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Employment contracts

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So you’ve been offered a job, and now you have to sign the employment contract. Before you do, make sure it holds no hidden surprises, says Andrew Cole.

Signing your name to any legal contract, whether it be insurance, mortgage or hire purchase, can be a daunting process, and putting your signature to an employment contract is no exception.

The basis of the contract is, of course, simplicity itself: it states that the worker agrees to work for the employer and the employer agrees to pay wages for that labour. Moreover, it is designed as much to protect the employee as the organisation.

A contract should, for instance, ensure that it is impossible for you to be sacked without warning and without notice; that you are entitled to certain sick leave and maternity benefits; and that you have protection should you be bullied or discriminated against at work.

So what should the prospective employee look out for when she or he is asked to sign a contract? Some things should be standard in any employment contract (Box 1).

But there is a great deal of additional material that is, effectively, part of your contract. This can include any letter sent by the employer before you start work; anything you signed since starting; your job description; collective agreements between employers and unions, and trust policies on such matters as alcohol, smoking, equal opportunities and disciplinary procedures.

The main terms and conditions must be laid out within two months of starting employment. But there are potential pitfalls. In recent years, for example, newly qualified nurses in some areas have been offered short-term or fixed contracts. The obvious disadvantage of these contracts is that they give less security and no redundancy rights. The good news is that the government is now committed to phasing out their use apart from in exceptional circumstances, such as covering short-term gaps in essential services.

However, it remains important to check for certain things before signing. You should, for instance, ensure you are still entitled to occupational sick leave and paid holidays. And you also need to make sure that your own professional development ’ including mentorship and study leave ’ will be maintained. It’s also important to compare your contract to the terms of your job offer, which is itself a form of contract, and make sure the two are consistent.

The general rule is: take your time before putting your name to any employment contract. And if you have any doubts, consult your trade union rep. Below are the main considerations to check.

Code of conduct

Nothing in your employment contract should conflict with the Nursing and Midwifery Council Code of Professional Conduct (Box 2). The NMC wants all employers to acknowledge the nurse’s obligation to the code within employment contracts. It also suggests all contracts should include:

  • An undertaking that all practitioners are able to satisfy the code’s requirements;

  • Arrangements to ensure their continued competence and professional development;

  • A policy allowing them to express their concerns about standards and a means of monitoring those standards.

Continuing education

The NHS Plan promises annual appraisal and a professional development plan. Does your employment contract indicate how your employer will support this process and your PREP requirements?

Confidentiality clauses

There may be clauses that deal with confidential information. These should include the right of staff to ‘whistleblow’, something now guaranteed under the Public Interest Disclosure Act.


Some employment contracts will specify the need for occasional overtime. If you have other commitments, such as child care, you will need to make sure these don’t conflict. You can never be forced to work overtime.


It is important to check your place of work is specified and that any redeployment clauses are included in the contract. Any proposed move should always be subject to consultation and review.

Shift patterns

Some contracts will stipulate the shift patterns you are expected to work. Some, such as internal rotation, can mean fairly unpredictable hours and have equal opportunity implications. Also remember that if, for instance, you’ve worked nights for the last two years that is an implied contract and cannot be changed at will.

NHS contracts

Employment contracts will usually be with the employing trust. They should say whether it is offering the post on terms agreed by the Nurses’ and General Whitley Councils, known as mirror Whitley terms, or those set by the trust itself. Check that staff are employed on contracts that link them to Whitley conditions and pay review body scales.

Agenda for Change

Due to come into force later this year if unions agree, Agenda for Change will mean different, more standardised rates of pay, holiday entitlement and overtime. Most existing staff will be transferred automatically to the new arrangements.

Private sector and agencies

There is much greater variation in independent sector contracts ’ and an even greater need to be on your guard. One concern relates to overseas nurses who are promised a particular package in advance only to be asked to sign up to a less generous contract once in this country. In addition some nursing agencies are seeking to roll up holiday entitlement into the hourly rate. This dispute has now gone to the European Court.

Contract changes

Contract changes are one of the most common areas of dispute. If your employer wants to change the nature of the work you do, alter your hours or modify pay rates they will have to change your contract. This can only be done with your agreement ’ if they try to do this unilaterally seek immediate advice.


Contracts should be easy to follow but can sometimes include legal jargon. If you don’t understand anything, don’t sign until you’ve had it clarified. You should always feel comfortable that you know your obligations to your employer and theirs to you.

Union representation

Don’t forget: under the Employment Relations Act all health staff ’ whether working in the NHS or the independent sector ’ have a right to be represented by a trade union.

Employers can also require you to provide evidence of your registration and will, if you are working with children or vulnerable adults, ask you about any previous criminal convictions ’ even if they are now spent. Failing to provide this information could be grounds for dismissal. n

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your contract should include:

  • Your name and that of your employer

  • Your job and grade

  • Your place of work

  • The date you start your new job

  • The date your period of continuous employment began

  • The rate of pay

  • The intervals at which you will be paid

  • Holiday, sick pay and pension entitlement

  • Health and safety matters

  • Your hours of work

  • The notice you must give before leaving

  • The notice the organisation must give before sacking or making you redundant

The NMC code of professional conduct

The NMC’s new Code of Professional Conduct lays down a number of basic tenets by which all registered practitioners must abide. The fundamental principle is that you are always personally accountable for your care and that you must at all times:

  • Respect the patient or client as an individual

  • Obtain consent before you give any treatment or care

  • Protect confidential information

  • Co-operate with others in the team

  • Maintain your professional knowledge and competence

  • Be trustworthy

  • Act to identify and minimise risk to patients and clients.
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