29 Aug 2023

Contractor versus employee: What is the difference?

Employee signing a contract.

Navigating the world of work in the UK can sometimes be a maze, especially when it comes to understanding the difference between a contractor and an employee.

These terms might seem interchangeable at first, but legally and operationally, they are distinctly different. Whether you’re an employer trying to decide the best fit for your business needs or an individual considering a change in your professional journey, understanding these distinctions is crucial.

What is an employee?

An employee is someone who is hired under a contract of employment, often referred to as an employment contract or a contract of service. They typically work regularly for one employer and benefit from various employment rights, such as paid holidays, sick pay, and redundancy rights.

What is a contractor?

A contractor, often operating as a freelancer or under their limited company, provides their services under a contract for services. They might work for various clients simultaneously and do not benefit from the same employment rights as regular employees. Instead, they have commercial agreements and can manage how and when they complete their tasks.

What rights does an employee have in the UK?

Employees in the UK are entitled to a wide range of statutory rights, which include:

What rights does a contractor have in the UK?

Contractors operate more independently and do not receive the same rights as employees. However, they can:

  • Charge clients via their limited company or as a sole trader.
  • Decide how and when to work.
  • Work for multiple clients.
  • Deduct business-related expenses before paying tax.
  • However, they must manage their tax affairs, usually through self-assessment, and may not have the same job security as employees.

Control and flexibility


Employees usually have fixed working hours, defined roles, and tasks set by their employer. They often work at the employer’s premises, using the employer’s resources and tools. The employer dictates how, when, and where tasks are completed.


Contractors enjoy more control over their work. They decide how to complete a project, often work from any location, and can determine their working hours. They might use their equipment and resources, giving them more flexibility and autonomy.

What are the tax implications?


Employers deduct Income Tax and NICs from the wages of their employees through the Pay As You Earn (PAYE) system. This simplifies the tax process for employees as their tax obligations are managed for them.


Contractors have to handle their tax obligations. Operating under a limited company might allow for more tax planning opportunities, like drawing a minimal salary and taking dividends. However, contractors should be wary of the IR35 tax legislation, which aims to combat tax avoidance by workers supplying services via an intermediary.

What are the benefits and the complications?


Employees receive a consistent salary, which can be beneficial for financial stability. However, their earning potential might be capped compared to contractors, who can take on multiple projects simultaneously.


Contractors might have fluctuating income based on workload and demand. While they might earn more than employees during peak times, they also bear the financial risk during dry spells. They need to account for periods without income and consider business costs.

The distinction between contractors and employees isn’t just semantic; it has profound implications for rights, responsibilities, financial prospects, and tax obligations. Both parties offer unique advantages: employees offer consistency and commitment, while contractors bring flexibility and specialised skills for specific projects.

In the UK, with its intricate employment laws and tax regulations like IR35, understanding the distinction is even more critical. For employers and professionals alike, a clear understanding can lead to more informed decisions, ensuring that work relationships are both legally compliant and mutually beneficial.