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When is a controlling shareholder an employee?

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The EAT has, in Clark v Clark Construction, today provided observations on the relevant criteria to consider when seeking to determine whether a controlling shareholder is also an employee..

Elias P., presiding, set out the following guidelines for tribunals follow (at para. 98):-

1. Where there is a contract ostensibly in place, the onus is on the party seeking to deny its effect to satisfy the court that it is not what it appears to be. This is particularly so where the individual has paid tax and national insurance as an employee; he has on the face of it earned the right to take advantage of the benefits which employees may derive from such payments.

2. The mere fact that the individual has a controlling shareholding does not of itself prevent a contract of employment arising. Nor does the fact that he in practice is able to exercise real or sole control over what the company does.

3. Similarly, the fact that he is an entrepreneur, or has built the company up, or will profit from its success, will not be factors militating against a finding that there is a contract in place. Indeed, any controlling shareholder will inevitably benefit from the company's success, as will many employees with share option schemes.

4. If the conduct of the parties is in accordance with the contract that would be a strong pointer towards the contract being valid and binding. For example, this would be so if the individual works the hours stipulated or does not take more than the stipulated holidays.

5. Conversely, if the conduct of the parties is either inconsistent with the contract (in the sense described in para.96) or in certain key areas where one might expect it to be governed by the contract is in fact not so governed, that would be a factor, and potentially a very important one, militating against a finding that the controlling shareholder is in reality an employee.

6. In that context, the assertion that there is a genuine contract will be undermined if the terms have not been identified or reduced into writing. This will be powerful evidence that the contract was not really intended to regulate the relationship in any way.

7. The fact that the individual takes loans from the company or guarantees its debts could exceptionally have some relevance in analysing the true nature of the relationship, but in most cases such factors are unlikely to carry any weight. There is nothing intrinsically inconsistent in a person who is an employee doing these things. Indeed, in many small companies it will be necessary for the controlling shareholder personally to have to give bank guarantees precisely because the company assets are small and no funding will be forthcoming without them.

8. Although the courts have said that the fact of there being a controlling shareholding is always relevant and may be decisive, that does not mean that the fact alone will ever justify a Tribunal in finding that there was no contract in place. The fact that there is a controlling shareholding is what may raise doubts as to whether that individual is truly an employee, but of itself that fact alone does not resolve those doubts one way or another.