Only one in 166 workers in the UK has ever read their contract and understand its contents, according to a study by a Yorkshire-based national employment law consultancy which says that this ignorance has led to disciplinary action and dismissal in hundreds of cases.
While workers are protected by a raft of employment laws, the Protecting.co.uk company says that claiming ignorance of the contents of your work contract is no defence when it comes to a dispute with your boss.
“We’re stunned,” says Protecting.co.uk spokesperson Mark Hall. “You would have thought that you would read through an important document before you put your name to it, but it appears that for most people that’s simply not the case.”
Protecting.co.uk asked 1,000 employees all over the UK if they had ever read their contract in full.
- Only six said they had – that’s one person in 166
- Slightly more – 93 – said they had read part of it, or had skim-read it
- The vast majority (909) had not read their work contract, or had no memory of doing so
- More than half (56%) said they had no idea where their contract currently is
Those one-sided figures often present themselves when an employee comes into dispute with their boss, Protecting.co.uk says. Far from being a case of “I know my rights”, many workplace disputes happen because the worker has broken a clause that is specifically written into their contract.
Protecting.co.uk estimates that a significant proportion of unfair dismissal claims – easily numbering into the hundreds – are nipped in the bud simply because the claimant did not read their contract, and had no idea of appropriate behaviour at the time of the incident.
“For example, one of the most common problems is when shop or factory workers take damaged or unwanted goods home,” says Hall. “In many cases, taking unwanted property is theft, even if it’s in the bin – and that’s a specific clause for many workers.
“It’s just a shame many have never read their employment contracts to find out before they end up in a disciplinary process.”
Other common disciplinary problems that employees miss by not reading their contracts include:
- “Moonlighting” for other companies – a simple check will reveal if the employee is signing an exclusivity contract, or agreeing not to work for competitors.
- Bringing the company into disrepute – often the case with unguarded or ill-advised social media posts
- Timeliness – Although some workplaces might have customary or casual arrangements for late arrival or early departure, employees can still be held to core working hours. “Everybody knocks off ten minutes early” is no defence.
- Workplace behaviour – Contracts often set out minimum standards of behaviour and dress.
- Company cars – Some companies allow private use, some do not. The policy is often written in employment contracts, or subsequent car lease documents.
“If your contract says wear a suit, then wear a suit,” says Hall. “There’s no point complaining that you didn’t know if it’s written down in black-and-white. And if your contract says you can’t use the company van to go on holiday, it’s your own fault if you put it in a ditch somewhere in the Lake District.”
Protecting.co.uk says that disputes could be nipped in the bud by companies issuing a bullet-pointed summary of contractual expectations in the hope that the new employee would at least read that if they can’t or won’t read the full contract.
“While a summary sheet is not a legally binding document, it at least gives the worker some sort of clue as to acceptable behaviour and standards of work,” Hall says.
The simple thing that workers can do if in doubt over their contract, or if they simply don’t understand the wording, is to seek legal advice.
“Not everybody has a legal grounding,” says Hall, “So before signing a piece of paper that’s going to effectively control your behaviour for the foreseeable future, show it to somebody who understands it. If not a legal firm, try Citizen’s Advice.”
“A few minutes reading your contract could save your career.”