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The working conditions battleground

Careers What you need to know when you’re at loggerheads with your employer over conditions - a lawyer advises

Working conditions are all too often a cause of tension between employers and employees. Recently, it seems the balance has tipped in  favour of employers – cuts to contractual pay and controversial working restrictions have both made C+D headlines recently. So what conditions can employers impose on you and where do you stand if you disagree?

Removing contractual benefits

Benefits in your contract may appear set in stone, but this isn't always the case – as illustrated by changes to contractual pay at Boots last year. If your employer wants to change anything in your contract, they must receive your consent first. There are ways of getting around this, though. An employer may put pressure on you to agree if you want to remain at the company.

But employees can fight back when changes are pushed through, says Phil Richardson, head of employment at Stephensons Solicitors LLP. "If your employer unreasonably exercises the right to vary the contract, then you may argue this has broken down the mutual trust and confidence in the relationship, and could resign and take legal action," he says. Pursue this route with caution, though – if the courts believe your employer has been reasonable, you won't be entitled to any compensation.

Immediate dismissal

We've all seen the films where a beleaguered employee arrives at work only to find they're irrationally fired on the spot. Luckily, this isn't the legal reality in the UK. Your employer can only dismiss you immediately if you've breached the fundamental terms of your contract – for example violence, theft, fraud or gross negligence. Mr Richardson stresses that minor mistakes don't warrant a swift firing. "It is important that your employer has genuine grounds for taking such action, otherwise it could face a legal claim for unfair dismissal and breach of contract," he says.

Working restrictions

Unfortunately, what you do in your own time isn't your own business. Most employment contracts forbid you from working anywhere other than your company. This rarely poses a problem for full-time employees, who often lack the time or energy for another job. But when you're only working one day a week, it's another story – as seen in the recent controversy over Lloydspharmacy contracts.

Sarah Booth, solicitor at Shoosmiths LLP, says it's common for part-time employees to need consent from their employer to work somewhere else. But this consent should not be unreasonably withheld, she stresses. "With the current media focus on the perceived problems relating to zero-hours contracts, employers should always seek to exercise their contractual powers equitably," Ms Booth says.

Employers can also place working restrictions on you after you've left the company, adds Mr Richardson. "A common restriction is to prevent you from working for a competitor, usually within six months to a year of leaving the business," he tells C+D. "This is to protect confidential information and trade secrets."

Salary deductions

Most employee contracts specify that your salary can be deducted in certain circumstances. But this is reserved for employees who have cost the business a substantial amount of money, rather than an unproductive day behind the dispensary. "The most common types of deduction include where you may have caused financial loss to the employer through negligence or misconduct, or where you leave shortly after having incurred substantial training costs," Mr Richardson explains. "Any deductions that are not permitted by your contract could be considered unlawful."

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