Experienced, astute employment law advice on lawfulness of employment contract variations

Varying a contract of employment

If employers change employment terms, whether expressly or implicitly, they risk an unenforceable contract or a claim for breach of contract.  There is also the risk that restrictive covenants will become unenforceable. We assist employers to successfully alter employment terms. If any claim is made we defend employers and mitigate the costs.

We are always happy to discuss a problem and provide an initial scope and fee estimate.  Please do call us.

Reasons for working with us

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Key risks of changing employment terms

Any change to a UK employment contract including bonus terms technically requires the employee’s consent. It doesn’t matter if the employment contract doesn’t specify the condition or benefit.  For example, the provision of a subsidised staff canteen could become a contractual entitlement over time even though the employment contract does not specifically mention the benefit of the staff canteen.

Can the employer change the contract without employee’s consent?

If an employer unilaterally changes an employee’s employment contract, without their express or implied consent, this is a:

  • Breach of contract which could give rise to a claim of constructive dismissal; and
  • Repudiatory breach, possibly which can leave the employer’s restrictive covenants unforceable.

Ideally, employers seek voluntary agreement. This avoids forced changes, redundancies and litigation. The law stops employers using their greater bargaining position to impose contractual variations on employees against their will.

Changing bonus terms

Many employers are caught out when relying on an express discretionary bonus clause. Employees have successfully argued that custom and practice over many years has, in reality, resulted in a more narrowly constrained discretion than the employer believed to be the case.

Whether employers can make savings by cutting bonuses depends on the employment contracts’ express terms, and the employer’s custom and practice.

Steps employees can consider

The risk for employers lies in the potential employment law claims arising if the employment contract is changed without consent. Typical employment law claims, depending upon the facts for an employee include:

Work under the new employment terms in protest

Sometimes termed standing and suing.  The employee chooses to work under the new terms,  but protests, i.e. makes clear they do not accept the terms. Then the employee:

  • Tries the new arrangements, for a reasonable period before, perhaps, objecting;
  • Has an ongoing claim for breach of contract;
  • Can claim for any financial loss;
  • Can claim for losses going back six years. Potentially, a significant liability.

Where the change imposed is substantial, the employer may be deemed to have dismissed the employee and re-engaged them on new term.  In this situation, the employee may also bring a claim for unfair dismissal.

Claim constructive dismissal and breach of contract

An employee can first resign, then claim constructive dismissal. However, the breach of contract must be a fundamental i.e. goes to the root of the contract.

Refuse to work under new employment contract terms

The employee could refuse to accept the new terms and continue to work under the old terms. This situation is different to where an employee works under the new terms, but clearly protests. Employers have to manage the obstructive employee.

Changing employment contract by consent

There are a number of ways employers can successfully change employment terms.  The easiest way is to offer an incentive such as a pay rise if the employment changes are agreed.  Changes to restrictive covenants are often implemented in connection with a promotion as often the employee will agree to the changes.  In other cases employers may have to consider implied consent and other possibilities as discussed below.

Employment terms altered through custom and practice

Custom and practice may be considered to amount to contract alterations. Often employees argue:

  • Their job role or working conditions have changed from the contract’s express written terms;
  • That in reality, they’ve been doing a different role to that listed in the contract;
  • That an initial informal period of partial home working has become a contractual right.

Policies and procedures

Staff handbooks, policies and procedures can if appropriately drafted be treated as separate from the employment contract.  Separation means that employers can usually change these without breaching the employment contract.

Nevertheless, putting everything in policies rather than the employment contract may not work. In employment law, it’s the substance, not the label, that counts.

If you need employment solicitor advice on any aspect of changing, varying or alerting a contract of employment, please do get in contact.




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