Your employment rights
The vast majority of research staff are employed on a research contract with their university or institution. You will be an employee of the institution, and as such you are entitled to the full protection that employment law allows. At the most basic level this means:
- your employer has a responsibility to ensure your health and safety at work
- your employer must provide a clear statement of what your responsibilities are
- your employer cannot dismiss you or make you redundant without consultation. A formal procedure must be followed if the employer wants to terminate your contract
- your employer should also have formal procedures in place for dealing with grievances, disciplinary matters, sickness absence, etc.
- you have the right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation
- you have the right to expect the employer’s protection from bullying, harassment and work-related stress
- you have the right to belong to a trade union.
‘Equality and diversity’ is a key concept underpinning these rights. This phrase means that workers should be treated without favouritism, and that workplaces should not be set up to disadvantage any particular group of workers.
Rights of fixed-term contract staff
Most researchers are employed on fixed-term contracts tied to a fixed period of grant funding. Although there is some political pressure for universities to adopt other employment models for research staff, the reality is that nearly all researchers will experience employment on a fixed-term contract at some point in their career.
Workers on fixed-term contracts are protected by a law called the Fixed-Term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002. A short summary of the Regulations is that employers are not allowed to treat staff on fixed-term contracts differently to staff at a comparable grade who are employed on permanent contracts.
Among the consequences of the Regulations are the following:
- you cannot be automatically dismissed at the end of a fixed-term contract. The termination of a fixed-term contract is recognised in law as a redundancy situation and your employer must be able to show that they have tried to avoid making you redundant. This normally means that they have to give you adequate notice of the redundancy and they have to make an effort to redeploy you into another role. If they do not do so, the termination of your contract could count as an unfair dismissal
- you have a right of appeal against the termination of your contract
- you are entitled to redundancy pay if you have worked for more than two years
- after four years’ continuous employment on two or more successive contracts, the law regards you as a permanent employee. Your employer has to provide “objective justification” if they choose not to recognise you as a permanent member of staff.
Some institutions now automatically transfer fixed-term contract staff onto open-ended contracts after four years’ employment. However, a majority continue to argue that the end of a fixed period of grant funding counts as “objective justification” for not moving a researcher from a fixed-term to a permanent contract. The issue is controversial and has been debated in some high-profile Employment Tribunal cases. It is possible that future legal rulings will encourage more universities to begin moving research staff onto permanent contracts once they have passed the four-year threshold.
Rights of part-time staff
Part-time workers are protected by the Part-Time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2000. Employers are not allowed to treat staff who work part-time differently to staff at the same level who are employed on full-time contracts. Certain classes of employees have the right to request a transfer to part-time or ‘flexible’ working if, for example, they have caring responsibilities.
More information on support for part-time researchers can be found in the ‘Equality and Diversity’ section of this site.
Health and safety at work
The employer’s responsibility for health and safety in the workplace is described as ‘personal and non-delegable.’ This means that:
- the employer owes a duty to each individual employee. If the employer is aware that a worker needs special consideration – either because of the nature of their work, or their personal circumstances – they must give that special consideration
- the employer cannot make excuses by pinning the blame on another individual or group of individuals if something goes wrong.
It is the employer’s responsibility to provide both a safe workplace and a safe ‘system of work.’ This includes providing adequate training, supervision, protective clothing etc. where necessary. It also includes regularly assessing workplace risks and planning to mitigate them.
It may surprise you to learn that work-related stress is recognised as a health and safety hazard. Employers therefore have a duty to ensure that workers are not harmed by work-related stress.
The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has responsibility for ensuring that employers comply with their health and safety duties. The HSE conducts audits of organisations and ensures that they meet nationally agreed standards for managing workplace risks, including stress.
Bullying and harassment
Employers have a responsibility to protect employees from bullying and harassment in the workplace. The employment arbitration service ACAS issues guidance on how employers should deal with bullying and harassment. Although this guidance is not legally binding, it is regarded by most employers (and by the courts) as a standard of best practice which employers should adhere to.
ACAS defines harassment as “unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of men and women in the workplace. It may be related to age, sex, race, disability, religion, nationality or any personal characteristic of the individual, and may be persistent or an isolated incident. The key is that the actions or comments are viewed as demeaning and unacceptable to the recipient.”
ACAS defines bullying as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.”
A key feature of the ACAS guidance is that victims of bullying and harassment do not have to prove that the behaviour they are experiencing counts as bullying or harassment. If the victim’s perception of the behaviour is that it is bullying or harassment, the behaviour is automatically unacceptable. The victim has the right to expect the behaviour to stop – and the right to expect the employer’s support, if necessary, in getting the behaviour to stop.
If you feel that any of your rights have been infringed, it is important to get advice as soon as possible. You may want to consider speaking to any of the following:
- your line manager
- your mentor if you have one
- your research staff representative if you have a departmental or university Research Staff Association
- your institution’s Personnel Office
- a designated contact or support person for bullying and harassment (many universities have networks of trained staff who can be consulted for help in these situations)
- your trade union.
A trade union is a not-for-profit organisation which exists to uphold the rights and improve the working conditions of its members. Recognised trade unions have the authority to negotiate with employers to secure improvements in workers’ terms of employment. The recognised trade union for academic staff and for most categories of researchers in UK universities is the University and College Union (UCU).
All trade unions have trained representatives who can support employees who have complaints or difficulties in the workplace. The support available can range from legal advice on employment contracts to mediation with line managers or difficult colleagues, or representation in formal procedures such as redundancy meetings. This support is only available to members of the union.