Ask the panel

December 23, 2005

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

I am employed as a cleaner in a university. Around Christmas time, it is not uncommon for the university to suddenly ask me to work overtime for an unexpected party. How much notice must I be given, and are managers entitled to compel me to do it?

* This is a particularly relevant question for this time of year and we have drafted in the Transport and General Workers' Union national secretary for higher and further education as a guest panelist. He says:

"Your contract of employment will govern your hours of work, including overtime. This should be set out in the written particulars of employment that your employer is obliged to give you when you start your job. This will say what your normal hours are and also explain whether you are obliged to do overtime."

He goes on: "If your contract says that you must do overtime when asked, it will normally also say what notice you must be given. It may say that your employer must give you reasonable notice. If so, what is reasonable will depend on the circumstances - how soon is the party? How long has your employer known about it? Could the employer have made other arrangements?

"If your contract does not say that you must do overtime when asked, your employer can still request that you do work overtime, but it is your decision whether or not to agree.

"Your contract should also spell out what you will get paid for the overtime. Make sure you check."

* Our panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association says: "Your university cannot compel you to do overtime unless there are special provisions in your employment contract requiring you to do so. If compulsory overtime is specified, the university will need to be aware of the working time regulations. These specify that workers cannot be forced to work more than 48 hours a week on average and include flexible parental working arrangements. There are no generic regulations regarding a minimum period of notice that an employer must give employees when asking them to work overtime, although your university may have a specific policy."

* The panellist from the Association of University Teachers says: "Whether or not you are obliged to do the overtime will depend on what your contract of employment says. If it states that you will be required to work overtime, then you may be contractually obliged to do so.

"However, even if you are obliged to do the overtime, you are entitled to reasonable notice. It would be worth checking your employer's overtime terms and conditions to see whether a notice period is specified.

"If there is nothing in your contract, then it is likely that you are not obliged to do the overtime. Therefore, the employer can ask you/offer you the overtime but you are within your rights to decline.

"Seek advice from your union on your contractual position and to see if there is an agreement on how much notice should be given."

* The Natfhe panellist adds: "You should be guided by what your contract of employment says. If it states that you are required to work overtime, you are still entitled to be given reasonable notice. The contract itself - or separate rules or an agreement on overtime - may clarify what 'reasonable' notice is.

"If your contract does not state you are required to work overtime, then your employer may offer overtime but you are not obliged to work it.

"In any case, there may be other relevant rules or agreements. These would include the working time regulations setting a maximum working week of 48 hours - unless you have chosen to opt out of this provision. There may also be rules relating to family-friendly arrangements that may restrict the right of the employer to oblige you to work overtime at short notice.

"If in doubt, check with your union representative. It may be that there have been discussions elsewhere in the university about overtime arrangements at short notice and it is important your own department keep to these."

This advice panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party.

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