Is it legal to reduce an employee’s working hours?


It’s not uncommon for employers to consider changing parts of a staff member’s contract while they’re still employed with you.

Over the course of an employee’s time at your organisation, instances may arise that’ll require you to make changes to their contract of employment. These changes may reflect

  • Pay rises or decreases.
  • Change of duties.
  • Change of working hours.

However, is it legal to reduce the working hours of your staff? What does the law say about making these changes?  And what do you need to consider before making them?

This piece answers the questions above and more. In it, we’ll explore the legality and offer some advice on how to go about it.

Reducing working hours and the law

You can make reductions in working hours according to employment law. Depending on the contract, they can be permanent or temporary reductions in working hours.

However, you can’t do this without the consent of your staff members.

During times of business downturn and uncertainty, you may consider making changes to the terms and conditions of your employees’ contract.

One change involves reducing their hours of work. There are many reasons for reducing the working hours of your staff. Some examples include:

  • To account for a decline in the demand for your product or service.
  • To reflect changes in duties and responsibilities.
  • Lack of work activities for an employee to carry out.

As an employer, there are three main instances where you can change a contract of employment. This is if:

  1. A flexibility clause allows for the change.
  2. The employee agrees to it.
  3. A representative of the employee agrees to the change on their behalf.

If you’re unable to reach an agreement with a member of staff, you may also consider a forced reduction in working hours.

It involves dismissing and re-engaging the same member of staff under the new contract. This step should be as a last resort after exhausting every other option.

Keep in mind that this doesn’t necessarily address any performance issues and staff members may challenge it based on fairness and consistency.

How to reduce employee hours

Reducing the working hours of your staff is a delicate issue. If done incorrectly, you may open yourself up for claims of breach of contract or discrimination from your employees. Your approach to it will depend on the reason for the reduction in working hours.

The first and most important step is to have an open and honest conversation with all those affected.

Explain the reason for the reduction, how you decided whose hours to reduce, and the new proposed hours and pay if applicable. Remember to give all affected employees advance notice of the changes you wish to make.

Once you’ve agreed on the changes to their working hours, you’ll need to update the contract. You must also write to all affected employees within a month explaining the changes made and how it’ll affect them.

Can an employee reduce their hours?

Just like you can alter an employee’s contract of employment, they can also make requests for reducing hours at work for a better work-life balance or in order to meet other out-of-work obligations.

They can make requests for flexible working if they have at least 26 weeks’ continuous service, which you must reply to within 28 days of receiving the application.

While you can decline the application you’ll need to justify this based on one of a number of prescribed reasons e.g. the impact it would have on product quality or ability to meet customer demand.

Expert advice

As part of your membership with the MIA you can speak to a Croner expert for help with any of the above issues and get free in-depth, tailored advice. Email or call 01403 800500 for the exclusive Business Support Helpline scheme number.