Helping employers recoup training costs
Bonding agreements can be an incredibly useful tool for ensuring employers can recoup costs incurred for training staff.
Used improperly however, bonding agreements may be unenforceable and – in some circumstances – be a clear breach of the Wages Protection Act 1983 (WPA). We look at two of the most common issues with bonding agreements as well as what should be considered for enforceable agreements.
What is a bonding agreement?
A bonding agreement is a benefit given to an employee where you agree to pay for some or all of the cost of further training in exchange for your employee agreeing to stay under your employment for a period of time; this is usually around one to two years after the training is complete. The result is an upskilled employee who has better qualifications and future employment prospects, and your business has the benefit of a more valuable employee who usually will stay for the period of the bonding agreement.
These arrangements can be recorded in the original employment agreement or in a subsequent document both the employer and employee sign which records the bonding agreement as a formal variation to the employment agreement that is already in place.
Wages Protection Act 1983
Section 12A of the WPA states that an employer may not ‘seek or receive any premium’ for employing a person. In a 2016 case1, it was found that bonding employees to recoup recruitment costs, such as skills testing, was considered a breach of s12A as it was the employer who primarily benefitted, not the employee. Any bonding agreement for training, testing or costs incurred by the employer only would likely be considered a breach of the WPA.
Workplace health and safety
All employers are responsible for ensuring that they provide a safe environment for their employees. For most businesses this means that, at a minimum, each workplace must have some staff trained in first aid. In more dangerous workplaces there must be additional measures, such as training employees in handling combustible materials or dangerous goods.
As an employer, if you have insufficient staff members trained in workplace safety and are required to provide training to up-skill existing staff in this area, it is unlikely that you could use a bonding agreement to recoup the cost of that training, as it is your responsibility to provide a safe workplace in the first instance. If any additional training goes above and beyond the requirement for safety, and significantly improves your employee’s future employability, a bond may be valid.
Making clauses work
There are many circumstances in which bonding agreements are appropriate and enforceable.
When considering a bonding agreement, the following three basic principles are a good guideline.
- Mutual benefit: the additional training being undertaken by your employee must be of a mutual benefit to you both. Another acceptable, but rare, situation is where the additional training is of sole benefit to your employee, such as up-skilling in a different field while continuing to work in the current role.
- Transparency of cost: costs should be agreed as much as possible up-front, including how and when those costs will be repaid if your employee leaves during the bonded term. If the costs cannot be recorded clearly in the agreement, for example accommodation costs while on training, your employee should be given reasonable notice of the cost before it is incurred and the opportunity to opt out or for you both to choose a cheaper alternative.
- Reasonability: the bonding term and repayment schedule should be reasonable in consideration of the costs incurred by the business. For the majority of bonding terms, a reasonable timeframe is somewhere between six months and two years, though there are certainly some circumstances where longer bonding terms are appropriate.
Like many elements of employment law, bonding agreements are very case specific. This means that in this article we cannot cover all the issues that arise with them. Any issues in the workplace such as harassment or constructive dismissal can shake the foundation of a bonding agreement. Even when an agreement is considered enforceable, there is no guarantee you will be able to recover the funds from an employee who leaves your business.
If you are considering a bonding agreement, whether you are an employer or an employee, please contact us to discuss your specific needs.
1Labour Inspector v Tech 5 Recruitment Limited  NZEmpC 167 EMPC 114/2016.