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Employment contracts and your employee rights explained

If you’re working, it’s important to understand how your written or oral employment contract establishes the rights and responsibilities for both you and your employer. It’s important to know what might be included in your employment contract, how your rights affect your employment status, and what to do if you have a complaint or there’s been a breach of contract.

What is your employment status?

Your rights at work depend a lot on whether you’re an employee, a worker or self-employed. Finding out your status is the first step to finding out what you’re entitled to.

Your employment contract

If you’re working, you should have an employment contract, regardless of your employment status.

While most employment contracts are in writing, they can also be verbal (oral) contracts.

Oral contracts have the same legal authority, but it can be much harder to prove what was agreed.

Having a written contract gives you more certainty over your status and can make it easier to resolve any disputes.

Even if you’re not given a written contract, you’re entitled to a written statement outlining your main employment terms. This should give you details of your:

  • job title
  • pay
  • hours of work
  • access to in-work benefits, such as sick pay and holiday entitlement
  • employment start date and notice periods.

Express terms

Express terms are parts of your contract that are specifically mentioned, either in writing or agreed orally, by both you and your employer.

These might include:

  • sick pay
  • redundancy pay
  • hours of work, including overtime hours
  • how much notice is needed to end the contract
  • how much you’ll be paid (including overtime and bonus pay)
  • holiday pay, as well as how much time you’re entitled to take off. Most full-time workers are entitled to 28 days, and part-time workers get the same amount, in proportion to the number of days or hours they work.

Express terms can be found in your work contract, but also:

  • the job advert
  • any letters you receive from your employer
  • documents you were asked to sign, such as a staff handbook or manual.

Make sure you keep copies of all documents your employer gives you. This makes it much easier if there’s a dispute about your contract.

Implied terms

Implied terms aren’t written down in a contract, but would be expected behaviour and can be included in most employee contracts.

For example, you won’t steal from your employer and you won’t give away confidential information.

Your employer must provide a safe working environment and shouldn’t ask you to do anything illegal, such as drive an uninsured vehicle.

Terms might also be implied through custom and practice.

This is where arrangements have never clearly been agreed, but over time have become part of the contract. Examples of this might include finishing early on a Friday, or a Christmas bonus.

For an entitlement to become established by custom and practice it must usually be:

  • uninterrupted
  • long standing
  • automatically received
  • expected and well-known.

Unauthorised deductions from wages

If an employer is going to make deductions from your wages, they should be legally authorised — for example, tax and National Insurance — and put into your contract with a written explanation or agreed in writing before they’re made.

There are some exceptions, for example if you’ve been overpaid by mistake or haven’t worked because you have taken part in industrial action.

There is special protection for retail employees. This means it’s illegal for an employer to deduct more than 10% of their gross wages for cash shortages or stock shortfalls.

Probationary periods

Employers sometimes give new employees a probationary period.

Your contract can contain terms applying only during your probationary period. But these terms can’t take away your statutory rights.

For example, during a probationary period, you might not have all the rights you’ll have when the period is over. But there can be no reduction in your statutory rights. For example, to paid holiday, statutory maternity leave or sick pay.

Your full contractual rights start on your first day of work, unless your contract says otherwise.

Changes to contracts

Your employer might want to change the terms of your contract, for example:

  • change your pay
  • change the work you do
  • change your place of work
  • cut or change the hours you work.

In theory, your employer can’t change the terms of your contract without your agreement.

If you’re not sure how a change will affect you or whether to accept it, you can get free employment advice from these workplace advice services:

If you’re an employee, you have access to a wide range of in-work benefits, including:

  • National Minimum Wage
  • workplace pension
  • paid holiday
  • Statutory Sick Pay
  • Statutory Maternity, Paternity and Adoption Leave and Pay
  • Shared Parental Leave and Pay
  • Statutory Redundancy Pay
  • protection against unfair dismissal.

All these, plus any extra rights, should be clearly laid out in your employment contract. This is why it’s important to read it before signing.

Do you have any issues or queries about your contract, or think the terms of your contract have been broken? Then the first thing you should do is speak to your employer.

If you cannot resolve the issue with your employer, you might be able to get advice or more help from:

  • a solicitor
  • your trade union (if you’re a member)
  • Acas, in England, Scotland and Wales
  • The Labour Relations Agency, in Northern Ireland.

Acas offer free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment rights issues in England, Scotland and Wales. Call their helpline on 0300 123 1100 or visit the Acas website

The Labour Relations Agency provides an impartial and confidential employment relations service in Northern Ireland. Call their helpline on 028 9032 1442 or visit the Labour Relations Agency website

If you can’t sort out the problem, you could use an employment tribunal. This is called an industrial tribunal in Northern Ireland.

There are no fees for going to an employment tribunal in the UK.

Employment rights if you’re self-employed

Self-employed people normally don’t have the legal right to in-work employee benefits.

However, if you’re able to negotiate with people contracting you to work, you might be able to include some of these rights in your contract.

You’ll still have protection for health and safety if you’re working on business premises. And, in some circumstances, you have protection against discrimination.

Do you have any issues with your self-employed contract, or treatment at work? Then the first thing you need to do is raise your concerns with your employer.

Depending on the issue, you might be able to get some help and advice from Acas. They offer free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment rights issues in England, Scotland and Wales. Call their helpline on 0300 123 1100 or visit the Acas website

The Labour Relations Agency provides an impartial and confidential employment relations service in Northern Ireland. Call their helpline on 028 9032 1442 or visit the Labour Relations Agency website

As you’re self-employed, you might not be a trade union member. But some unions, such as Community, are getting more involved in self-employed workers’ rights.

Employment rights if you’re on a zero-hours contract

Zero-hours contracts are becoming more common. They are offered in many sectors, including care homes, hospitality, warehouse work and couriers.

Your contract should clearly state it’s zero-hours. And it will often state you must be ready for work when asked, and that the company is not legally obliged to offer you work.

You’re classed as a worker, so are entitled to basic in-work benefits. This includes the National Minimum Wage and annual leave.

Do you have any issues with your treatment at work or is the salary you’re receiving below minimum wage? Then the first thing you need to do is speak to your employer.

You can also contact one of these workplace advice services:

If you're being paid below the minimum wage, you can report it to HMRC on the GOV.UK website

Employment rights if you work in the gig economy

The gig economy has become a well-known term in recent years with the rise of companies such as Uber, Deliveroo and Hermes.

At the moment, most people in the gig economy are classed as self-employed and have no legal right to in-work benefits.

However, a number of court cases have ruled that this kind of employment should fall under ‘worker’ status.

Worker status is like an employee and entitles you to basic in-work rights, such as paid holiday and National Minimum Wage.

Depending on your employer, you might also be entitled to statutory sick pay and to maternity, paternity and adoption pay.

But this doesn’t apply to all gig economy workers and several cases are under appeal in the courts.

If you work in the gig economy and are interested in trade union support, you can join the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB).

Your rights if you’re an agency worker

If you work though an agency, your rights can be very different.

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