arise.” Common clauses that can offer assistance to the employer include the following:

Garden leave
If the employer gives an employee notice of dismissal it may decide to place them on garden leave. Philip says the benefit here is that during this period, the employee is usually prohibited from attending work for the duration of their notice period and prevented from contacting other employees or key clients of the business during the interregnum. “This,” he says, “gives the employer the opportunity to deal with employees whose contract has been terminated in acrimonious circumstances and also allows them to protect confidential information and prevent the employee from using it against the company in the future.”
    
He warns that if an employer wants to utilise this then it is important to include a clause to this effect in the contract of employment otherwise the employer may have difficulty in exercising it. It is also important to note that employees maintain all their contractual and statutory rights and benefits until the end of the garden leave period.

Restrictive covenants
This can be a particularly useful clause to include in the employment contract as it sets down the obligations on the employee after his contract is terminated. Philip says the most common types of restrictive covenant prevents the employee for working for a competitor, usually within six months to one year of leaving the business and “can prove extremely useful to protect confidential information and trade secrets.”
    
Another common form of a restrictive covenant is a non-poaching clause. This prevents the former employee from enticing the employer’s staff away from the business to join him/her in working for a new employer.
    
However, Philip says that it can be difficult to enforce a restrictive covenant against a former employee, “especially if the clause is unreasonable and does not protect a legitimate business interest as the court may declare the clause void.” He explains that this is because the courts are reluctant to place too great of a restriction on employees after termination. But in practice Richardson thinks that the mere existence of the clause may make the employee think twice before acting in breach, meaning “that a restrictive covenant can be a valuable contractual clause for an employer despite the concerns about its enforceability.”

Deductions from salary
A last, but useful, clause for the employer to include, at least from Philip’s perspective, is one that entitles it to make deductions from the employee’s salary in certain circumstances. He says that the most common types of deduction usually contained in the contract of employment include where the employee has caused financial loss to the employer because of their negligence or misconduct, or where the employee leaves shortly after having incurred substantial training costs. However, he cautions employers to “exercise caution in drafting and exercising this clause as any deduction that is not permitted by the clause could be considered unlawful.”



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  • part one: Putting a contract out on your staff  

    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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