Make sense of the law and your rights

A survival guide for young workers

Are you young and working? Or, thinking about starting work for the first time? Don't let your job become a bad experience you'd rather forget. Read our guide for young workers, aged 15 to 22. We explain what rights you have at work and how to make sure you are being treated properly by your employer.
Young workers
Introduction

"My first job was the worst experience of my life. I was over-worked, underpaid, and my boss was a bully. I stuck at it for nearly two years, and lost all my confidence in the process. Looking back on it, I wish I’d had the courage to do something about it earlier."

The guide deals with the most common employment problems. It doesn't cover everything, because every work situation is different. You should always get advice if you are unsure of what rights you have, or how you should deal with a problem.

If your workplace has a recognised trade union, you should think carefully about joining as they can help to explain your rights and deal with any problems that may happen in the course of your employment. Even if your trade union isn’t recognised, you will still be entitled to have a union rep accompany you to serious disciplinary or grievance meetings, though they won’t be able to help generally with your conditions of employment.

It's important to remember that you should act quickly if you have a problem at work. It is better to get things sorted out before it gets worse, or makes you ill, or feel that you have to leave.

You might decide to make a claim against your employer at an employment tribunal (that's the legal term for a court which deals with employment issues). Employment tribunals have strict time limits, generally 3 months from the date of the problem you are complaining about and if you delay you could lose your right to make a claim. For example, if you are dismissed on 12 April; you have until 11 July to put in your claim to the employment tribunal.

There are loads of different types of jobs out there, from working on a building site to sitting behind a desk. You might be hired on a casual basis during the holidays, or you might consider your job to be the start of a long career.

No matter what your job is, certain rights always apply to you, like the right to a minimum wage and the right to get breaks and holidays. But you get more rights if you have the status of employee rather than another type of worker.

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Disclaimer

The information in this guide applies to England and Wales and is for general purposes only. The law may be different if you live in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

The law is complicated. We have simplified things in the guide to give you an idea of how the law applies to you if you are a young worker. Please don't rely on this guide as a complete statement of the law or as a substitute for getting legal advice about what to do in the specific circumstances of your case.

The quotes and cases we refer to are not always real but show a typical situation. We hope they help you think about how to deal with your own situation.

Acknowledgements

Advicenow would like to thank all those who helped to update this guide. 

July 2015
How do I know if I am an employee?

It's sometimes difficult to tell. You might be an employee even if your employer says you're not. Agency and casual workers may be employees, depending on the situation. It's important to find out whether you are an employee.

Broadly speaking, if you are recruited by an employment agency and are paid by that agency to work in a different workplace, you will be an agency worker. If you work for an employer where you have to do the work yourself – that is, you can’t choose to pass it on or hire someone else to do it – and someone is in charge of you and tells you what to do and how to do it, and you have set hours and are paid by them depending on the hours you do, then you are likely to be an employee.

If you can choose when, how and where to work, can hire others, use all your own equipment and run a business and invoice your customers, you are likely to be self-employed. If you think you might be an employee, but your employer says that you're not, speak to an adviser at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) or your local advice centre. You can use our Help Directory to find their contact details.

Your contract of employment

If you are an employee, you have a contract of employment whether or not it is put into writing. The contract of employment may be agreed verbally or by how people act. You have a right to ask your employer to put down the main terms of your contract in writing if this hasn't been done already. The contract will say things like how much and when you will be paid, what your hours of work are and how much holiday you can have. Read through your contract and keep it in a safe place. Many places should also have a staff handbook as well. You may need your contract if you have a problem. By law, your main terms and conditions of employment (your name and employer’s name; place of work; start date; job title; pay details; entitlement to holiday and sick pay; pension scheme; notice you have to give and are entitled to receive) have to be given to you in writing within two months of starting work at the latest.

Agency work

If you get work through an agency but are not employed directly by the agency or the hirer (so you are only paid for each assignment you do) you are entitled from your first day to access the same on-site facilities available to employees who are employed directly by the hirer. This could include access to a canteen or crèche, for example. You are also entitled to be notified of any vacancies.

After 12 weeks working for the agency at the same hirer in the same job, you become entitled to receive basic equal terms of employment as if you had been employed directly by the hirer. This means your rate of pay, bonus, holidays, sick leave and paid antenatal care should be the same as someone who is directly employed by the hirer. You will not be entitled to redundancy pay, or to enter into the hirer’s pension scheme. (Under pension auto enrolment coming into force over the next few years, over-22 year olds earning over £10,000 a year are likely to be entitled to auto enrolment in the agency’s pension scheme.)

Zero hours contracts

There has been a huge rise in zero hour contracts over the last few years, with a high proportion of those workers being young people under 25. Zero hours contracts are particularly common in shops, hospitality, catering and care workplaces.

A zero hours contract does not guarantee you any work, and you do not have to accept any work.

Your employment status is likely to be a 'casual worker' rather than an 'employee' and give you fewer employment rights than an employee.

However you are entitled:

  • to be paid the minimum wage;
  • to statutory annual paid holiday (that is, 28 days or a proportion depending on how much of a full-time job you do);
  • not to be unlawfully discriminated against.  

As a casual worker, you will probably not be entitled to redundancy pay if your job ends after two years, but you may be, so check with an adviser.

If you work as a carer and have to travel between patients, you are entitled to be paid for any journey time connected with your job (but not to and from work).

As from May 2015, you can no longer be made to work for one employer only. Until this change in the law, some employers were insisting that a zero hour worker had to work exclusively for them.

For more information about zero hour contracts see: Zero hours contracts.

Interns

An intern is a student or trainee who works for an employer for a few weeks or months, sometimes without pay, to get work experience. 

If you are an intern, the employment rights you have will depend on your employment status - whether the law classes you as an 'employee', a 'worker' or a 'volunteer'. 

If you are an employee or a worker, then you must be paid the National Minimum Wage.

For information about the employment rights of interns, see Interns' rights and Employment rights and pay for interns.

I dreaded going to work - Kate's story

"When I was 17 I got a job at a furniture shop. I was enjoying it to start with, I made friends and was good at the work. It was commission only, so on a good day I made loads of money but other days I made nothing. Most of the other people there were guys and there was a lot of laddish banter going on. It all started to go wrong when my line manager tried it on with me. He backed off when I told him I had a boyfriend, but everyone found out about it and the guys started being really rude about me. It got really out of hand, I started to dread going in to work. One day it got so bad that I just walked out. I didn't get my last months' wages because they said I hadn't given my notice. I was just glad it was all over."
Kate

What happened to Kate shows how things at work can sometimes turn really nasty. Like Kate, we often put up with unfair treatment at work because we don't realise that we have legal rights to protect us.

What rights did Kate have?

  • She should not have been paid on commission only; it is illegal not to pay workers a minimum hourly rate.
  • The line manager should not be 'trying it on' with workers - that is sexual harassment. The 'banter' could be sexual harassment too, for example if it was about sex or women.
  • The insults Kate had to put up with amount to bullying and more sexual harassment.
  • Even though Kate didn't give proper notice, her employers should not have withheld her pay - they should have paid her for work she had done up to the point where she walked out.

What should Kate have done?

It's understandable that Kate just wanted to get out of the situation, but if she knew her rights, Kate could have taken other steps to deal with the problem.

  • She could have tried raising her concerns with her employer. Clearly it would have been difficult talking to her line manager, but she could have spoken to his boss, or someone higher up. This might have put a stop to it.
  • If not, she could have considered making a formal complaint.
  • If her work still hadn't put a stop to the problem, she should have got legal advice from someone with experience in this area. For ideas about where to get legal advice, see our Help Directory.

If her employer didn't sort out the harassment and give her the money she was owed she could have taken them to an employment tribunal.

She would probably have got some compensation from her employer.

Pay

Minimum Wage

 "I'm 19 and work at a swish hair salon. I get £3 an hour but I'm training so it makes up for the pay." 
Joe

Joe's employers are breaking the law because they are paying him less than the minimum wage.

So, how much is the minimum wage?

  • Under 18 year olds: £3.79 per hour. (But this might not apply to 16-17 year olds who are learning a craft or a skill on the job).
  • 18-20 year olds: £5.13 per hour
  • 21 or older: £6.50 per hour. (If you are receiving accredited training and have been in the post for less than 6 months, you can be paid less, but it must be at least £4.92 per hour. Accredited training means it is a government-approved vocational course, like an NVQ. You can find out from your training provider whether your course is accredited).
  • Apprentices aged under 19 years: £2.73 per hour
  • Apprentices aged 19 years or more and in first year of apprenticeship: £2.73 per hour
  • Apprentices aged 19 years or more in second or subsequent years of apprenticeship: £6.50 per hour.
  • These rates will increase slightly from 1 October 2015.

16-17 year olds - Watch Out!

Employers may say that they are giving you training as a way round paying you the minimum wage. If you are not genuinely learning a skill or craft, you should be paid the minimum wage. If you are not sure, call the ACAS Helpline on 0300 123 1100 for free support and advice.

Does it apply to all workers?

The minimum wage applies to almost all workers. It makes no difference if you are an employee or not, if you are full-time or part-time or if you are only taken on casually. It also applies if you work from home or are paid by commission.

I am not sure if I am being underpaid, how do I find out?

You can call the ACAS Helpline on 0300 123 1100. Alternatively you can contact your local advice centre or trade union, if you have one.

What if I am not being paid the minimum wage?

Your employer is breaking the law. See How to tackle a problem at work.

I am getting more than the minimum wage, but it's still not enough, what can I do?

If you are being paid less than other people at your work who are doing similar jobs you might be a victim of unlawful discrimination - have a look at the section on Discrimination. But if others are paid more because they are genuinely more qualified or experienced, that's fair enough.

If your employer pays less than other employers for your type of work, you could try talking to your boss and explain to him or her that they pay less than the going rate. They might agree to give you a pay rise. If not, you might be wise to find a more generous employer.

My employer wants to pay me cash in hand. Is it a good idea?

It may sound good, you don't have to bother with all those boring pay slips and you get a fatter pay packet. But for one thing it is often illegal because it is a way round paying tax and national insurance. You also lose out on a lot of the rights set out in this guide because your employment contract is not valid. And if you are not paying National Insurance, you will not be able to claim some benefits which are dependent on NI contributions.

My employer doesn't give me wage slips

If you are an employee, you have a right to get pay slips from your employer showing how your pay has been calculated and giving a break down of all deductions. Make sure you are getting these and keep them safe. You may need them if there is a problem in future and they are a useful record of how much tax you have paid. Pay slips also provide proof of your income - you may need evidence of your earnings for things like getting a mortgage or renting a flat.

You are also entitled to a P60 form at the end of the tax year (April) showing how much you have earned over the year and a P45 when you finish a job. You will need to give your P45 to your next employer. For more information about a P60 see: PAYE forms: P60. For more information about a P45 see: PAYE forms: P45.

Working time

Anil is 19, he has been working since 8am and his shift is due to finish at 5pm. It's now nearly 4pm and his boss hasn't let him go to lunch because things have been so manic. Does he:

A. Put up with it on this occasion, most days he gets at least 10 minutes to scoff down a sandwich so it's not that bad.

B. Get his coat and spend an hour reading the paper in the sunshine - after all it's called a lunch-hour isn't it?

C. Speak to his boss and explain that he should be getting at least 20 minutes break per day.

You are entitled to breaks at work and there are laws to stop you being worked too hard. Find out what you are entitled to - and the answer to Anil's problem – here:

Working Time - Over 18s

Rest Break: You should get at least 20 minutes break per day if you work continuously for more than 6 hours. (So the correct answer to Anil's problem is C).

Rest from one day to the next: You should be getting an uninterrupted rest period of 11 hours between each working day.

Days off between working weeks: You should get at least one day off a week, or alternatively, 2 days off in a row every 2 weeks.

Maximum time at work a week: You should not be working for more than 48 hours per week on average over a 17 week period unless you have specifically agreed to work more hours. Any agreement to work more than 48 hours per week must be in writing. That is, you may be required to work more than 48 hours in an individual week, but that is lawful provided the average over a 17 week reference period does not exceed 48 hours.

There are some exceptions to these rules, but remember… your employer doesn't have to pay you for breaks unless your employment contract says you will be paid.

The daily break should not be right at the beginning or the end of the working day, but other than that, the time of the break is up to the employer to decide.

If you are doing night work which is potentially dangerous or which involves a lot of mental or physical strain, you should not be expected to work for more than 8 hours per night. The maximum is an average 8hrs per 24hrs and the average is calculated over 17 weeks. So any one occasion can be more than 8hrs as long as the average is not more than 8hrs.

Night Workers- Over 18s
If you regularly work for at least 3 hours between 11pm and 6am, you are a night worker. In general, night workers should not be working for more than 8 hours in every 24 hours. There are some exceptions to this rule, for example, it doesn't apply to caretakers, security guards or certain jobs which cannot be interrupted. Just as with daytime work, you should get a 20 minute break if you work for a period of 6 hours or more. You are entitled to spend your break during your shift away from your work station.

Working Time - 16-18 year olds

Rest Break: You should get at least 30 minutes break per day if you work continuously for more than four and a half hours. If you are juggling jobs add the hours up, if it is more than four and a half you still get a break.

Rest period from one day to the next: You should be getting an uninterrupted rest of 12 hours between working days.

Days off between working weeks: You should get at least 2 days off a week, and they should normally be taken in a row. However 2 days can be reduced to 36 hours if the employer has a technical or organisational reason for doing so.

Maximum time at work a week: You should not be working for more than 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week. All your jobs have to be included when calculating this maximum time even if they are with different employers.

There are some exceptions to these rules, but it is much harder to change the rules for 16-17 year olds than for over 18s.

(A ‘week’ starts at midnight between Sunday and Monday.)

But Remember…
Your employer doesn't have to pay you for breaks unless your employment contract says you will be paid.

The daily break should not be right at the beginning or the end of the working day, but other than that, the time of the break is up to the employer to decide.

Night Workers - Under 18s
In general, people under 18 should not be working between 10pm and 6am or between 11pm and 7am. That means you can work up to 11pm but then you should not start work before 7am the next morning.

There are exceptions to this rule, for example, if you are working in a hospital or if you are involved in sporting or artistic activities. For more information on working at night see: Night working hours.

I am not getting the time off I’m entitled to, what should I do?

See Top tips for dealing with problems at work.

If you have lost your job or are treated badly because your employer wanted you to skip breaks or work longer hours than you should, you may have a claim against your employer for unfair dismissal. Have a look at the information on Dismissal (in Ending a job), and Bullying.

Taking time off - holidays

"The bad news was that I lost my job - but the good news was that I got an extra lump sum of money because apparently I still had some holiday left." 

Darren

Make sure you are up to date on how much holiday you should be getting and that if you do miss the holiday at least you don't miss out on any money owed.

So, how much holiday should I get?
If you are over 16 and work full-time, you are entitled to at least 5.6 weeks (28 days) paid leave a year including paid public holidays. (If you are in certain jobs, like the police and armed forces you may be treated differently.) This is the minimum set out by law; your employment contract may say that you are entitled to more.

There are 8 public holidays in England and Wales - New Year’s Day, Good Friday and Easter Monday, early and late Spring; late August, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

What if I work part-time?

If you work part-time, you are entitled to paid leave in proportion to the amount of days you work per week. (You may hear this called ‘pro rata’.) You can work out how much you are entitled to by multiplying the number of days you work in a week by 5.6. This means that if you work 3 days a week, you are entitled to 16.8 days off a year. The public holidays that you are paid for but that you don’t work count towards your annual holiday entitlement.

Should I be paid when I am on holiday?

Yes, you should generally be paid the same amount as you are normally paid at work. 

Your employer might say that your holiday pay is included in your normal pay. This is no longer allowed.

Do I get to choose when to take my holiday?

Generally employers let staff go on holiday when they want although there may be a rota arrangement to provide staffing cover and many employers will have a request process to ensure fairness in the workplace. But your employer has the final say over when you take your holiday, unless your contract says otherwise.

If your employer tells you to take holiday at a particular time, they must give you at least 2 days’ notice for every day of holiday they ask you to take.

You need to give your employer notice when you want to go on holiday. If you have a contract of employment it might say how much notice you should give, otherwise you have to give notice of at least twice as long as you want to be away for. So, if you want a 2 week holiday you must give at least 4 weeks’ notice. If your employer objects to you taking leave at that time then they must give you notice equivalent to the length of leave you had proposed taking.

What if I don't use up my annual holiday?

It depends on the reason why you haven't used up your full holiday allowance. If you don’t take all your holiday because:

  • you just never got round to it - that's bad luck unless you have the right to carry over holiday. Check your contract for details.
  • there’s a sudden rush of extra work to do - talk to your employer and see if they will allow you to carry it over into the next leave year.
  • you are off sick - you are entitled to carry over up to 20 days of unused statutory holiday into the next leave year.
  • you leave your job or are dismissed - you are entitled to pay instead of the holiday you have missed so far (you may hear this called ‘pay in lieu’). For example, if you have worked half a year and not yet taken any holiday, you will be entitled to at least 2 weeks extra pay.

Annual holidays - when you can take them, when you can carry days over and when you can get paid instead of taking holiday - are complicated and changing areas of law. If you are in this position it is best to speak to an adviser at your local advice centre or ring the ACAS Helpline on 0300 123 1100.

If your employer kept refusing your holiday requests and you have missed out as a result, they are breaking the law and you could make a claim for compensation at an employment tribunal. See How to tackle problems at work.

Employers are expected to have a ‘leave year’. In schools, for example, it will generally run from 1 September to the following 31 August. If your contract does not specify the leave year, it probably follows the calendar year 1 January to 31 December.

Taking time off - sickness

"I was getting really bad chest pains and had breathing problems. When they found out I had a blood clot on my lung I had to take nearly 3 months off work but I still had to pay the rent."
Mariam

Mariam was in a job which paid a full salary during her illness, but not everyone is so lucky.

Problems often arise when you go off sick, particularly if you are off for a long time or if you have to call in sick a number of times over a short period. Most employers have a level of sickness above which an employee will be dismissed on capability grounds. An employer is not required to wait indefinitely for an employee to return to work from sick leave. But a dismissal for this reason may not be fair if they have not given the employee a reasonable period of time to recover.

Find out what you are entitled to if you get sick

  • Many employers give staff a certain number of days' paid sick leave per year. It's up to your employer whether to do this. Have a look in your employment contract to find out what you are entitled to.
  • If you are off sick for more than four days you may be able to claim Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). This is set out by law and is paid to you by your employer. You have to be earning over a certain amount to qualify. To find out more about SSP and how to claim it have a look at: Statutory Sick Pay
  • If your sickness absences arise from a disability then you should ask your employer not to count these absences towards your sickness absence record. This may be a reasonable adjustment to your terms of employment. If they refuse or if you are dismissed because of these absences you may have a claim for disability discrimination.

I am not an employee; do I get Statutory Sick Pay?

Probably not, but you might do if you are an agency worker. Seek advice from an experienced adviser if you are in this situation.

Can I be sacked for taking sick leave?

This may be unfair dismissal if your employer has not treated you reasonably (see the section on Dismissal in Ending a job).

If you call in sick often for minor things like colds and headaches your dismissal is unlikely to be treated as unfair.

What if my job is making me ill?

If you are getting sick because of conditions at work, your employer could be flouting health and safety requirements, have a look at Health and safety at work.

If you are getting stress-related illness because of bullying at work, your employer could be held responsible and you might be entitled to compensation - have a look at the information on Bullying.

Taking time off - emergencies involving dependants

There is no general right to time off paid or unpaid for domestic emergencies not involving dependants. You have a right to a reasonable amount of time off to deal with an emergency involving a dependant, including the death of a dependant, such as a partner, child or parent.

An emergency means something unexpected, such as illness, accident, assault or bereavement, or an incident involving a child at school, or disruption of care arrangements such as your childminder not turning up. You are only entitled to the time it takes to make arrangements to cope with the immediate crisis - for example if you have a child who falls ill, you are entitled to time to take the child to the doctor’s, and make care arrangements, but unless your contract provides for it or your employer agrees, you will be expected to make care arrangements for the illness, or take annual or parental leave. Your employer doesn't have to pay you for emergency leave, unless your employment contract says it's paid.

Taking time off - having a baby

What about if I need to see the Doctor or a Dentist?

Your employer doesn't have to give you time off for this, check your employment contract. You might have to go outside work hours, take annual leave or make the time up later.

But if you have a medical appointment in relation to your pregnancy or a disability you have, you should get time off.

My boss won't let me take time off - what should I do?

See Top tips for dealing with problems at work.

Pregnancy and children

This is a difficult and often confusing entitlement to understand and mistakes are easy to make, which can affect your rights. Always seek advice if you are uncertain.

Rights for Pregnant Women and New Mums

If you are pregnant, what is the minimum time you should be allowed off work when your baby is born?

A....... 26 weeks
B....... 52 weeks
C....... 4 weeks
D....... As long as you need

Find out the answer here:

  • You are entitled to up to a year off work after giving birth, this is called maternity leave. It doesn't matter how long you have worked for your employer or how many hours you work. (So the correct answer to the above question is B.)
  • You don't have to take your full maternity leave if you don't want to but you have to take at least 2 weeks leave immediately after giving birth or 4 weeks if you work in a factory.

Do I get paid during maternity leave?

Yes, there are three possible ways of getting paid during maternity leave. Your employment contract might say that your employer will pay, but it might not be as much as you usually get in your pay packet.

If not you could be entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay, this is a government benefit paid through your employer. You have to have been working for your employer for at least a week before you got pregnant and be earning a certain amount. It is paid for a maximum of 39 weeks.

If you don't qualify for Statutory Maternity Pay, you might be entitled to another type of government benefit called Maternity Allowance. Again it is paid for a maximum of 39 weeks.

How do I take maternity leave?

You can decide to start maternity leave any time from the 11th week before your baby is due. It's essential to give proper notice to your employer - to find out more about how to do this see: Maternity pay and leave - how to claim.

If you don't give proper notice of your pregnancy you may miss out on certain benefits.

Do I have to tell my employer if I'm pregnant?

You do not have to tell your employer that you are pregnant as soon as you know, but if you don’t do so you may not be entitled to the employment protection that pregnant workers have, as employment protection relies on the employer actually knowing about the pregnancy. It is therefore sensible to let your employer know that you are pregnant. You should tell your employer that you are pregnant at least 15 weeks before the baby is due.

You get certain benefits at work if your employer knows you are pregnant (see Pregnancy Perks below) - so in some ways the earlier you break the news the better.

What if they ask if I'm pregnant at a job interview?

You don't have to tell them if you're pregnant. The fact that you are pregnant, or are planning to have children should have nothing to do with whether you get the job. If they ask you questions about pregnancy or children during an interview it will almost certainly be unlawful sex discrimination (see section on Discrimination).

Pregnancy Perks

  • You should be given time off on full pay for medical appointments relating to ante-natal care.
  • Your employer should make sure that you are working in conditions which are safe and healthy for pregnant women or recent mothers, this includes things like not having to stand for long periods and not having to lift heavy objects.
  • If your employer announces redundancies while you are on maternity leave then you must be put at the head of the queue for any suitable alternative work which is available with your employer. They must also make adjustments to the way they decide who to select for redundancy to counter any disadvantage you are under being on maternity leave during a redundancy procedure.

If you are treated badly or not given opportunities at work because you are pregnant or you are a new mother your employer is breaking the law. See the section on Discrimination.

Going back to work after having a baby

You usually have an automatic right to return to work after your maternity leave. You have to give your employer a month's notice if you want to come back before your 26 weeks leave. If your employer refuses to have you back you could make a claim for unfair dismissal or sex discrimination (pregnancy and maternity) (see the sections on Dismissal in Ending a job, and Discrimination). Your rights on return are slightly different depending on how long you have been absent on maternity leave. If you return after 26 weeks, known as Ordinary Maternity Leave (OML) you are entitled to return to the same job. If you return after 52 weeks, known as Additional Maternity Leave (AML) you will be entitled to return to work and the same job unless that is not reasonably practicable.

Paternity rights

If your partner is having a baby you may be entitled to either one or two weeks leave after the birth of your child. This is called paternity leave. There is no automatic right to paternity pay; your employment contract might give you a right to pay during paternity leave, if not you might be entitled to Statutory Paternity Pay.

For more information about paternity pay and leave, see:

Flexible working

If you have been working for your employer for at least 26 weeks, you can ask for a flexible working arrangement. For example, changing to part-time work, working different hours, working from home, or moving to a workplace nearer home. (Until 30 June 2014, this right only applied to those with children.) Your employer doesn't have to agree to your request but must take it seriously and give you proper reasons if they say no.

Parental leave

What is parental leave?

This is a right for parents to take time off to spend time with their children. You are entitled to parental leave if you are a parent and you have been working for the same employer for a year or more. You get this right as well as the right to maternity or paternity leave. For example, you might use parental leave to spend more time with your child during his or her early years, or to make sure your child settles into nursery or infant school.

You are entitled to 18 weeks’ parental leave for each child and adopted child, up to their 18th birthday but you can only take up to 4 weeks in a year for each child (unless your employer agrees differently).

You must take parental leave as whole weeks (for example 1 or 2 weeks) – so not less than a week at a time or as individual days unless your employer agrees or your child is disabled. A ‘week’ equals the length of time an employee normally works over 7 days.

You don’t have to take all the leave at once.

Your employer doesn't have to pay you while you take parental leave, unless it says they will in your contract.

You have to give a minimum of 21 days’ notice. You can email or write to your employer, for example:

Dear Mr Smith,

I am writing to inform you that I will be taking one week’s parental leave. My leave will begin on Monday 24 March 2014 and will end on Sunday 30 March 2014.

Yours sincerely,

Tony Brown

For more information see: Parental leave (unpaid) and Parental leave.

Changing your contract of employment

Some employers may try to change the terms you are employed on (for example, by paying you less or requiring you to work at another factory or office).

In most cases, an employer can only make changes to your terms and conditions if you agree to them or there is something in your contract that allows for the change.

Never agree to a change to your contract without taking advice first unless it is something that is obviously to your advantage or you are happy with (for example, a pay rise or promotion).

Any changes in your contract have to be given to you in writing no later than 4 weeks after the changes.

 

Ending your job

Dismissal

"I was sacked because I called my boyfriend in Australia from work but I only did it once and it was an emergency."
Louise

If your employer gives you the sack, it is called a dismissal. It is only legal for your employer to sack you if it's done fairly. Otherwise it is against the law and is called ‘unfair dismissal’.

For a dismissal to be fair, the employer has to genuinely believe that you were guilty of the conduct alleged, and the reason was fair (for example, misconduct, capability, redundancy). They must have carried out a proper investigation and have followed proper procedures. They must have told you why you were being considered for dismissal, and given you a chance to respond. The sanction of dismissal must be a reasonable one in the circumstances. It would generally not be reasonable to dismiss for a first offence unless it is highly serious, such as theft or dishonesty, fighting or violence, or serious health and safety breaches. You must get an opportunity to appeal against dismissal.

When would it be fair to sack a worker?

  • Misconduct - This is when you behave badly at work. But your employer should give you proper warnings before sacking you for misconduct. If you do something so bad that the employment relationship breaks down, like stealing from the cash till or assaulting someone, it is called ‘gross misconduct’ and you could be dismissed without warnings (as long as you had a chance to explain your behaviour).
  • You aren't capable of doing the job - If you aren't able to do the job you are being paid to do, your employer can dismiss you. But your employer must generally have given you proper warnings about your poor work and given you opportunities to improve.
  • Redundancy - This is when there is no need for someone to be doing your job any more, for example if your employer is closing down the part of the business you work in. There are complicated rules about redundancy and employers sometimes use it as an excuse to get rid of people unfairly. If you have any doubt whether your redundancy is genuine, you should speak to an employment expert at a nearby advice centre.

When would it be unfair to sack someone?

There are some situations when it is always unfair dismissal. For example, if you are sacked because you are pregnant. You can find a full list here: What is an automatically unfair dismissal?

If your employer has just picked on something as an excuse to sack you and/or they have been unreasonable in the way they have gone about it (like not giving you warnings, or a chance to improve), it could be unfair dismissal.

You have to have been working for your employer for at least two years to complain about unfair dismissal to an employment tribunal (see How to tackle problems at work). But if you think the real reason you are being sacked relates for example to your age, race, nationality, gender, religion, and sexuality or because you have a disability, you have a right to complain no matter how long you have been in the job - see Discrimination. You may also have a claim if the unlawful discrimination was before appointment – for example if you were discriminated against at interview.

If you have a 'fixed term' contract and it comes to an end, your employer doesn't have to keep you on afterwards but they would have to have a fair reason for not extending your contract, especially if the post will continue with someone else in the job

What should I do if I think I have been sacked unfairly?
See How to tackle problems at work.

If I am sacked will I have to leave work immediately?
Only if you're sacked for ‘gross misconduct’. Otherwise, you should be given what is known as a notice period - a set period of time between being told you are dismissed and actually leaving. See Notice Periods in the next section on Leaving your job.

Leaving your job

I want to leave my job, how do I go about it?

You need to make sure that you tell your employer that you are leaving and give them enough notice. You may have to put the notice in writing. See the section on Notice Periods.

How do I go about making sure I get a decent reference?

Employers are under no legal requirement to provide employees with a reference. But they should give you a reference if they normally give them.

If your employer does give a reference, remember that they have to tell the truth about you, so valid criticisms of your work may come up. A reference has to be fair, accurate, and not misleading both for you and any prospective new employer. If you have doubts about the sort of reference you are likely to get, it could be sensible to discuss it with your employer before handing in your notice – you don’t want to have left your old job, then find your new employer refuses to take you on because of an unsatisfactory reference from your old employer.

What money should I get when I leave my job?

Normally you should get full pay up to the day you finish working for your employer, including any accrued holiday pay, overtime and commission etc. If you are being made redundant and you qualify for payment you should also get this when you leave.

If you quit without giving proper notice, your employer should give you the money you earned up to the day you left. But they may be able to withhold money if you have signed a contract which says they don't have to pay you if you don't give proper notice.

Notice Periods

If you are giving notice to your employer:

You have to give at least 1 weeks’ notice if you have been working in the job for a month or more. You might have to give a longer notice period if it says so in your contract.

If your employer is giving you notice:

You should be given at least 1 weeks’ notice if you have been working in your job for more than a month but less than 2 years.

If you have been in the job for 2 years or more, you should get a week's notice for every full year you have worked, up to a maximum of 12 weeks. This is the minimum notice you should get - your contract might say you are entitled to more. Where your contract and the law say different things about what notice period you are entitled to, the longest period applies.

Bullying at work

"I was doing fine at work until we got this new manager. Everything I did seemed to be wrong and she kept criticizing me in front of everyone. In the end it got me down so much that I quit." 
Anya

Unfortunately bullying doesn't only happen at school. It can also happen in the workplace. If you are being bullied you don't have to put up with it.

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is behaviour that is offensive or intimidating or involves the abuse of power to undermine or humiliate. It can include constant unfair criticism like in Anya's case, making someone the butt of repeated jokes and/or offensive personal comments and setting someone up to fail by overloading them with work. If you genuinely feel like you are being picked on unfairly by your boss or another colleague, you are probably being bullied.

But not all bullying is so bad that it gives you the possibility of taking legal action. To take legal action (as opposed to making a workplace complaint or bringing a grievance) the bullying must either:

  • Unfairly undermine your trust and confidence so badly that you leave and claim constructive unfair dismissal. (This option is only available if you have worked for the same employer for a 2 year qualifying period. You cannot claim constructive dismissal unless you have resigned from your job. This can leave you unemployed and relying on the Employment Tribunal for compensation, which you may not get. It is a very high risk strategy.) OR
  • Lead to ill-health that is caused by your employer’s behaviour and is so bad that it means you can claim for a stress related personal injury. (These claims are very difficult and have a low success rate.) OR
  • Amount to harassment. Harassment is unwanted behaviour, which can include sexual harassment, related to your age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation that has the purpose or effect of violating your dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. If you feel you are being singled out for one of these reasons, see Discrimination.

If you think you may want to take legal action against your employer, use our Help Directory to get some legal advice.

I am being bullied - what should I do?

Dealing with bullying takes courage, especially because the bully is often someone in a position of authority. But remember that you have the right not to be bullied at work. Have a look at How to tackle problems at work

Bullying UK may be able to offer you support and advice. You can call their confidential helpline on 0808 800 2222. Open 9am – 9pm, Mondays to Fridays and 10am – 3pm Saturday and Sunday.

What if I walk out of my job because of bullying?

If you have already raised a complaint about the bullying and your employer has not taken reasonable steps to prevent it happening you might feel that the only option you have is to leave your job. If this happens you may be able to make a claim for ‘constructive dismissal’ (see the section on Dismissal in Ending a job for more information). But remember, you have to have been in the job for at least two years if you want to bring a claim for constructive dismissal. These are complex claims to bring. If you are in this situation, or are thinking about quitting, speak to an experienced adviser at your local advice agency or law centre or call the ACAS Helpline on 0300 123 1100. You should seek advice very promptly before resigning, as any delay is likely to affect the success of a claim.

Bullying can be so serious that it makes people ill

If bullying is causing physical or mental health problems like depression and anxiety, make an appointment to see your GP. Keep a record of what your doctor says and your symptoms. If your GP signs you off work or records you as having anxiety related to your work, someone from Human Resources (HR) should talk to you about this. (This assumes your employer is large enough to employ an HR professional – many are not.)

You will only be able to make a claim if you have told your employer about the problem and given them a reasonable opportunity to put it right.

Discrimination

"I was working for a fast food chain and they sent this memo round saying that everyone had to wear the company baseball cap - which is difficult when you wear a turban! They said I could like it or lump it. In the end I got some cash out of them for discrimination."

Balwinder

What is unlawful discrimination?

Unlawful discrimination is when someone is treated worse than other people because of their:

  • Age
  • Sex (including pregnancy and maternity; marriage and civil partnership)
  • Disability
  • Race  
  • Colour
  • Nationality
  • Ethnic/National origin
  • Religion or Belief
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender reassignment

Age discrimination is often thought about as affecting older people. Age discrimination also affects the young. So a boss saying “You’re good at your job, I’d like to put you on the front desk but you look too young” will be age discrimination.

There are different kinds of discrimination: direct discrimination, indirect discrimination victimisation and harassment. You could be discriminated against before you even start work, for example, if your application for a job is rejected because of your age or the colour of your skin.

Direct Discrimination

This is the obvious kind of discrimination, for example, if you are not given a pay rise like other workers because you have a disability or if you are sacked because you are pregnant.

Indirect Discrimination

This can be more difficult to spot. If your employer makes a rule at work that looks to be fair on the face of it but in fact puts someone at a disadvantage because of any of the reasons listed above, it can be indirect discrimination. In Balwinder's case, the rule about baseball caps discriminated against Sikhs (race and religion) because fewer Sikhs than others in the population could comply with the request, because he couldn't wear the cap as well as his turban.

Another example of indirect discrimination would be if training is only offered to full-time workers and not part-time workers. Most part-time workers are usually women so this could be sex discrimination.

Victimisation

If you have complained of discrimination or helped a colleague who has complained about discrimination and you are singled out or treated worse than other colleagues as a result, this would amount to victimisation. It could include your employer giving you a bad reference after you have left, particularly if your work and conduct had been good. Victimisation is unlawful and you can make a claim to a tribunal.

Harassment

This is a form of discrimination. Harassment includes verbal abuse, suggestive comments and physical contact. For example, if your boss is giving you unwanted sexual attention.

My boss isn't a problem; it's the other workers…
Employers are responsible for the actions of their staff. It's up to your employer to show that they took all steps possible to prevent other workers from discriminating against you. So, as long as you tell your employer that there is a problem, it's up to them to put a stop to it.

If you feel that you are a victim of discrimination at work - have a look at How to tackle problems at work.

Health and safety at work

"I started getting really itchy red patches in between my fingers. My doctor said it was a skin condition called dermatitis and I probably got it from the cleaning products I was using at work." Jasmine

When you think about it, most of us spend a large part of our lives at work. So it makes sense that the conditions we work in have a big impact on our health. At one extreme, lax health and safety procedures at work can kill or seriously injure people. At the other, things like uncomfortable seating and computer screens can cause aches and pains, which make life miserable.

You could be at risk from psychological illness as well as physical injury. For example, being over-stretched or bullied at work can lead to stress and depression. To avoid these things, both you and your employer should take action to make sure your workplace is a safe and comfortable place for you to be.

What should my employer be doing to make sure I am safe at work?

Your employer should do everything they reasonably can to protect you from any harm to your health while you are at work. What is reasonable will depend on the type of job you have. The employer is expected to provide safe premises, equipment, and colleagues to work with as far as reasonably practicable.

People who work in places like factories or building sites should be given proper training and safe equipment, protective clothing, and hard hats if appropriate. If you are sitting at a workstation all day, you should be in a chair that is comfortable, and have regular breaks from looking at a computer screen.

All workers should have access to a first aid kit and there should be an accessible emergency exit in case of a fire. There are lots more rules about work conditions, like the temperature of the office, hygiene standards and access to drinking water and toilets. To find out more about these have a look at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website: Health and Safety Executive.

How do I know what the dangers are and what my employer is doing about them?

Every business must have a health and safety policy. If there are more than 5 employees, the policy must be put in writing, explaining how health and safety will be managed and who is responsible for what. Your employer should identify what the dangers are at your work, how much risk you are at, and what they are doing to minimise the risk.

Your employer should communicate with you about any health and safety issues which arise at work, or if you have a trade union safety representative then they will probably discuss these issues with them instead.

What should I do to make sure I am safe at work?

Follow safety procedures set down by your employer, for example, use any protective clothing you are given. If your work involves using machinery or complicated equipment, you should be given proper training about how to use them. Make sure you have understood health and safety instructions before you work with anything which could be dangerous.

Avoid mucking about or practical jokes which could go wrong, cause an accident and result in you facing disciplinary action or even dismissal!

If you are concerned about your safety or the safety of others at work then raise this with your manager. If you are treated detrimentally for raising your concerns then you can bring a claim to the Employment Tribunal.

I am not an employee, do I still get protection?

Yes, everyone in a workplace has a right to work without exposure to unnecessary health risks.

I had an injury at work - what steps should I take?

Report it to your manager or safety representative. Make sure they record it in the accident book (all work places should have one).

If you feel it is serious enough, go and see your GP and explain how your work caused your injury. Your GP might say that you need treatment and maybe time off work to recover.

If you are losing out on wages or are unable to work for more than a few weeks you might be able to claim Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). You may also be able to claim compensation from your employer. You may be entitled to Industrial Injury Benefit in the case of serious injury. You should speak to an experienced adviser if you are in this position. See the benefits and tax credits section of the Help Directory.

If you are considering making a claim for compensation against your employer for personal injury because of an accident at work which was wholly or partly their fault, it is particularly important to make sure it is recorded in the accident book. You should take photos of the hazard if possible, and details of witnesses. You have three years to bring a claim, but you should get it investigated promptly.

What can I do if my working conditions are affecting my health?

If you feel that your health is suffering at work, try speaking to your manager about it, you might be able to solve the problem easily. If you have a safety representative at work you could speak to them too.

If your work is failing to sort out the problem, you should seek advice from someone with experience in this area about taking the matter further. This could be the Health and Safety Executive or an adviser at your local advice centre. You may be able to get compensation from your employer if your work has made you ill, or if you lost your job because of work-related health problems.

Special protection for under 18's, pregnant women and new mums

Employers have to be extra-careful about risks to under 18s. If you are in this age group, you are bound to have less experience of the workplace than older workers and will probably be less aware of risks. Your employer should not expose you to dangers you might not have the experience to cope with.

Pregnant women and new mums also need special treatment and any risk assessments should take this into account. For example, pregnant women should not be lifting heavy boxes or standing up all day. If you cannot do your usual work safely then your employer should find you suitable alternative work or suspend you on your usual pay until you are able to resume your work safely.

Education and training

Whether you get training at work will depend on your employer, the type of work you are doing, and the skills you already have. If your employer offers you training, it's a good idea to take it, as you can put it down on your CV and it is likely to put you in a better position if you want to move jobs. 

Do I have any rights to training at work?

No, unless your contract says otherwise. But there are different rules for 16-17 and 18 year olds.

Education and training for 16-17 and 18 year olds: in Wales

If you are 16 or 17 and you didn't get many qualifications at school, you may be entitled to paid time off work to study or train to get a qualification, like an NVQ.

If you are now 18 but you started training or studying towards a relevant qualification before the age of 18, you may also be entitled to paid time off work to finish your course.

Education and training for 16-17 and 18 year olds: in England

If you are 16, 17 or 18 year’s old and working at least 20 hours a week, you must take part in education or training that is working towards a Level 3 qualification (unless you are already qualified to this level). However there is no longer any right to paid time off for this, unlike in Wales.

Child employment - under 16s

You are not allowed to work full time until you are 16 and have finished school. If you are 13 to 15 and want to earn a bit of money you can have a job, but there are lots of rules about the length of time you can work for and the type of work you can do. These rules are there to make sure you are being treated fairly by your boss and that your job doesn't interfere with school.

The main things to remember are:

  • Your employer must give you an employment permit from your Local Education Authority.
  • Your job mustn't be during school time, and you shouldn't be working before 7am or after 7pm.
  • You aren't allowed to work in places like factories or building sites because they could be dangerous.
  • There is no minimum wage for under 16s.

For more information on child employment see: Children's work rights and Child employment.

Working should be your decision - if you are being forced into working, it is against the law. If you are in this position you can call Childline on 0800 1111 to get help and advice about what to do. Calls are free and Childline is open 24 hours a day.

How to tackle problems at work

If your employer is treating you in a way you are unhappy with, or not giving you what you are entitled to, don't suffer in silence. You can take action to deal with the problem.

Every work situation is different, so there isn't just one way of dealing with a problem. What you should do will depend on what kind of relationship you have with your employer and the type of problem you have.

Here is an outline of the steps you could take:

  • You could start by talking to your employer; explain that you are not getting what you are entitled to or that you are unhappy with the way you are being treated. You might be able to settle the matter straight away.
  • If that doesn't work you should get in touch with your trade union representative, if you have one, or a personnel officer at your work and they will be able to advise you on what to do next.
  • Every employer must have a procedure to deal with employees’ problems and complaints. You might have to put your complaint in writing. If you are in this position, it is a good idea to get in touch with an experienced adviser at your local law centre, Citizen's Advice Bureau, or advice agency.
  • As a last resort you might decide to make a complaint to an employment tribunal. Employment tribunals are set up to resolve disputes between employers and employees. Most complaints must be made within three months of the incident or action you are complaining about. You should think carefully before doing this as it is likely to create bad feeling between you and your employer no matter what the outcome. If you feel that this is your only option you should speak to an experienced adviser first as there are important rules you must follow before going to a tribunal.
  • Unless you are on a low income (and this is means tested) you will have to pay an employment tribunal fee (currently £160 or £250) to start your claim depending on the type of claim, and more (currently £230 or £950) if it doesn’t settle and goes to a hearing. These fees were introduced in 2013. You are likely to get the fees back if your claim is successful, but this is not guaranteed. Depending on who your employer is, there is always a risk that they go bust. For this reason it is essential to make sure that you have good prospects of success before you start a claim, preferably by discussing it with ACAS or other advisers.

On the 26th July 2017 the Supreme Court ruled that the tribunal fees introduced in 2013 were unlawful. The government has said that it will stop charging these fees. We will update this section when we get more information.

26th July 2017

Top tips for dealing with work problems
  • If it is an ongoing problem like bullying or discrimination, keep a diary. It's important to have a record of what's happening to you.
  • If you decide to talk to your employer directly, go through what you are going to say with a friend first - try to stay calm and polite so you don't lose control of the situation. Immediately after you have talked to them, make a note of what was said by both of you.
  • Don't delay in taking steps to deal with a problem, remember there's usually a 3 month deadline for making a claim at an employment tribunal.
  • If you decide to make a formal complaint, make sure you are familiar with your employer's complaint procedures.
  • If you are having a meeting with your managers about a complaint you have made or because they have complained about your work or behaviour, you can take a fellow worker or a trade union representative with you to the meeting. This is a good idea, as it will give you moral support as well as a witness to what is said.

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