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Can my employer change my contract of employment?

A contract of employment is a legal agreement between the employer and the employee. It contains terms, either express or implied, which cannot lawfully be changed or varied by the employer without agreement from the employee (either individually or through the recognised trade union).

If the employer is thinking of changing a fundamental term of you and your colleagues’ contracts, it should carry out an early consultation before deciding  to proceed.

The employer should meet with affected employees (or their representatives) and explain why it is interested in making the change. It will need to give staff time to consider the proposal as well as to suggest alternative ways of achieving the same result (for example, the employer could save money by doing x instead).

Where the change involves removing a benefit, an employment tribunal is more likely to think your employer has acted fairly if it has offered something in return for the change, such as financial compensation, and given you enough advance notice before the change takes effect. 

An employee can decide to accept a change, and many terms of the contract are, of course, varied from time to time by mutual consent. For example, it is quite usual for pay to be varied, usually increased, on an annual basis.

In some cases, the contract may contain an express term permitting the employer to make changes from time to time. These terms are increasingly being found in employment contracts. They should be in writing and clearly expressed. Any vagueness in the chosen wording will be interpreted against the interests of the employer.

A change to the contract must not leave the employee unable to perform the contract – for example, requiring an employee to relocate at extremely short notice with no payment of expenses.     

This kind of term will also be subject to your employer’s general duty not to behave in a way that damages mutual trust and confidence

Where changes are made to your contract, employers must give you written notification of the change within four weeks.

An unauthorised, one-sided variation will be a breach of the contract of employment, and the fact that the employer has given you notice of the change will not make it lawful. However, if you put up with the change without protesting, there is a good chance that you will be viewed as having implicitly accepted the change, losing your right to object to it.   

You should consider regularly registering your opposition to the change (e.g. every month) and pursuing a claim in the employment tribunal for unlawful deduction from wages. This kind of claim is often best brought by a group of workers acting together, with the support of their union.

Sometimes, a change is so fundamental that it goes to the heart of the contract. A resignation in response to this kind of change could be a 'constructive dismissal'. However, resigning is clearly a very high risk option, and usually only advisable where you have another job to go to.