Classifying Contractors vs. Employees in the UK

Employing contractors in the UK can reduce overhead costs related to benefits, office space, and training, making it a cost-effective solution if you’re not ready to establish a strong UK business presence just yet. That’s why knowing whether to classify a worker as a contractor or an employee remains vital for compliance and operational efficiency.

Classifying Contractors vs. Employees in the UK
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The rise of the gig economy and remote work has transformed the employment landscape in the United Kingdom. Understanding the distinction between contractors and employees is crucial for businesses navigating this new terrain.

If you’re running a global company and looking to hire workers with specialist skills and/or introduce some flexibility into your hiring plans, then you may consider using contractors in the first instance.

Additionally, employing contractors in the UK can reduce overhead costs related to benefits, office space, and training, making it a cost-effective solution if you’re not ready to establish a strong UK business presence just yet.

That’s why knowing whether to classify a worker as a contractor or an employee remains vital for compliance and operational efficiency.

Contractor and Employee Status in the UK: A Beginner’s Guide

Like most countries, the United Kingdom classifies contractors and employees differently. The differences are stark and obvious for the most part, but there are a few grey areas worth paying attention to.

Both employees and contractors are recognized as workers by British law. All employees in Britain are workers, but not all workers are employees.

The British government defines an employee as "someone who works under an employment contract." That is, a contract between an employee and the employer that establishes the rights and obligations of both parties.

Contractor is a broader term. It covers self-employed individuals and sometimes workers who don’t have the status of an employee.

Key Differences Between Contractors and Employees in UK Employment Law

The differences between contractors and employees in the UK manifest themselves in many different ways, but primarily in the form of rights, responsibilities, and benefits.

Employment Rights

Employers enjoy rights and protections like statutory sick pay, maternity (paternity, adoption, shared parental) pay and leave, minimum notice period, protection against unfair dismissal, and statutory redundancy pay. A contract worker generally does not have employment rights.

Tax Responsibilities

Employees in the UK are paid through PAYE, or Pay As You Earn (PAYE). This is a mechanism used by employers to take Income Tax and National Insurance contributions from full-time employees. Contractors, on the other hand, are responsible for managing their own tax affairs.

Work Control and Flexibility

Contractors generally enjoy far more work control and flexibility than workers. An independent contractor is their own boss, so they can set their own schedules, reject projects they are not interested in, and even set their own rates.

Legal Implications of Misclassifying Employees and Contractors in the UK

In the context of employment laws in the UK, misclassification is the act of incorrectly categorising a worker. The employee misclassification penalties can be severe, ranging from fines to criminal prosecution.

Penalties for Employers

In the United Kingdom, issues pertaining to employee misclassification are handled by an agency called His Majesty's Revenue and Customs, or HMRC. If you misclassify an employee as a contract worker and the HMRC discovers you did so, you are legally required to reclassify them as an employee and pay for their employment benefits retroactively. You might also be penalised, fined, and even face criminal prosecution.

Rights to Appeal for Workers

Workers in the UK can use the Check Employment Status for Tax (CEST) tool to see if they have been misclassified. The worker then has the option to contact the HMRC or reach out to the Employment Tribunal, which is responsible for making decisions in disputes between workers and employers.

Benefits of Hiring Contractors in the UK

There are numerous benefits to hiring contractors, as opposed to employees, but they can be grouped into two main categories: flexibility and specialisation, and cost-effectiveness.

Flexibility and Specialisation

When you need someone with a specific skill set to handle a one-off project, hiring a specialised contractor is the best option. They may be able to complete the work faster than an employee would and with potentially fewer resources. Depending on your needs and objectives, you can always scale your contractor workforce up or down, without ever committing to a long-term contractor agreement.


As we explained at the beginning, employees in the United Kingdom have access to a wide variety of benefits. As an employer, you have to bear the cost for a significant chunk of them. That's not how it works with contractors. They are paid only for their services, and in most cases, you don't have to worry about any additional expenses.

Benefits of Hiring Employees

On the other hand, there are undoubtedly benefits to hiring employees. These benefits, too, can be grouped into two broad categories: long-term commitment and team cohesion and company culture.

Long-term Commitment

Unlike contractors, employees are invested in the company's long-term success. Just by virtue of being part of a company for a prolonged period of time, they have a much better understanding of the internal mechanisms that drive its operations. Plus, employers can always invest in employees who show promise and help them reach their full potential.

Team Cohesion and Company Culture

It's not impossible to build cohesion in a team of contractors, but it's easier to cultivate company culture with employees. As teams develop, employees glow closer and build relationships, which improves communication and helps create a shared understanding of goals. Naturally, this boosts morale and leads to better performance overall.

How to Decide: Contractor or Employee?

Should you hire a contractor or an employee? This is not a call that can be made lightly. You need to look at the big picture without losing sight of your current goals.

And, of course, it goes without saying that when deciding to hire a contractor vs. employee, UK laws have to be taken into account as well.

Assessing Your Business Needs

The starting point should be analysing your business needs. Here are some key questions you should consider.

  • What specific short-term goals do you aim to achieve? If your goal in the short-term is to get a specific project done quickly, then hiring a contractor is the logical choice.
  • What are your long-term goals? It's fine to focus on your immediate objectives when circumstances demand so, but if you think hiring an employee aligns better with your long-term goals, then go for it.
  • How much control do you need over the work process? If you like keeping a close eye on your team, hiring an employee makes more sense.
  • What skills do you require? Developing skill sets in-house can be worth it if they don’t take long to develop.
  • What are the dynamics in your team like? If you have a close-knit team of employees, bringing on board a contractor might disrupt the chemistry.
  • What is your budget? While it’s true that an independent contractor typically costs more per hour than employees, they file and pay their own taxes.

Once you identify the pain points of your business and define your long- and short-term goals, it will be much easier to pull the trigger on contracting a freelancer or hiring a full-time employee.

Understanding Legal Obligations

Though it may not have specific contractor laws, the UK makes a clear distinction between contractors and employees.

  • Both employers and contractors are considered workers, but they do not have the same rights, which also shapes employers’ obligations.
  • Un employee has a right to sick pay and maternity leave, while enjoying a number of similar protections.
  • Employees are paid by employers through the PAYE system, while contractors manage their own taxes.
  • If you misclassify an employee’s worker status, you may face penalties, fines, or criminal prosecution.

In short, employers have many legal responsibilities towards their employees, unlike contractors. These obligations need to be followed strictly.

Choose Omnipresent for Expert Guidance

Omnipresent’s global employment platform, combined with our international HR and legal expertise, helps you navigate UK employment laws when hiring teams. 

If you are thinking of scaling your team in the UK by employing contractors first, our new contractor management feature helps you:

  • Compliantly hire contractors around the globe. Get access to globally compliant contract templates. Rest easy when contracting through Omnipresent.
  • Raise invoices for contractors and make payments all on one platform.
  • Keep track of all your contractors and employees in one place.

If you’re ready to learn more about contractor management, get in touch.

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Amir Khan

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