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This is a guide about written and verbal contracts, terms and conditions, changing your contract, changes to shifts and cancellation of work. 

Our contract checklist

We believe that the nursing workforce should be recognised and valued through fair pay, terms and conditions (Standard 4 RCN Nursing Workforce Standards).

A contract is a legally binding document. You should always read any contract fully and make sure you understand it before you sign it. This contract checklist may help you evaluate the contents of a new contract before committing yourself.

A contract starts as soon as a job offer is accepted. Accepting an offer of employment on the terms specified and then starting work is generally seen as proof that you accept the terms and conditions offered by the employer.

Always be clear on (and ensure you are happy with) the terms and conditions before you accept the offer. Our contract checklist may help.

Terms and conditions set out the rights and responsibilities of you and your employer. These terms fall into four general categories, explained by ACAS. 

Employment contracts do not have to be in writing to be legally valid.

A contract between employer and employee will still exist and can be orally agreed. However, we would encourage you to request a written contract as soon as possible. It is better to have proof of your agreement with your employer. Written contracts are also important if changes or variations to the contract have to be negotiated at a later date. Please also see below for your rights to a 'written statement of particulars'.

Your employer must give you a written statement of particulars from day one, unless you started your role prior to 6 April 2020 when employers had to provide this within two months of employment.

Your particulars should explain your pay, working hours and other rights and responsibilities. This applies to both employees and workers. The written particulars are not in themselves a contract of employment but will include your main conditions of employment. Most employers convert this into a written contract. Check the written statement carefully and discuss any issues with your employer.

Written statement of particulars prior to 6 April 2020

If you started your job before 6 April 2020, you can ask your employer for written terms that meet the new requirements. You must still be working for your employer or be within 3 months of your leaving date. The employer must provide the written terms that meet the new requirements within 1 month.

If you have not received your written statement of particulars

Talk to your employer about it. If this does not resolve the matter, contact us for further advice.

Read more about written statements of particulars on or, for Northern Ireland, NI direct.

Your employer may add a probationary period as a term of your contract starting from day one at work and lasting a number of weeks or months.

Some employers will offer employees less favourable terms and conditions and a lower salary during their probationary period. They can do this provided it is written in the contract. However, they cannot take away your basic statutory rights. Also, you should be treated as an employee from day one.

Your continuity of employment should start on your first day of work, not when the probationary period has ended. This becomes important if your employer uses continuity of employment (i.e. length of service) for certain entitlements such as annual leave.

See our contact checklist on what to check before you agree to your probation period


Your contract should state the length of your probationary period and whether it can be extended.

Extensions should be a reasonable length and for a specific purpose. For example, you might have been absent from work due to sickness and been unable to demonstrate that you have met certain probationary criteria. When extending your probation period, the employer should provide a reason why you can’t be confirmed in post, the particular improvement required or goals to be achieved during the extended probation period and the new date when the probation period will end. 


Your notice period should be detailed in your contract. Read more about notice periods in our advice guide. However, you may be dismissed during your probation period on shorter notice than you would be once confirmed in post, subject to the minimum statutory notice entitlements.

Performance issues and probation

Your work objectives should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time bound  (SMART). Read more about this in our performance reviews section in our capability and performance guide.

As a contract of employment is generally binding on both employer and employee, it is generally unlawful for one party to unilaterally change the terms and conditions in the contract without the agreement of the other.

The terms in your employment contract can only be changed in the following circumstances:

  • you and your employer agree on the change
  • your contract provides, either expressly or by implication, for changes to be made*
  • there is a collective agreement which is binding on you, the terms of which are changed through negotiation
  • your employer terminates your existing contract and substitutes it with a new one which includes the variation.

*Check your contract as it may contain a flexibility clause. This can enable your employer to make changes to your terms and conditions, e.g. relocation. Generally, employers should only use flexibility clauses to make reasonable changes. 

If your employer breaches your contract, you can respond in one of the following ways:

  • agree to the breach by carrying on working under the revised terms
  • raise a grievance or make a claim to an employment tribunal (industrial tribunals in Northern Ireland). You would need to have made it clear to your employer that you do not accept the new terms and conditions
  • refuse to work under the new terms.  Your employer may then decide to dismiss you and re-hire you on a new contract with new terms and conditions. If this happens you may be able to bring a claim for unfair dismissal. It's important to be aware that employment tribunals frequently find dismissals fair if the employer can point to good reasons for introducing the changes to the contract, e.g. economic necessity. If the dismissal is without notice, you may be able to bring a claim for wrongful dismissal.

If you are in this situation and considering any of the above please contact us before taking any actionThere are eligibility criteria and qualifying periods for taking an unfair dismissal claim to an employment tribunal.

If your employer wants to change your shift pattern, please see our guide on changes to shifts and check your legal rights. Your contract of employment, or local policy, may allow changes to your shift pattern, provided your employer follows the correct process.

If you have the legal right to continue working to your existing shift pattern, firstly discuss this with your employer. Contact us if the issue cannot be resolved.

If you want to change your hours or pattern of work, read our flexible working advice guide.

Generally, changes to your job description should only be made in agreement with you and your employer. Check your employment contract and written particulars in case there is provision, either expressly or by implication, for changes to be made. Speak to your employer about any concerns you have.

Your employer could make a claim for damages against you if they suffer measurable financial loss due to you breaching the contract. They can do this either by initiating a claim against you in the County Court, or by counter claiming in an employment tribunal. In practice, this is rare.


A secondment is the name given to temporary work that is assigned to an employee in a different area from which they are already working in.

It can be an internal move where you are transferred to a different part of your organisation, or external move where you are transferred to a different organisation. If you are offered a secondment contract, check it carefully and read our contract checklist.

At the end of the secondment, you will return to your substantive (or equivalent) post.

Fixed term contracts

If you are employed on a fixed term contract you have legal protection from the Fixed Term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002 – find out more in our fixed term contracts advice guide and on

Historically, bank workers have not been considered to be employees because the normal requirements of a contract of employment do not exist between the parties. In particular, a 'mutuality of obligation' which is the compulsion on an employee to attend work and the compulsion on the employer to pay them for that attendance, is not in place in this type of contract. 

Regardless of where you may undertake your bank shifts, you should always check and have in writing any agreements made regarding pay, training, sickness etc. You have the right to paid statutory annual leave and you should check your contract on how this will be accrued and paid. The practicalities of booking, changing, and cancelling shifts will vary from workplace to workplace. Please check your paperwork carefully so that you are clear on the correct procedures.

You will also be subject to the workplace's policies around behaviour/conduct at performance review and supervision (including clinical supervision where appropriate). Specific policies around discipline, investigation and grievance will also apply to you. When you start working for the staff bank be sure to find out how you can access these policies and ask the bank manager if you're unsure.

ACAS have further guidance on zero hours contracts.

Please see our Agenda for Change advice guide for further information on NHS bank staff and reckonable service.

Lay-offs can happen when there is insufficient work for employees and they are asked to stay at home. Short-time working is where an employee’s hours of work are reduced. Unless your contract states otherwise, your employer is legally bound to pay you for your contracted hours and should not be telling you that you have to pay time back at a later date.

Read more in our cancellation of work guide.

If you want to leave your job you will have to give notice of resignation to your employer. How much notice you must give depends on your contract or written particulars. Find out more in our notice advice guide.

Some contracts contain repayment clauses which come into force should you wish to leave your employer. These can be time specific but substantial. They often relate to previous training or other costs incurred by the employer.

If you are not happy with the clause, try to renegotiate it before you sign. 

If you have already signed the contract, it is legally binding. Your employer is legally entitled to reclaim the money but you can try to negotiate the repayment.

Follow these steps:

Step 1:
Ask for more time in writing
Request that no deductions are made at this stage and check your contract and details of events.

Step 2:
If you agree that you need to repay - try to negotiate a repayment plan

Do you agree that all the details and costs are correct, the repayment clause is stated in your contract and you have signed it? If ‘yes’ go to Step 3, if ‘no’ go to Step 4.

Step 3:
If a repayment is owed - try negotiate a repayment plan

If you have signed it, the contract is legally binding but you can try to see if they would accept repayment in instalments. Try to agree a repayment schedule that works for both of you.

Please note, the employer can refuse and you will need to repay in full. See Step 5 if that would put you in serious financial harm.

Step 4:
If you disagree with the repayment - write again

If you disagree that a repayment is owed, write to the employer. Clearly state why you disagree and again ask for clarification. Ask again that no deductions are made at this time.

If you are still in dispute after this attempt go to Step 5.

Step 5:
RCN support


• you are in dispute with your employer/agency, and/or
• you are in serious financial difficulty,

ask that they still do not recover any amounts while you seek further advice and contact us to review your options.




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Page last updated - 17/06/2023