Does an employee have a right to refuse a work assignment?

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Employees in the United Kingdom, whether they're in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, do have the right to refuse a work assignment in certain circumstances.

Sometimes, those circumstances are quite clear cut but in other cases an employee will only know if a refusal was justified when an employment tribunal has made a decision after a claim for unfair dismissal. If you come across a situation where you think you have the right to refuse a work assignment, it's best to seek some independent employment law advice.

Refusing work assignments – allowable circumstances

You can refuse a work assignment if it is illegal, or would lead you to taking action that would be illegal.

For example, if your employer instructed you to dump some hazardous waste improperly, you can refuse to do that.

You can also refuse a task if it would clearly endanger the health and safety of you or any of your colleagues.

Refusing work assignments - non-allowable circumstances

You cannot refuse a task simply because it is not specifically described in your job description.

Most job descriptions form part of your contract of employment and include a clause stating that you can be asked to undertake reasonable tasks outside the scope of the work specifically described.

The definition of reasonable can only be made clear by the decisions of an employment tribunal.

Grievance procedures

If you are asked to undertake a task that you deem dangerous or illegal, your first option is to raise a grievance with your employer through the internal company grievance procedure.

Raise your grievance in writing, recording the time and details of the incident.

Seek independent advice from your trade union or from the Citizens Advice Bureau.

What to do if you're dismissed

If you're dismissed for refusing a work assignment your next step is to start a case with an employment tribunal.

Obtain form ET1 which is available from the Ministry of Justice website.

In Northern Ireland, claims for unfair dismissal are made to the Industrial Tribunal and the form you'll need is called ET1(NI).

Independent advice

If you are making a claim of unfair dismissal to an employment tribunal you are strongly advised to seek independent advice.

If you are a member of a trade union, the union may be able to help.

Citizens Advice Bureaux operate throughout the UK and they can offer free advice on all employment matters including tribunals.