Changing an employee’s role and responsibilities is a common occurrence that many businesses deal with; whether it is due to cover for a departing team member by re-allocating work, assigning an employee to a new worksite, or organisational changes. Whatever the reason, when it comes to navigating adjustments to employee roles and responsibilities, it is essential for business owners to understand their legal obligations to ensure compliance.

It can be more complex than you think

At a glance, changes to an employee’s role or responsibilities could be perceived as a simple re-allocation of work to meet operational needs. However, it is important to determine important factors such as: do any of the changes lead to a variation to the existing employment contract; is there a change in salary; is it a unilateral change thrust upon the employee; has the change stripped the original role of its primary functions?

Employees are not always aware of how the nature of their employment contract changes when there are significant changes to their role. Additionally, employers may question the validity of the initial employment contract when an employee’s duties and responsibilities significantly change.

Review the employment contract

The first step is to review the employment contract, to establish whether duties or work location can be varied to determine if changes can be made. A well-drafted position description and employment contract should contain details regarding potential changes in the employee’s duties or work location.

Employers should also keep in mind any enterprise agreements and applicable modern awards. Even in the case where the contract allows flexibility regarding the matter, the applicable modern awards and enterprise agreements should not be overlooked.

Some employment contracts may include a provision allowing employers to change the role and responsibilities only to the extent of the employee’s skills set and expertise. However, if the employment contract does not include such a clause, any unilateral changes that an employer makes may become a breach of contract.

Conversely, in some industries and occupations, it is common for employees to move around frequently in their role so if an employee is aware of such practices at the start of their employment, it could be assumed that they have agreed to this arrangement as part of the contract.

‘Reasonable’ and ‘unreasonable’ changes

While an employee must perform duties that an employer reasonably requires, there are limitations to changes that are allowable. Changes to an employee’s duties need to be ‘reasonable’ and within the scope of their position and skills.

Where the changes are significant and negate the original role, it would be determined as ‘unreasonable’ which can result in termination of the employment contract or a redundancy. For example, it would be ‘unreasonable’ to expect a receptionist to undertake accounting responsibilities. On the other hand, it would be ‘reasonable’ for the receptionist to learn a new scheduling system in line with the receptionist skill set.

Consultation with employees

Even if the employment contract includes flexibility with changes in duties, employers should still consult with employees in seeking an agreement. In the instance where the position description outlines flexibility to make adjustments to an employee’s position, it is by no means a green light to exact unilateral changes to an employee’s role. Employers need to tread with caution, even if such a clause is present in the employment contract or position description.

Major changes that can substantially change the nature of the original job should be clearly communicated with the employee. Moreover, employers may be required to consult employees in the matters of major workplace changes such as work from home, change in hours, and other major job restructuring matters. Employees should be informed of such changes and given the opportunity to communicate their feedback.

Other important considerations

A crucial part of the process regarding changes to duties and responsibilities is determining whether the old contract still stands or a new relationship has now formed. Employers also need to consider other obligations such as if an employee has become eligible for higher duties allowance or higher pay rates. These must be looked over before any substantial changes are made in the employment contract.

It is always good practice to document changes to an employee’s work hours or their role and responsibilities by reissuing a position description or making variations to an employment contract as needed.

If you require assistance to better understand if you can make changes to an employee’s position, we can help you navigate these murky waters. Get in touch with our team now for an obligation free chat.

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