For new practice owners or new graduate vets and vet nurses, facing into a first job or owning your first business is an exciting experience. However, it can also be unnerving as you contend with a demanding environment and people and situations you do not know. Veterinary medicine and nursing aside, much of the stress encountered in practice is due to miscommunication and interpersonal difficulties between staff members, or between staff and management.
This article addresses some of the basic legal requirements for entering into an employment relationship and suggests that getting this right at the offset can considerably minimise conflict in the future.
A raft of Irish and European legislation exists, the purpose of which is to outline the rights and obligations of employers and workers in an employment setting. From the perspective of starting a brand-new employment relationship that you hope will have a comfortable and productive future, the following two areas are essential to get right.
A contract is fundamentally a bargain; an agreement between two parties who intend to be legally bound. In this regard an employment contract is the same as any other contract in law. One party makes an offer (a promise to work), and the other party accepts the offer in return for consideration (payment). The act of making the agreement is in fact the contract. At common law, the contract is said to be in place when the parties act on the contract, i.e. when the employee presents for work and the employer pays him/her. The written contract is simply a memorandum of the terms.
Irish law places a requirement on employers to issue a written statement (“the contract”) to all employee outlining the terms and conditions of the employment within two months of starting the employment. (Note: A short statement of the 5 main terms of the employment is now also required within the first 5 days of employee starting work – names of both parties, address of employer, duration of contract, hours of work, pay).
What should I include in an employment contract?
Certain terms of an employment contract are a legal minimum requirement. There are other optional terms which can be added if required in a particular type of employment situation. The following are a legal minimum requirement of all employment contracts: full names of the employer and the employee, address of the employer, place of work, job title, date of commencement of the employee’s contract (duration of contract if temporary), rate of pay, benefits or bonuses available to employee, intervals of payment and method (e.g. monthly electronic transfer), terms relating to hours of work (including overtime), daily and weekly rest break, Sunday employment and on call requirements, terms relating to paid leave, terms relating to incapacity for work due to sickness or injury and paid sick leave if it exists, terms relating to pensions and pension schemes, exact retirement age, period of notice which the employee is required to give, and any collective agreements that apply to their employment.
Additional recommended terms for employment contracts in veterinary practice.
It is recommended that other terms be added in the written contract to clarify the rights and obligations of both parties and ultimately prevent employment conflicts in the future. These should include probation, health and safety policies (including reference to safety statement, bullying, harassment, sexual harassment), workplace grievance and disciplinary procedures, use of company property, confidentiality agreement, email and internet use and restrictive covenants (non-compete clause).
Other terms specifically relevant in veterinary practice can be negotiated between parties. Employees using their personal vehicles for practice business may be reimbursed for a predetermined pro-rata portion of the costs associated with this. Allowances could also be made for registration fees (Veterinary Council of Ireland annual licence to practise fees), continuing veterinary education fees (or part thereof), and leave days to complete continuing education. An agreement could also be made as to whether the practice will pay the employee’s professional indemnity insurance annual premium.
What is a staff handbook and what should it contain?
The staff handbook is the go-to guide for the veterinary practice manager as well as the employee in need of advice on human resource issues. It is a compilation of policies and procedures implemented by a business, and in veterinary practice should contain, at a minimum, a grievance procedure, disciplinary procedure, GDPR policy, anti-bullying policy, equality or anti-harassment policy, sexual harassment policy, internet use policy, and use of company equipment policy. It should be tailored to suit the requirements of the practice and should always be referred to in the employment contract, as well as the requirement for the employee to make him/herself familiar with it.
Grievance procedure: Grievances are concerns, problems or complaints that employees raise with their employers. The policy is aimed at informing employees of the correct procedure to follow when addressing problems or concerns regarding work, management or another staff member. It is aimed at promoting a culture of openness among management as well as a willingness to listen and co-operate with staff. It also provides that issues/misunderstandings can be resolved informally in an efficient manner. It is highly recommended that mediation is considered in cases where grievances are at an impasse within a practice. Conflict resolution through mediation reduces the likelihood of litigation and therefore minimises costs.
Disciplinary procedure: A disciplinary policy explains how management will address issues with employees’ performance, attendance, conduct and behaviour. The primary purpose of such a process is not just to impose disciplinary action on an employee but also to ensure that an employee is made aware of any shortcomings regarding their performance, attendance or conduct and is given the opportunity to address them. The policy is designed to be fair to all parties involved and engage with best practice and natural justice. Although disciplinary action will normally follow through a series of progressive stages, the procedure may be implemented by the practice at any stage of the process if the alleged misconduct warrants such action.
Bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and victimisation policies: Everyone has a right to dignity in their workplace. By writing and promoting these policies, the practice seeks to develop a supportive workplace where the expectations of staff regarding workplace bullying, harassment and victimisation are clearly outlined. While this requirement is documented from an ethical point of view in the Veterinary Council of Ireland’s Code of Professional Conduct for Veterinary Practitioners and Veterinary Nurses, by including them in your staff handbook and employment contract they are placed on a statutory footing.
Practice principals and managers are responsible for actively preventing and stopping any behaviour that constitutes a breach of this right to dignity. In law, bullying is a breach of health and safety legislation. It is defined as
“repeated, inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more person against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of their employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work.”
An isolated incident may be categorised as an affront to dignity at work, but as a one-off incident is not considered to be bullying.
Harassment, which falls under the Equality legislation, is defined as “unwanted conduct” which is related to any of the ten discriminatory grounds (gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, age, disability, race, religious belief, or membership of the traveller community, housing). Sexual harassment is any form of
“unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature”.
The term victimisation is used to describe unfair treatment of a worker by an employer because of some action the worker has taken or complaint of harassment which has been made by them. In other words, victimisation is when an employee is punished by an employer for making a complaint and is illegal in employment law.
The staff handbook, once regularly reviewed and updated, serves as an effective statement by the employer to the staff as to the standards that are expected in the workplace. It also serves as a commitment to the staff that their right to fair procedure is valued and the policies are openly available to them. Having contracts and policy documents in place at the beginning of the relationship will reduce tension and conflict later, not to mention the risk of litigation. It is worth remembering, however, that conflict can only be avoided in a practice where open communication between staff and management is promoted. Conflicts are resolved with open minds and a common-sense approach to the facts of each situation., however, having as much agreed on paper in advance of the relationship is a no brainer.
Dr Lisa Geraghty MVB, MSc, BA (Hons) Law, AM
Lisa Geraghty graduated as a veterinary practitioner from University College Dublin. She practised in farm and companion animal veterinary practice for several years before taking up a position as a lecturer on the BSc Veterinary Nursing and BSc Bioveterinary Science programmes at Athlone Institute of Technology. Since joining AIT Lisa has achieved a MSc by research in Microbiology and a BA (Hons) in Law. Lisa is a certified civil and commercial mediator and has also recently completed a Certificate with the Law Society of Ireland in Agribusiness and Food Law. She regularly has contributed to the Veterinary Ireland Journal with publications on the regulation of the veterinary profession and employment law compliance and enjoys presenting to veterinary practitioners and veterinary nurses at regional veterinary clinical society meetings. Lisa currently runs her own consultancy business working with veterinary practitioners and nurses in the area of employment law compliance and workplace dispute resolution. She occasionally blogs, specifically on the topic of wellbeing in farming (https://lisageraghty.com/). She recently co-authored a text book with her colleague Finola Colgan Carey (AIT) entitled Veterinary Law and Practice in Ireland, which is pending publication with Clarus Press (https://www.claruspress.ie/shop/veterinary-law-and-practice-in-ireland/). Her true loves are her two teenage children, her Irish Wolfhound Mac, and her native County Kerry.