Q: I run a small engineering business. We have just had a big job put back and I am going to find it difficult to keep all the staff on until it comes back on line. However, if I could reduce the hours of a couple of them from full-time to part-time it may be possible. How should I go about doing this and how much notice do I need to give them?
A: You would need to change their contracts of employment, but to do this you would first need to get the agreement of the employees concerned. If you don’t it would be a unilateral change and would constitute a breach of contract.
In the first instance you should call a meeting with the employees and explain your dilemma; i.e. you need to shorten their hours to part-time until the anticipated contract comes on line, or you will be left with no alternative but to consider redundancies. If they won’t agree to going part-time then you should enter into a period of consultation with them, during which time you must consider any suggestions they might make to overcome the problem you face.
You must give valid business reasons as to why you need to make the changes. This will assist in protecting your position if the situation should go any further. Regarding how much notice you should give for any proposed changes to their contracts there is no minimum, though it will help relationships if you do give them some notice.
If your business is subject to an unavoidable ebb and flow of work you might wish to consider including the contractual right to temporary lay-off and short-time working in your terms and conditions of employment. However, these are not unrestricted rights and you should take advice from an employment lawyer.