Employers may be able to rely on a general clause allowing unilateral changes to terms and conditions to alter key terms such as pay, provided they act reasonably in doing so.

In this case the variation clause was in a staff handbook containing contractual terms as well as non-contractual policies, and reserved the right to amend the contents of the handbook to reflect business needs. The EAT ruled that the right to vary without employees' consent applied to both contractual terms and non-contractual policies.

The implied duty of trust and confidence requires an employer using such a clause to act reasonably, to consult and seek the employees' consent in advance, and to give reasonable notice of any change. The claimants here conceded that the employer had fulfilled this duty. It had sought to consult with the employees and obtain their consent before using the clause to harmonise its workforce's pay structures, and had also tried to ensure that the change to the pay structure did not reduce employees' pay.

This concession meant that the claimants were prevented from running the argument that there was a breach of trust and confidence in the employers' alleged failure to ensure employees were aware of the potential effect of the general variation clause. This leaves open the possibility that such an argument could succeed in a future case and it is clearly best practice to ensure employees are fully aware of this type of clause. (Bateman v Asda Stores, EAT)