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Signing an employment contract: understand your employment rights when you accept a job offer

Your graduate job offer, employment contract and employment rights

You’ve been offered a graduate job, but do you know what you are agreeing to? We look at all of the legal and important bits you need to check before signing a job contract.

Your employment contract is more than just a written document.

Jump to: Accepting | Contracts and rights

It is natural to be swept up in the euphoria of accepting a graduate job offer and certainly you should be pleased and proud. All the same, it is wise to know precisely what you are legally agreeing to and what your employment rights are. This article will give you a brief overview so that you can feel sufficiently equipped to know what to look out for, but employment and contract law is complex and this is not intended to be comprehensive. If you have any specific concerns or would like further detail, we suggest you seek further advice: for example, through Acas, Citizens Advice, GOV.UK or, if you belong to one, your union.

In the UK there are legally three types of employment status – employee, worker and self-employed – and your rights differ accordingly. Graduates who join graduate schemes or are offered ‘graduate jobs’ are most typically employees and so we will focus on the rights of employees in this article. If you want to know more about your rights on a zero-hours contract or in the gig economy, head over to our article on the rights of part-time workers.

What happens when you are offered a job?

A job offer can be made in writing or verbally and once made it is legally binding. A job offer can be conditional or unconditional. Most graduate employers make conditional offers and the most common conditions are:

  • proof that you have achieved the minimum academic grades listed as essential requirements in the job description (you often have to send copies of your certificates)
  • good references (you will be asked for names and contact details)
  • successfully undergoing a DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) check if the job requires one
  • proof that you have a current driving license, if that is an essential requirement on the job description – again, you would be expected to provide a photocopy or PDF.

All employers also have a legal duty to confirm that you have the right to work in the UK.

Once you have accepted the offer, whether verbally or in writing, you are legally bound by it. However, it is best practice for a verbal offer to be followed up in writing and for you to accept it in writing; most graduate employers wait for you to accept it in writing rather than holding you to a verbal agreement. We would strongly advise you against declining a job offer after accepting it (known as reneging) – see our job offer etiquette article for more about this.

Can a job offer be withdrawn by the employer before you start work?

Yes and this tends happen more in times of economic disruption; we saw offers being rescinded in the first few months of the pandemic. What you can legally do about this varies.

If it is a conditional job offer and you haven’t met the conditions, the job offer is invalid and you have no legal comeback to this.

If an unconditional offer (or a conditional one for which you meet all of the conditions) is withdrawn because of discrimination due to one or more of the ‘protected characteristics’ under the Equality Act 2010, such as race, sex and gender reassignment or disability, you have the option of taking the employer to an employment tribunal. See our information about the Equality Act for more on this.

If an offer is withdrawn not due to discrimination, you can technically sue the employer for breach of contract – if they do not pay you for the notice period you would have been contractually entitled to if you had started work.

What actually is an employment contract and what does it contain?

This is where it gets a bit complicated. An employment contract is a legal agreement between the employer and the employee. It does not have to be written – although it is best practice for it to be written down, most graduate employers will provide a written one, and workers and employees have a right to a ‘written statement of particulars’ from day one of their employment.

Let’s start by explaining the written statement of particulars because, if you do have a formal written contract, this will form the basis of it.

A written statement of particulars should be given on day one of your employment and include details such as your name, a brief description of the job, your start date, the length of the employment period (if it is a fixed-term contract of two years, for example), when and how much you should be paid, what days and hours you will work (and if they vary), and holiday entitlements. A follow-up statement should appear at a later date including details such as pensions, sick pay and disciplinary and grievance procedures. For a full list of what should be in each statement, see the ACAS website.

An employment contract stretches wider than the written statement. For legal purposes, an employment contract includes a combination of express and implied terms. Express terms are those which are stated in writing or verbally. They have to comply with employment legislation (for example, the employer can’t pay less than the minimum wage). They can go beyond what is in a written statement of particulars or a written contract – for example, they could be contained within an employee handbook or policy documents an employer has such as their ‘use of IT’ and ‘social media’ policies.

Implied terms are those that aren’t actually stated but can be safely assumed. These might be because they are enshrined in law, are thought to be obvious or because they have been established over a long period of time. For example, an implied term might be that the employer provides a safe working environment (a legal duty). It might be that you are entitled to a Christmas bonus because everyone in the company receives one and has done every year since time immemorial – as long as there aren’t written conditions attached.

What are common contract terms for graduate employment?

The above can be a bit difficult to get your head around, so to keep it simple we are going to focus on the most common terms in contracts for graduate schemes and graduate jobs. We recommend that you check with particular care:

  • that your personal details are correct and the length of contract and the description of the job match up to what you have applied for.
  • that you understand the details of a probationary period. For example, you may find that you have a shorter notice period while on probation (making it easier for you to leave the employer if the job is not right for you). You may find that your salary increases once you have passed a probation.
  • what your working hours will be. As an employee (or a worker) you are entitled to: at least a 20-minute rest break (which could be a lunch break and whether it is paid depends on your employment contract) if you work more than six hours; an 11 hour break between finishing work on one day and starting work the next; and either an uninterrupted 24 hours without work each week or 48 hours every fortnight. If you are required to work more than a 48-hour week, you will need to agree to and formally ‘opt out’ of this working time arrangement.
  • what the holiday entitlement is. Every full-time worker and employee is entitled to a minimum 28 days’ holiday in a year (part-time workers receive the percentage of this that they have worked, also known as 28 days pro rata) – these days may or may not include bank holidays (some employers, for example in retail or hospitality, expect you to work bank holidays).
  • what the sick pay policy is. You cannot earn less than the statutory sick pay amount, but many employers offer an ‘enhanced’ package.
  • when you will be paid. It is common for you to be paid in arrears – that is, after you have worked (eg if you are paid monthly on the final day of the month and you start on 1 January you will receive your first payment on 31 January). This can be hard financially for some graduates and so some employers offer a welcome bonus and others might advance you some of your salary early on request.
  • your entitlement to bonuses, commission and so on. The conditions should be set out in your contract. Sometimes it is stated in a contract that you are only eligible for bonuses once you have been at the company for a certain length of time, eg 12 months.
  • if you are provided with equipment for work use outside of the workplace (for example, a company car, laptop or mobile phone) and to what extent you can use it for non-work purposes.
  • whether the employer is paying for training, professional qualifications and the membership fees of professional bodies. Make sure you understand what would happen if you leave the employer before achieving a professional qualification or part-way through a year’s membership fees. It is usual for you to reimburse the employer for money paid out on your behalf.
  • whether there are any ‘restrictive covenants’. The most common of these are clauses stating that you cannot work for a competitor for a certain period of time after leaving the employer or that you cannot have a second job while working for the employer (unless you have gained written permission).

When you read through your contract, if something is not what you were led to expect from the recruitment brochure or interview, you can query the matter politely, asking if the recruiter could clarify the point for you to make sure that you understand exactly what is meant. In practice, it is rare for an employer to alter its standard contract terms (at graduate level, this is done only in exceptional circumstances). It is therefore important to know exactly what is expected of you, and what you in turn can expect from an employer, before you start work.

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This content has been written or sourced by AGCAS, the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, and edited by TARGETjobs as part of a content partnership. AGCAS provides impartial information and guidance resources for higher education student career development and graduate employment professionals.

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