In a case that should be treated with some caution, Bateman and others v Asda Stores Ltd, the EAT held that Asda was entitled to rely on a general contractual right in a staff handbook to vary terms and conditions to impose changes to its employees' pay and work structure.
Asda wished to amend the pay and work structure of a small proportion of its employees to harmonise it with that adopted for the vast majority. It carried out a consultation process with the affected employees, the majority of whom agreed to it. Asda imposed the change on the minority who did not give their consent.
A number of these employees brought claims of unauthorised deductions from wages, breach of contract and unfair dismissal.
Asda defended its decision to impose the change without obtaining the claimants' consent by relying on a clause in its Colleague Handbook, which was incorporated in to the claimants' contracts of employment. This clause stated that Asda:
"reserved the right to review, revise, amend or replace the contents of this handbook, and introduce new policies from time to time reflecting the changing needs of the business…."
The handbook's contents included terms relating to pay and other conditions of employment.
The EAT held that the clause in the Colleague Handbook clearly permitted Asda to unilaterally change the content of the Handbook, including the contractual matters contained in the Handbook, such as pay and hours of work, where, as in the present case, the change reflected the needs of the business.
Impact on employers
- Caution is required here because the changes imposed by Asda did not result in any employee suffering a reduction in pay. In addition, the claimants conceded at the employment tribunal hearing that Asda had not breached its duty of trust and confidence and did not argue that the clause permitting variation should be construed by reference to the employees' intentions or expectations as to its meaning.
- Consequently, employers who are contemplating implementing significant changes are advised to obtain consent and to consult about the proposals in advance rather than relying simply on a general right to make changes.