Can an Employment Agreement be varied? 25 Feb 2019

The short answer is, it depends. Key factors include what the employment agreement says about varying the agreement, how significant the proposed change is, why there is a need for the change, whether the change is to the employee’s benefit or not and whether the employer and employee agree.

This article considers the situation where the employment agreement states, as is common, “This agreement may be varied by written agreement between the employer and employee”, the change proposed is more than inconsequential and is not to the employee’s benefit.

Good Faith

The starting position is that the employer and the employee are required, when bargaining for a variation to an employment agreement, to “deal with each other in good faith”. At a minimum that means being “responsive and communicative” towards each other and “active and constructive in continuing a productive relationship.”

In short, in the situation outlined above, employers should tell employees well in advance of the proposed change, the reasons for it, and the possible consequences if the change does not go ahead. A possible consequence may, depending on the circumstances, be that the employee’s employment is in jeopardy. However, that should only be raised if that is a genuine possibility, rather than as a threat.

Employees should be given an opportunity to give feedback on the proposal, including any concerns or alternative suggestions. Employers should maintain an open mind to suggestions made and be willing to vary their proposal if feasible.

Employees should also be told, prior to giving feedback, that they are entitled to get independent advice on the proposal and given sufficient time to get that advice, if they so choose.

If an employee’s employment may be in jeopardy if the change does not proceed, then employees should also be given an opportunity to have a support person or representative with them when they give their feedback.

Employees should not simply reject proposed changes out of hand and refuse to discuss them with the employer. They should engage with their employer and be prepared to discuss concerns and put forward alternatives, with a view to trying to reach resolution if possible.

What should happen if agreement is reached?

If agreement is reached, the terms of the existing agreement should be followed in recording that variation. For example, it should be recorded in writing, signed by both parties, and attached to the agreement.

If the change is solely to the advantage of the employer, an employer should also consider offering the employee some sort of “consideration” (i.e. benefit) in exchange, in order to ensure that the change is binding. This could be a one off payment or a pay increase or some other benefit.

While it is not clear legally that consideration is always required where the parties agree to a change, it is prudent to do so to limit the risk of a future dispute.

What if agreement can’t be reached?

This can be a difficult one. On one hand, the law recognises, as a general proposition, an employer’s prerogative to manage or organise its business. On the other hand, that is not an unconstrained right and the terms of the employee’s employment agreement cannot be ignored.

Consequently, where the proposed change effects an express term of the employee’s employment agreement (e.g. their hours of work) and the agreement states that any variation will be by mutual consent, it will be more difficult for an employer to unilaterally effect a change justifiably, particularly a substantial one.

Nonetheless, in some circumstances, a unilateral change may be permitted, where, objectively, that change is “fair and reasonable” and reasonably implemented. Whether any such change meets that test has been said by the Courts to involve “questions of fact and degree”, i.e. how significant is the change and why and how is it being introduced. Consequently, the individual facts of each case will be critical in assessing whether a change is likely to be upheld or not.

Either way, as with changes by agreement, where the change is solely for the benefit of the employer, the employer should offer some benefit in exchange for the proposed change. This also increases the chances of agreement being reached.

Drafting new employment agreements – a take home message for employers

If you are an employer, we recommend that new employment agreements include scope for changes to be made by the employer where business needs justify it. While employers will still need to follow a fair process, in the event of disagreement, more flexible agreement terms potentially provide greater flexibility in implementing change.

This article is not a substitute for legal advice and you should talk to a lawyer about your specific situation. Should you need any assistance with this, or with any other Employment matters, please contact Lois Flanagan or Hannah Carey at Parry Field Lawyers (348-8480), loisflanagan@parryfield.com or hannahcarey@parryfield.com.