Everyone knows that having company policies in the workplace is a healthy thing all round. Having in place a staff manual or handbook means both employers and employees know exactly what is expected on both sides of the employment relationship.
Employers should therefore have a whole host of policies in place covering important HR issues ranging from equal opportunities to data protection. But do you know what the legal status of your policies is? You may have thought they were there for guidance purposes, but did you know they could contain serious contractual obligations?
Lara Murray, an employment law specialist with Palmers, explains: “Usually, employers want their policies to offer guidelines only, rather than being part of employees’ contractual terms of employment.
“That way, the policies can largely be changed or updated in line with the needs of the business. If they are part of the employment contract, it is much more difficult for employers to change them and the slightest slip could lead to a legal claim.”
A recent case has highlighted the potential problems for employers. The Department for Transport (DfT), responsible for several agencies including the DVLA, was sued by a group of its employees.
The DfT’s attendance management policy, which was found in the staff handbook, said that disciplinary action for short term absences could only begin once an employee had hit a trigger point of 21 days off in any 12 month period.
The DfT then tried to introduce a new policy which was less favourable to staff, widening the circumstances in which disciplinary procedures would be triggered. A group of employees argued that the original policy needed to remain in place because it had contractual effect and could not be altered unilaterally by the employer.
The dispute was hard fought all the way to the Court of Appeal, which ultimately found in the employees’ favour.
Lara added: “Although the Court’s decision is very fact specific, it serves as a reminder to make sure that the ever growing volume of HR documentation employers are expected to have in place actually does what it is supposed to.”
For further information on all aspects of employment law, please contact us.