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This is a guide for RCN members on written and verbal contracts, terms and conditions, changing your contract, changes to shifts and cancellation of work. 

Contract checklist: 10 things to check before you sign

A contract is a legally binding document. You should always read any contract fully and make sure you understand it before you sign it. This contract checklist may help you evaluate the contents of a new contract before committing yourself.

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Contract start date

A contract starts as soon as a job offer is accepted. Accepting an offer of employment on the terms specified and then starting work is generally seen as proof that you accept the terms and conditions offered by the employer.

Always be clear on (and ensure you are happy with) the terms and conditions before you accept the offer. Our contract checklist may help.

Terms and conditions set out the rights and responsibilities of you and your employer. These terms fall into four general categories, explained by ACAS. 

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Verbal contracts

Employment contracts do not have to be in writing to be legally valid.

A contract between employer and employee will still exist and can be orally agreed. However, we would encourage you to request a written contract as soon as possible. It is better to have proof of your agreement with your employer. Written contracts are also important if changes or variations to the contract have to be negotiated at a later date. Please also see below for your rights to a 'written statement of particulars'.

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Written statement of particulars

As a legal minimum, employers must give you a written statement of particulars within two months of the start of your employment.

This is not in itself your contract of employment but will include your main conditions of employment. Most employers convert this into a written contract of employment.

Read more about written statements of particulars on or, for Northern Ireland, NI direct.

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Probationary periods and your contract

Your employer may add a probationary period as a term of your contract starting from day one at work and lasting a number of weeks or months.

Your contract should state how long the probationary period will last and whether it can be extended.

Some employers will offer employees less favourable terms and conditions and a lower salary during the probationary period. They can do this as long as it is written in the contract. However, they cannot take away your basic statutory rights. Also, you should be treated as an employee from day one.

Your continuity of employment should start on your first day of work, not when the probationary period has ended. This becomes important if your employer uses continuity of employment (i.e. length of service) for certain entitlements such as annual leave.

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When an employment contract can be changed

As a contract of employment is generally binding on both employer and employee, it is generally unlawful for one party to unilaterally change the terms and conditions in the contract without the agreement of the other.

The terms in your employment contract can only be changed in the following circumstances:

  • you and your employer agree on the change
  • your contract provides, either expressly or by implication, for changes to be made*
  • there is a collective agreement which is binding on you, the terms of which are changed through negotiation
  • your employer terminates your existing contract and substitutes it with a new one which includes the variation.

*Check your contract as it may contain a flexibility clause. This can enable your employer to make changes to your terms and conditions, e.g. relocation. Generally, employers should only use flexibility clauses to make reasonable changes. 

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Your options if the employer breaches your contract

If your employer breaches your contract, you can respond in one of the following ways:

  • agree to the breach by carrying on working under the revised terms
  • raise a grievance or make a claim to an employment tribunal (industrial tribunals in Northern Ireland). You would need to have made it clear to your employer that you do not accept the new terms and conditions
  • refuse to work under the new terms.  Your employer may then decide to dismiss you and re-hire you on a new contract with new terms and conditions. If this happens you may be able to bring a claim for unfair dismissal. It's important to be aware that employment tribunals frequently find dismissals fair if the employer can point to good reasons for introducing the changes to the contract, e.g. economic necessity. If the dismissal is without notice, you may be able to bring a claim for wrongful dismissal.

If you are in this situation and considering any of the above please contact us before taking any actionThere are eligibility criteria and qualifying periods for taking an unfair dismissal claim to an employment tribunal

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Changes to shifts

If your employer wants to change your shift pattern, please see our guide on changes to shifts and check your legal rights. Your contract of employment, or local policy, may allow changes to your shift pattern, provided your employer follows the correct process.

If you have the legal right to continue working to your existing shift pattern, firstly discuss this with your employer. Contact us if the issue cannot be resolved.

If you want to change your hours or pattern of work, read our flexible working advice guide.

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Changes to your job description

Generally, changes to your job description should only be made in agreement with you and your employer. Check your employment contract and written particulars in case there is provision, either expressly or by implication, for changes to be made. Speak to your employer about any concerns you have.

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Breach of contract by the employee

Your employer could make a claim for damages against you if they suffer measurable financial loss due to you breaching the contract. They can do this either by initiating a claim against you in the County Court, or by counter claiming in an employment tribunal. In practice, this is rare.

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Fixed term contracts

If you are employed on a fixed term contract you have legal protection from the Fixed Term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002 – find out more in our fixed term contracts advice guide.

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Cancellation of work: lay-offs and short time working

Lay-offs can happen when there is insufficient work for employees and they are asked to stay at home. Short-time working is where an employee’s hours of work are reduced. Unless your contract states otherwise, your employer is legally bound to pay you for your contracted hours and should not be telling you that you have to pay time back at a later date.

Read more in our cancellation of work guide.

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Handing in your notice

If you want to leave your job you will have to give notice of resignation to your employer. How much notice you must give depends on your contract or written particulars. Find out more in our notice advice guide.

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Call the RCN on: 03457726100

Page last updated - 25/01/2018