Life sciences A to Z - E is for Employment Status

Life sciences A to Z - E is for Employment Status

From employees of the largest pharmaceutical companies to healthcare workers, businesses within the life sciences sector are driven by people.

Different businesses inevitably have different needs for engaging staff, and it is increasingly common for organisations to depart from the traditional employment model when doing so. In the life sciences industry, where individuals are highly skilled and often in high demand, the relationship between company and individual may be something other than employer and employee.

Categories of engagement

Under the UK employment law regime, there are three categories of engagement:

  • Genuinely self-employed individuals/consultant
  • Workers, and
  • Employees

Employees are entitled to the most rights and protections, while workers receive only some. In practice, there is no clear-cut rule to determine which category applies to an individual, as employment status is a question of fact and one for the courts and tribunals to determine. Despite plentiful case law in this area, the fact-specific nature of these decisions means that it is impossible to determine an individual’s status with certainty without litigation.

Business protection

Business protection and the protection of intellectual property (IP) rights is a key consideration when recruiting in the life sciences sector. It is an established principle that IP created by an employee in the course of their employment belongs to their employer, although an employee can apply for compensation if their invention is of “outstanding benefit” to their employer, as seen in the 2019 Supreme Court decision in Shanks v Unilever (for more information on this case, please see our article here. Conversely, IP created by a self-employed consultant will belong to that consultant, unless the consultancy agreement states otherwise.

Another common concern for any life sciences company is the protection of its business interests after an individual leaves the organisation, which is commonly sought by way of restrictive covenants (RCs) in the individual’s contract. However, difficulties can arise when seeking to include such restrictions in a self-employed consultant’s contract, as RCs indicate a degree of control by the company over the individual, which is one of the relevant factors considered by the courts when determining employment status. A certain degree of control exercised by a company over an individual indicates employee or worker status and could undermine an individual’s supposed self-employed status.

Where businesses put RCs in place, it’s important to consider the parties to the restrictions. If a company engages a contractor via a personal service company (PSC), the contract – and any RCs within it – will be between the client company and the PSC, rather than the individual contractor. The client should, therefore, consider whether it is necessary to put in place separate RC’s with the individual consultant directly (subject to our comments above about the risk of this inferring an employment relationship).

Why does employment status matter?

Employment status is important for a number of reasons. In particular, the scope of rights and protections available to an individual at work is largely dependent on their employment status. Genuinely self-employed individuals are not entitled to employment law rights against the company engaging them, although they are entitled to certain protections under discrimination and health and safety legislation. On the other hand, workers and employees are entitled to far more extensive rights, and companies are subject to more wide-reaching obligations in respect of them.

Examples of workers’ rights include:

  • Paid holiday
  • Discrimination protection
  • Whistleblowing protection
  • National minimum wage
  • Right to pension contribution
  • A written statement of their terms and conditions

Employees are entitled to all of the rights of workers and certain additional rights, including:

  • Protection from unfair dismissal
  • Statutory redundancy pay and statutory sick pay
  • Family friendly rights, relating to both pay and leave
  • Flexible working and other statutory leave requests


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