During the coronavirus outbreak, can an employer require its employees to take on different roles to cover absence?

An employer can require its employees to undertake different roles within the business where the contract of employment allows for this. The employer should consider the relevant job descriptions to see if they encompass the proposed changes, or if the contract contains a flexibility clause that allows the employer to vary the employees' roles and/or duties. Where this is not the case, employers must remain conscious of the difficulties of unilaterally imposing contractual changes, which may result in claims for constructive unfair dismissal. Any changes should therefore be undertaken with early consultation and with a view to reaching agreement with employees.

During the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, employees may be more prepared to accept changes to their contract where there is an urgent need for the work to be carried out, or where the viability of the business may otherwise be at risk. Employees may be willing to take on different roles if they are aware that it is for a temporary period. The employer should be as clear as possible with employees about the duration of any changes to their roles.

An employee may be taken to have agreed to contractual changes by carrying out the varied role without complaint.

Employers should ensure that appropriate training is given to any employees who may be required to carry out unfamiliar tasks and that a risk assessment is carried out to cover the temporary reorganisation. For example, young or pregnant workers should not be substituted into inappropriate work.