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Can An Employer Change Working Hours?

Work Hour Change

Business is a complex and dynamic landscape, and the only thing that you can be assured of is that you will have to contend with change consistently. When the needs of your business shift, you may find yourself adjusting your employees’ working hours to adapt. However, this action comes with serious considerations, as changing shift patterns requires contending with legislation, as well as possible division within your business.

So what happens when an employer wants to change shift patterns or working hours? In this article, we will explore how much freedom an employer has in this scenario, including employment contracts, the legal limits of working hours, best practices for changing working hours and more.

When Does An Employer Not Need Consent To Make Changes To A Contract?

There are three scenarios in which an employer changing employees’ working hours can be done without any need to consult with an employee:

Minor Changes

Minor changes to a contract that do not bring significant change to an employee’s overall working life. For example, a 15-30 minute change in work start or end. There are some exceptions, though – if it conflicts with important life events, such as childcare arrangements, you may need explicit permission.

Employment Contract – The Variation Clause

Reviewing your employment contracts is the first step in negotiating a change to your employee’s working hours. The employment contract specifies the nature and rules regarding the shift pattern you want to alter.

The first check to make is whether or not the employment contract has a variation clause. A variation clause is a reservation of rights to make certain changes to the employment contract, under specific conditions, such as:

  • Operational Requirements – It’s entirely allowed to state that you reserve the right to change an employee’s normal working hours if it’s necessary to keep the business healthy during intense or otherwise critical periods in the industry.
  • Pre-Defined Clause – There may be a clause within the employment contract that states that during specific seasons or due to a specific change in the business (such as customer demand shifting), you reserve the right to change shift patterns.

 

That being said, you must be able to demonstrate this in both instances. Bear in mind that a verbal agreement is considered weak evidence, it must be within the contract. That being said if you can mutually agree to the change, you can write a new contract.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has found in a survey named the “CIPD Annual Labour Market Survey” that 46% of all employers successfully made a contract change for their employees using the variation clause. Your employment contracts likely have these clauses in them, but if they don’t, you may need to discuss contract changes face-to-face.

Industry Agreement

This is fairly uncommon, but some industries have specific and collective agreements that outline unique circumstances in which an employer can change an employee’s working hours without consent. Typically, these are done with the oversight and participation of a trade union. For example – those in a nursing or doctors profession may be part of a union agreement that takes away some of their rights to a flexible contract, although this is usually done in exchange for some other right.

Work Arrangement Request

When Does An Employer Need Consent To Change An Employee’s Working Hours?

An employer needs the consent of their employee to change their hours when none of the above apply. However, there is one thing to consider before asking.

A Possible Counter – The Flexible Working Request

A flexible working request is a right given by the Flexible Working Regulations 2017 that allows employees who have worked with at least 26 weeks of continuous service to request a change to their number of hours, the start and end of their work shifts, or even workplace location. Many jobs are not eligible for this due to the nature of their work, but if yours is, this could change the process of attempting to change an employee’s working hours.

All employers are legally obligated to consider a proposed flexible working agreement, meaning you can say yes or no if an employee comes to you. However, you must provide a good reason if you decline. This means, that if you go to an employee attempting to adjust their fixed hours, it could warrant a flexible working hours request in a response that you have to consider. This effectively puts you in a position where you must effectively debate a middle ground.

This can be good, but if neither of you agree, this can lead to a stalemate. This can lead to several outcomes:

  • Employee Dissatisfaction – If your employee wants these hours for sure, and feels as if their needs or wants are being ignored, then they may be bothered by your refusal. This could lead to ripple effects in the work environment. Managing your employee’s satisfaction is a huge part of running a modern business.
  • Resignation – It’s not easy to request flexible working hours from your employer. If you were the first to begin the talks, then this likely tells them that this was their best chance to get the flexible working arrangements that they wanted. Now that it’s impossible to get the shift change they wanted, leaving may be on the table.
  • Legal Challenge – If an employee considers the refusal unfair, they may resort to legal action. So long as you are confident that your refusal was a fair procedure, you needn’t worry too much about this. However, if they cite reasons such as childcare responsibilities as to why the legal challenge is needed, then they may well win their challenge, leaving you in a tight spot.

 

What Happens If I Change An Employee’s Working Hours Without Consent?

Changing employees’ working hours without consent can lead to some legal ramifications against you:

  • Breach Of Contract – If there is no valid reason for you to change the shift patterns of your employees, then you’re in breach of contract. This opens the door for legal action, where the affected employee can seek compensation at an employment tribunal. A 2023 study by the University of Warwick named “The Impact of Unilateral Changes to Working Hours on Employee Satisfaction and Retention” found that employees who experienced a change in hours without consent were 68% more likely to report feeling dissatisfied with their jobs and 45% more likely to consider leaving their current employer.
  • Constructive Dismissal – If an employee’s working hours turn out to be too much for them, or is otherwise intolerable, they can leave your company and claim constructive dismissal. This is a legal doctrine in which an employee leaves a company and then they claim unfair dismissal afterwards. This may seem backwards at first, but the idea is that the changes to the contract were so intolerable that they had to leave and that you effectively forced them out of the company. This can result in devastating losses monetarily if the employment tribunal rules in their favour.
  • Reputation Damage – Even if news of the change doesn’t leave the business, it can still do damage from within. Should this become news amongst employees, they could fear that their livelihood could be affected similarly. This could result in any manner of issues.

 

An example of this happening is with Amazon. In 2017, the e-commerce titan changed the working hours of all of their warehouse staff. They effectively mandated longer hours and lower rest breaks, also enforcing rules that limited phone usage and the like. This resulted in massive backlash, with Amazon being forced to pull back, but this event forever stained their names in the eyes of consumers. As good as their business is, they are considered by many to be terrible to work for.

The shocking thing about this is that they were not sued at all. This is because they used their variation clause. This is important to note, as variation clauses give you power, but in this case, it didn’t help Amazon. It goes to show that regardless of your rights, you have to work alongside your employees when considering changing working hours.

How Much Notice Period Should An Employer Give When Changing Employees’ Working Hours?

There is no notice period set by law to give for an employee’s working hours change. That being said, here are some of the best practices and advantages you may see as a result.

  1. Employment Contract – There may be a notice period set within the employment contract for changes to working hours. If there is, they must be adhered to. If there is no set notice period, we recommend setting one that is similar to that of termination of employment.
  2. Nature Of The Change – As always, minor changes to a contract such as an adjustment to the start, and end times of the day may not need contract changes at all. If, however, it’s a large change, then we recommend ensuring that you issue a longer notice period and update your agreement with your employees.
  3. Custom And Practice – Some industries have already established customs surrounding how long a notice period should be. It’s a good idea to check to see if there is one – for example, in the healthcare industry, 4-6 weeks tends to be the standard practice to allow employees to adjust their caring and life responsibilities.
  4. Consultation – As always, bringing chaos to an employee’s work life without maximum care runs a risk of causing breakdowns within the workplace. Try to work alongside the employee as much as you can when you’re thinking of making changes to their working hours.

Shift Pattern Change

Conclusion

Overall, changing employees’ working hours is a risk. Your best bet for ensuring smoothness when changing hours is to ensure that your employees are aware it’s a possibility and to give them a large amount of unofficial notice. We hope this article has helped you in navigating how to legally change hours and ensure your employees are on side as you do so.

FAQ: What if I need my employees to work night shifts?

In many industries, this is a common scenario, but it comes with its own unique set of legal considerations to be made.

  • Beware the Working Time Regulations – Before you make changes, make sure you’re careful not to tread on the set legal limits instituted by the Working Time Regulations 1998, such as:
    • Maximum Weekly Hours: A 48-hour average workweek, unless the employee has opted out.
    • Daily Rest: At least 11 consecutive hours of rest in any 24 hours.
    • Weekly Rest: At least 24 consecutive hours of rest in any 7 days.
    • Rest Breaks: Entitlement to rest breaks during the workday.
  • Bonus – Those working night shifts are entitled to the national minimum/living wage for all hours worked, but not necessarily bonuses. That being said, many employees consider it a fine incentive and may expect it.

 

FAQ: Can I reduce an employee’s working hours and pay?

Yes, but bear in mind that both actions are typically seen as a net negative across all industries. If you are to reduce both, bear the following in mind:

  • Damaged Morale And Productivity – There are two modes of thought for employees suffering less hours or pay. Either the company does not value them, or the company is doing badly. A study by the Journal of Applied Psychology named “The Impact of Pay Cuts on Job Satisfaction and Organisational Commitment” found that pay cuts lead to around a 31% decrease in job satisfaction and a 19% decrease in organisational commitment. That being said, Mercer’s study named “Global Talent Trends” found that 70% of employees would prefer to have temporary pay cuts than lose their jobs entirely.
  • Exodus Of Top Talent – The top talent within your business know their worth, likely having received offers from other companies, and if they believe the company is deteriorating or that their security is at risk, they may want to leave for another business. Ensure that when you approach this idea, you make sure you communicate how long the pay cuts are for and how you’ll make up for it.

 

FAQ: Can my manager change my hours?

Yes. A manager can change shift patterns just like an employer can.

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