Is it legal for my employer to impose changes to my contract of employment without consulting me?
Yes, and no, depending on the circumstances. For example, employees who are paid the national minimum or living wage will have their contract, insofar as it relates to pay, altered automatically on any change to minimum pay rates. Generally, however, the answer is no. The employer and the employee are the original contracting parties so any changes should only be put in place by agreement between those two parties. Matters can be different in a situation where there is a recognised trade union, where certain collective terms are agreed between the employer and the unions.
Where the employer is proposing to make changes to the contract, they should consult with the employee before anything is put into place. Hopefully, the new terms will be agreed between the parties without there being any dispute. Often, it can be a positive change to contractual terms, such as a promotion or a pay rise.
Situations can become difficult if the proposed change to the contract is to the detriment of the employee, and so consultation can be quite wide ranging, exploring the viewpoint of either party, as well as discussing and negotiating alternatives to the original proposal. Often, an agreement is made where the employer gives something in return for a detrimental change to the employee’s contract. For example, in return for agreeing a reduction in pay, the employee may be given an earlier finish on a Friday afternoon, or another reasonable benefit which suits them.
After negotiations, the parties may reach agreement, at which point new terms and conditions of employment should be drawn up in the form of a contract and signed by the parties as evidence of the new contractual terms.
What should I do if my employer forces contractual changes upon me?
If an employer were to force contractual changes upon an employee (without their agreement) then an employee may be able to claim breach of contract and/or constructive dismissal. They would argue that the imposition of the contractual change was a fundamental breach of contract and therefore they are entitled to resign and make that claim. In such circumstances, however, we always recommend employees taking legal advice before resigning or taking any action.
Where no agreement is reached during a consultation process, the employer may terminate the existing contract fairly, subject to them having followed a proper procedure and having had sound business reasons for the introduction of the change to the contractual terms.
Most employers in these circumstances will offer new employment, incorporating the new terms, on the same day as the termination of the old one. This helps to reduce their liability in the event of an employment tribunal claim.