What Will Happen to Unwritten Employment Contracts?

Simon Quarendon | September 30, 2020


As a callow young account executive, I arrived at my new agency employer and innocently asked what the office hours were. “Standard office hours”, they breezily replied, “8 till 8”. That was my first exposure to the difference between unwritten contracts and written contracts – as the written contract definitely stated 9:00 to 5:30.

I quickly learned that the unwritten contract overruled the written one. But I’m concerned that, in the next six months, the unwritten contract will no longer apply, which is going to cause problems for both the employer and the employee.

The terms of the unwritten contract were very simple. You worked from 8:00 o’clock in the morning till 8:00 o’clock at night, five days a week and often later if there was a pitch on, sometimes even weekends.

So what motivated us to give the agency umpteen hours of unpaid overtime? And what did the agency do with the excess profits that they made from our free labour?

Great offices,  great people and great clients make working late… great

We did it willingly because of what the Irish call the craic. The sheer buzz of working in a great office environment surrounded by great people and working on great clients.

So what did the agency do with all those profits? Well in Valin Pollen’s case, they invested in truly epic Summer parties at the Hurlingham Club, turned a blind eye to Christmas lunches that went on all afternoon and into the evening and handed out personalised gifts and presents to acknowledge great work.

It’s going to be extremely difficult for agencies to expect their staff to do long hours at their kitchen tables if they can’t then put the company credit card behind the bar on a Friday night as a way of thanking them.

WFH jeopardises written and unwritten contract terms

If the unwritten contract is coming under pressure through this newly reimposed, and much extended work from home period, then so is the written contract too. Because so much of it is plainly unnecessary now. Staff can safely ignore:

  • All the terms that refer to ‘your place of work’;
  • The company’s recycling and environment policies;
  • Bullying at work;
  • Office security; and
  • The myriad workplace-related regulations that make up an employment contract today.

In their place we are likely to see new style contracts covering IT security on personal devices, providing more ergonomically friendly seating (than a kitchen chair), addressing issues of loneliness and yes, even mental health.

One of the key elements of the unwritten contract was to give inexperienced staff the opportunity to learn, either on the job or through more structured skills acquisition programmes.

We’re going back to college

At Selbey Anderson, we intend to deliver on that part of the contract by reopening our Online College and making a clear commitment to our staff to help equip them with the skills they need to do their jobs and prepare for the very different working and business environments that we’ll find ourselves in the future.

I know they will deliver their side of the bargain too.

Simon Quarendon

Simon Quarendon is a veteran marketer and communicator with a career spanning nearly 40 years. He has bought, built, sold, rescued, led and mentored just about every kind of creative communications agency in existence and run global accounts for the best in the world. Today, Simon runs the business end of Selbey Anderson, working across the group to make sure clients get the best and the agencies all prosper.