Updated for 2014.  Deciding someone’s employment status can be complicated and Employment Tribunals and HMRC may consider different factors when deciding what status you have, as there is no single legal definition.  IR35 legislation has muddied the legal waters further, and not knowing how to correctly define yourself can lead to Tribunals and, in some cases, financial penalties. For more information on determining your legal status if you are a Contractor, see our IR35 Guide.

There are three different types of working individuals:

  • an Employee
  • a Worker (someone who works on a e.g. casual basis or is an agency temp)
  • or someone who is self-employed (i.e. a freelancer or contractor)

It is important to establish your status, as:

It is therefore equally important for Employers to know the correct status of those you employ.

To read about Internships/Work Experience see our Interns article here. For more information on unpaid Volunteers and Voluntary Workers see our new article here.

If you are an Apprentice read our Guide to Apprenticeships here.

An Employee

Presently, there is no single legal test to determine if you are an employee or a worker, but you are likely to be an Employee (whether on a Permanent (open-ended) contract or on a Fixed-Term contract) if -

  • Your Employer provides the work, any tools and equipment for it, and they decide how and when you do the work. (Known as the What, Where, When and How Tests)
  • You will usually have a written contract (although a verbal contract will count)
  • You are expected to do the work yourself that you are employed to do, and may be moved to a different tasks
  • You are paid a regular amount according to the hours you work (through the Pay as You Earn system – so Tax and National Insurance is deducted), and you usually have to work a set amount of hours. You may get extra pay for overtime and bonuses.
  • The legal definitions of these (from case law, not from statute) are personal service, mutuality of obligation and control.

If you are an Employee your contract is called a ‘contract of service’.

On 1st September 2013, Employee-Shareholder contracts were introduced into UK law – this is a new type of employee contract and full details are here.

There is now a provision in law where someone employed on a Fixed-Term contract can receive a permanent (open-ended) contract if:

  • You have been continuously employed (i.e. no significant breaks) by the same employer a on a fixed-term contract for four years or more that started after 10th July 2002 (unless your Employer has changed this time limit by a ‘workforce’ or ‘collective’ agreement)
  • If this is the case you can ask your employer for a statement confirming that you are now permanent and no longer employed on a Fixed Term contract
  • Your employer can only keep you on a Fixed Term contract after 4 years if they could objectively justify this at the point your Fixed Term contract was last renewed
  • If your employer fails to give you this statement (when you have requested it) or gives you a statement of reasons why you must remain on a Fixed Term contract that you do not agree with, you can make a claim to an Employment Tribunal.

For more information about Fixed Term contracts click here


A Worker

This is broader category than an ‘employee’, introduced by European Union legislation (although there is no EU definition).  A worker is anyone who works for an employer under a contract of employment (but this may be a written contract or not and the contract may not come directly from the Employer) and performs the work personally (which can include some freelancers).

Workers are usually:

  • Agency workers (‘temps’) – the Agency who finds you work pays your wages (or if you are a Contractor, you may get work through an Agency but an Umbrella company pays your wages), and the Company who hires you pays a fee to the Agency for your work.  For more information on working out if you are an Agency worker click here.
  • Short-term Casual Workers hired directly by the Employer (often with a written contract and usually paid via PAYE, with tax and national insurance contributions deducted) – Casual Workers are not usually part of the permanent workforce but supply their services on an irregular or flexible basis or have a ‘minimum guaranteed hours’ or ‘zero hours’ contract.  For further information on Zero Hours Contracts, and whether casual workers ever become employees, see our new Guide here. For more information on working out if you are a Casual Worker click here
  • Some Freelancers and Contractors - there are occasions when those who are self-employed for tax purposes may be classified as ‘workers’ for employment rights purposes – including when a self-employed person is personally providing a service under a contract for another party to a client (i.e. not providing services directly to the client or business).  You cannot be a ‘worker’ if you are self-employed and the contract between yourself and your client includes a genuine right entitling you to ‘substitute’ someone else to do the work.

In addition, there are also Home-workers (or Piece-Workers) who have more limited rights than normal ‘workers’.  See our Guide to what Employment Rights you have here.

More about Agency Workers: On 1st October 2011 the Government introduced the Agency Workers Regulations which gives ‘agency workers’ the right to equal treatment (with permanent staff working at the same organisation).  For full details of these Regulations see our new Guide to the AWR here.

At present the Employer hiring the temp (not the Agency) is responsible for ensuring the Working Time Regulations weekly hours and rest breaks entitlements are met and are responsible for the temp’s health and safety.  The Agency that employs the temp’s services is responsible for ensuring the temp takes their statutory holiday entitlement and ensuring they are paid at least the national minimum wage.

See our new Guide to Can an Agency Worker ever become an Employee here.


Self-Employed (Freelancer or Contractor)

You are likely to be self-employed if:

  • You determine how and when you do the work within reason (known as Master/Servant Relationship)
  • You can hire helpers or replacements for you if you are unable to do the work (also known as Substitution)
  • You pay your own tax and national insurance contributions on a self-employed basis (you complete a Self Assessment tax return)
  • You are contracted to provide services to the Client/Employer over a certain period of time for an agreed fee and are not integrated into the Company
  • You run your own business and take financial responsibility if it is successful or not, and provide the main items of equipment. You may work on your own premises.You may have several customers (employers) at one time (known as Economic Reality).

If you are self-employed your contract is called a ‘contract for service’.

If you are freelance, have you considered forming a Limited Company?  When you decide to become self-employed you also have to decide what legal status your company should have – see our guide to the legal status of your company here.

See also our Guide to How to Make Sure your Contracts are IR35 proof.

There is no one single thing that completely determines your employment status

An Employment Tribunal will make a decision based on all the circumstances of the case to decide your status if there is a dispute between you and your Employer. There are four main categories they look at:

  • Control - Do you have the final say in how your business is run?; Can you choose whether to do the work yourself or can you send someone else to do it? Can you choose when and how you work (or does your employer tell you what to do and when to do it?)
  • Integration - Are you responsible for hiring other people and setting their terms of employment if you need help? Are you excluded from your Employer’s internal organisational matters, corporate training, staff meetings? Are you exempt from having action taken against you using the company’s disciplinary procedures and have no access to their grievance procedures? Are you excluded from company benefits and perks?  If for example you lead a team of employees of your Clients you may be integrated.
  • Mutuality of Obligation - Does the Employer offer work to you only if and when it is available? Can you decide when you will work and can you turn the work down that is offered?  (or are both parties of a view that a contract of employment exists)?
  • Economic Reality - Are you responsible for meeting the losses of your employment as well as taking the profits? Are you responsible for correcting unsatisfactory work at your own expense? Do you have to submit an invoice to the company for them to pay you? Do you get a fixed payment for the job (including labour and tools/materials)? Do you provide the main items of equipment needed to do the job? Do you work for a range of different employers?

However, none of these on their own will decide your status on its own.  One Judge has described it as ‘painting a picture’ of all the details and looking at the ‘picture’ from a distance.

If you answer:

  • Yes to all or most of these questions then it is more likely that you are self-employed.
  • No to all or most of these questions then you are likely to be an employee.
  • Yes to some (specifically that you can decide when you will work and can accept work or turn it down; that your employer will only offer work when it is available) but you are not in business on your own account then it is likely you would be considered a Worker.
  • These questions are a summary for guidance only and the Courts take a view of all of the tests – none will decide a case on it’s own – you should get advice from an expert if you are unsure.

A very important legal case in 2011 (Autoclenz Ltd v Belcher) has made it clear that the courts will focus on the actual reality of the working relationship (using the tests above) and not what the contractual documentation says.  More details of the case are in our article here.

And another important case in 2012 (Stringfellow v Quashie) made it clear that the Courts find  the most important factor in determining the employment relationship was the control that the Employer had over the individual, and Mutuality of Obligation was placed in a secondary position.  This decision was overturned at the Court of Appeal in 2013.  More details in our article here.


  • You can of course be employed and self-employed at the same time (you may be an employee during the day and run your own business in the evening; or take a freelance contract with one employer and your next contract is on a PAYE basis). You may also not be self-employed for every job – each job needs to be considered separately.  The HMRC can help you in these circumstances.
  • There are also occasions when, in the Film and TV Industry, you will do a job that is not on the recognised HMRC list (above) but the HMRC  if you contact them, may class you as self-employed and give you a letter of authority. The above link (guidance notes) gives details of how to do this and the letter of authority must be given to your employer.
  • If your Employer is keen that you should be freelance, but you don’t think you can be, you must tell your employer this and they should not insist that you are self-employed. If the matter was taken to Court by the HRMC, a UK Court in this instance, if you genuinely cannot be classed as self-employed as your employment looks like it has employee status, will ignore the decision that you are self-employed and your contract would have no legal bearing.
  • If the HMRC decides you are ‘deemed employed’ (i.e. you are an employee not a freelancer) then they would seek to recover the higher levels of tax due from your client, generally not from you.
  • We have a Guide to Going Freelance – the pitfalls, perils, benefits and bonuses and if you are thinking of working for yourself then this guide explains the basics of Tax.

Image by Tim O’BrienCC

If you are an Employer and need ongoing professional help with any staff/freelance issues, or a Contractor/Freelancer/Employee with a complicated employment related problem, then talk to us at The HR Kiosk  – a Human Resources Consultancy for small businesses – our fees are low to reflect the pressures on small businesses and you can hire us for as much time as you need.
Please note that the advice given on this website and by our Advisors is guidance only and cannot be taken as an authoritative or current interpretation of the law. It can also not be seen as specific advice for individual cases. Please also note that there are differences in legislation in Northern Ireland.