Employment law

UK employment laws

UK Employment law is designed to protect workers as well as employers. This guide explains all of the major UK employment laws, with specific reference to employee rights.

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UK employment solicitors

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Questions about employment law?

UK employment law provides one of the world's finest legal frameworks for the defence of workers' rights. Naturally, it offers safeguards for employers, enabling them to dismiss rogue employees when the circumstances demand it; but, in the main, UK employment laws help to ensure fairness for all.

To help you understand your rights and obligations under UK employment law, we explain some of the main laws, terms and legal definitions here. If you need legal advice regarding to a specific employment law issue, please call us on 0330 107 6495 or contact us and we'll call you.

What is an employment contract?

An employment contract – or contract of employment, if you prefer – is an agreement between an employer and employee that one will work for the other in return for financial remuneration.

It's commonly thought that every employee must be given a written employment contract by law, but this isn't actually true (though the law does set out that you must be given certain basic information relating to your employment in writing no later than two months after you start work).

Some arrangements agreed verbally can also be considered as being part of your contract. This is perhaps more common in small companies, where hours, salaries, holiday entitlements and other benefits might be agreed 'on a handshake.'

Yet while this can be legal, it can cause problems for employees in the event that a dispute arises, when an Employment Tribunal Hearing may be forced to look at past evidence of things such as salaries and bonuses in order to determine whether your agreement has been broken.

What is flexible working?

This describes arrangements that can be made between employers and employees to vary their working conditions. You can request flexible working after just 26 weeks in continuous employment with the same employer. Your request may involve the flexibility to change to:

• Job sharing

• Working from home

• Working part-time

• Compressed hours

• Flexitime

• Annualised hours

• Staggered hours

• Phased retirement

Your employer must give reasonable consideration to this request within three months, unless you agree to give them longer. They can then deny or agree to your request but must give their reasons if your request is denied. If you disagree with the reasons for a denial, you may then appeal, or take a claim to an employment tribunal, should you believe that the denial of your request is procedurally unfair or discriminatory.

Do part-time workers have fewer rights?

No, they don't. This is a common misconception, possibly because part time workers are often treated less well than full time staff. However, under the Part-Time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations, part-time workers have the right to be treated no less favourably than the employer treats comparable full-time workers. This includes in the matter of salaries, which should always be paid pro rata, rather than offering lower hourly pay for part-timers.

What is a fixed-term contract?

A fixed-term contract provides a contract of employment for a fixed period of time, e.g. 12 months, or until a specified task has been completed, such as the successful 'go live' of an IT project. Often used in order to provide cover for additional projects or maternity leave, fixed-term contracts should treat employees no less favourably than if they were permanent workers. Where a series of fixed-term contracts goes beyond four years and is then renewed, it can become a permanent contract by default, unless the use of a further fixed-term is objectively justified.

What are my rights over wages and bonuses?

The legal definition of 'wages' includes every type of payment for employment including fees, bonuses, commission, holiday pay and non-contractual bonus payments. Notably, your employer may not make any deduction from your  wages unless it's expressly permitted by law, if an overpayment has been made to the employee or the employee has freely agreed to the deduction, such as in the cases of Income Tax and Contributory pension payments respectively.

What is the national minimum wage?

The national minimum wage (NMW) is an hourly rate that, by law, must be paid to all workers over the school leaving age of 16. The NMW rate rises depending upon your age and can vary if you're being paid for piece work (though must still not drop below the legal minimum level of NMW). You may also be paid a different rate if you're employed under an apprenticeship agreement.

What are the Working Time Regulations?

The Working Times Regulations apply to most workers, and serve to limit the hours you can be asked to work, and also ensure that you receive appropriate holiday pay. The most important terms of the working times regulations state that you must:

• Not work more than an average of 48 hours a week (unless you have specifically agreed to do so in writing – referred to as an 'opt out'), or 40 for those aged 16-18

• Be given 5.6 weeks' paid holiday every year

• Have at least one full day off every week

• Be given a 20-minute rest break on all working days longer than six hours

• Not work more than eight hours on night shift in any 24-hour period

However, there are some exceptions to this rule, for occupations such as sea fishing or emergency services, where 24-hour a day cover has to be maintained or there has been a collective agreement with a Trade Union to vary certain working time arrangements.

What counts as unfair dismissal?

If you've worked for your employer for two years or more continuously, you've the right to be protected from unfair dismissal. Your employer may believe your dismissal to be fair, and cite the following reasons for dismissing you:

Lack of capability: Where your health or capabilities are inadequate or you no longer possess or lose a qualification needed for the job you do

• Poor conduct: Perhaps where you're consistently late or behave offensively or even if you break the law outside or work

• Redundancy: Where a role is ceasing to exist

• Illegality: When your continued employment would contravene the law (such as if you lose the right to work lawfully in the UK)

Some other substantial reason: Which might include personality clashes with important clients or colleagues

In most of these cases, where you believe that your employer has dismissed you unfairly, or has discriminated against you in some way, you may be able to make a claim at an employment tribunal hearing.

What counts as constructive dismissal?

Constructive dismissal can be said to have occurred when an employer breaches one of the important terms of your working relationship or contract.  For example, if your employer makes your working conditions so unpleasant that you cannot continue in the role. This can also happen when fellow workers subject you to bullying, harassment or discriminatory treatment, and your employer fails to take necessary steps to protect you from this behaviour. If you've resigned from a job for these or other good reasons, you may be able to make a claim for constructive dismissal at an employment tribunal hearing.

What counts as wrongful dismissal?

Wrongful dismissal can be said to have occurred when either statutory or contractual notice has not been given when an employee is dismissed. Most employment contracts specify an agreed notice period, which you must be given when you leave.

Even where your notice period isn't specified in an employment contract, or you don't have a written contract, you're entitled to at least one week's notice after just one month of employment. After two full years of employment, this statutory notice rises to one week for every completed year of employment up to a maximum of 12 weeks.

The only exception to this rule is that if you're dismissed for gross misconduct, you may not be entitled to receive any notice period or payment.

What is a disciplinary procedure?

In order to ensure that employees are not unfairly dismissed, every employer is required to notify employees that they have written disciplinary procedures that must be followed so that the employee is aware of these and where they can be found. These should comply with the ACAS guidelines set out in its Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures.

Broadly speaking, these disciplinary procedures should be followed to prevent someone from being unfairly dismissed, as they should provide for a set process of verbal warnings, written warnings, final warnings and fair hearings before someone can be dismissed. Where these procedures have not been followed correctly, you may be entitled to make a claim for unfair dismissal at an employment tribunal hearing.

What is a grievance procedure?

Just as employers have disciplinary procedures for when they're unhappy with an employee, workers have the right to use grievance procedures when they're unhappy with their working environment, working relationships or working conditions. These grievance procedures should comply with the ACAS Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures and enable a speedy and satisfactory resolution of employee grievances.

When can I be made redundant?

Redundancy is a very specific term that relates to your employment coming to an end because the role no longer exists, due to changes in working practices, the closure of your workplace or sometimes just a slowdown in demand. Importantly, if you're genuinely being made redundant, your employer cannot immediately replace you with someone else to do exactly the same role.

If only part of a workforce is being made redundant, you may also have the right to challenge the selection criteria, as some employers may use overly subjective criteria or may choose employees for redundancy based on discrimination against protected characteristics such as age or pregnancy and maternity. Where you believe this has happened you may be able to start a claim at an employment tribunal.

What is an employment tribunal hearing?

Employment tribunals are hearings that take place in front of an employment judge (and depending on the kind of claim sometimes two lay members as well), and which decide on employment-related matters such as unfair dismissal claims and pay disputes.

Crucially, most claims at an employment tribunal must be started within three months, less one day, after the events that led to it: ranging from a dismissal to a discriminatory act in the workplace. You must also have submitted details of your claim to ACAS before presenting a claim to an employment tribunal. ACAS will seek 'early conciliation' on your behalf, and only when this has failed will they provide you with a certificate that enables you to start your claim at an employment tribunal.

What is discrimination in the workplace?

The Equality Act 2010 states that you must not be discriminated against in the workplace on account of nine protected characteristics. These are defined as:

• Age

• Disability

• Gender reassignment

• Marriage or civil partnership

• Pregnancy and maternity

• Race

• Religion or belief

• Sex

• Sexual orientation

If you're treated unfairly at work, or unfairly dismissed because of any of these protected characteristics, you may wish to consider making a claim at an employment tribunal hearing.

What does the law say about whistleblowing?

The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 protects employees from being victimised or dismissed for disclosing details to their employer (or in limited situations to certain prescribed bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive or Care Quality Commission) about acts including criminality, breaches of the law, dangerous working practices and environmental damage. Where the disclosure you make is in the public interest, you should have the full protection of the law and may not be dismissed or victimised in the workplace on account of your whistleblowing.

Case studies

Unfair dismissal of social worker by Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council

Slater and Gordon won an unfair dismissal case for mental health social worker Graham Hennis.

Claim settled confidentially for whistleblower

Slater and Gordon settled an unfair dismissal case for a whistleblower before it went to trial.

Firearms officer wins multiple claims of race discrimination against Cleveland police

Slater and Gordon helped a firearms officer to prove his claims of race discrimination against Cleveland Police.

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