Employers: could your HR policies really land you in it?

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Everyone knows that having company policies in the workplace is a healthy thing all round.Through a staff manual or handbook, both employers and employees can 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?

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 when the Department for Transport, responsible for several agencies including the DVLA, was sued by a group of its employees.The Department’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 Department tried to introduce a new policy which was less favourable to staff, widening the circumstances in which disciplinary procedures would be triggered.One employee, Ms Maureen Sparks, together with six of her colleagues, objected. They argued that the original policy must 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.The Court was swayed by the wording of the handbook and other employment documents which suggested that the policy was contractual.The handbook was said to set out employees’ “terms and conditions”.

The Court accepted the employees’ argument that the handbook and policy were much more than good practice guidance.The conclusion was therefore that the original policy formed part of the employees’ employment contracts and couldn’t be changed without the employees’ consent.

As is often the case, the Court’s decision is very fact specific but it is a good 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.Do you know what status your policies hold?Are your company documents – your contracts, policies and staff handbook – doing their job properly?If not, it may be time for a review.

For advice on any of these issues, please contact Richard Gvero, head of our Employment team.

Please note the contents of this blog are given for information only and must not be relied upon. Legal advice should always be sought in relation to specific circumstances.