If you're having problems at work, one of the first things to do is check your employment contract. If any of the terms have been broken, you may be able to claim breach of contract
Your employment contract
The contract of employment that you have with your employer is normally a formal written document but can also include other terms.
Although you do not have to be provided with a written contract of employment, your employer is at the very least required to provide you with a written statement of the main terms and conditions of your employment on or before your first day of work. It must contain the following:
- name of employee and business;
- job title, description and start date;
- details of any probationary period;
- location, hours and days of the week the worker is required to work and whether they can be varied and how;
- details of pay (including amount and frequency);
- holiday and paid leave entitlement;
- any benefits not covered elsewhere in the statement;
- details of of any employer-provided training;
- notice period;
- grievance, disciplinary and dismissal procedures (or where to find details);
- sick pay (or where to find details);
- length of employment (if fixed term or temporary);
- pension details;
- details of any relevant collective agreements.
This written statement is not a contract in itself, but forms part of your key terms of employment. There will usually be many other terms and conditions which make up the rest of your contract of employment.
- Contract terms may be included in other company documents such as a letter offering you employment or an employee handbook.
- You may have agreed some terms verbally, without writing them down. These are still part of your contract (though they may be difficult to prove).
- Some 'implied' terms apply to all employment contracts. These include the duty of both employer and employee not to act in a way that seriously undermines the 'trust and confidence' between them, and the duty of the employer to provide a healthy and safe workplace.
- Some contract terms are legally required. For example, your contract must pay you at least the minimum wage and entitle you to at least the minimum annual holiday, regardless of what any written documents do or do not say.
- Some contract terms may develop 'by custom and practice' - for example, if everyone always gets a week's extra pay at Christmas. It can be difficult to show that a custom and practise has become a contractual entitlement.
Breach of contract
If any of the terms of your employment contract are broken - either by your employer or by yourself - this is referred to as a breach of contract.
Examples of a breach of contract could be if your employer does not pay your wages, or you do not turn up for work without a good reason.
If your employer has changed a term of your employment contract without consulting you, it may sometimes be possible to claim breach of contract. Check your contract to see if your employer is allowed to unilaterally make changes. Any changes would still need to be reasonable.
What can I do about a breach of employment contract?
If you think there has been a breach of your employment contract, the first thing to do will be to check the terms of your contract and discuss the problem with your line manager or the HR department. Perhaps there has been a mistake (eg a missed payment by whoever does the payroll) that can be sorted out quickly and easily.
If an informal discussion does not resolve the suspected breach of contract, you can lodge a formal grievance under your company's grievance procedure.
If you are unable to resolve the breach of employment contract internally, you may want to take legal action.
- If your employer has withheld wages unlawfully, or failed to pay your notice or bonus, you can make a claim to an employment tribunal.
- You can take your employer to court for breach of contract, but legal fees can be expensive and you can only claim for any financial loss you have suffered. If the breach has just hurt your feelings, it may not be worth taking any further action.
- Your employer may try to change your contract without your agreement. You may need to refuse to work, say that you are working under protest or take legal action. Otherwise you may find that you have effectively agreed to the new contract.
- You may feel that your employer has behaved so badly that you have no choice but to resign and claim constructive dismissal. This can be very difficult to prove, so you should take advice before resigning if possible.
You should talk to your union representative or a lawyer to get advice on the best approach for your particular situation.
What happens if I am accused of breach of contract?
Breaching your employment contract may well result in a disciplinary process, which may eventually lead to your dismissal.
Although an employer can also pursue you for damages, this can only be in respect of financial loss which they have suffered as a result of your breach. Unless you are very highly paid, this is unlikely in practice.