When is a resignation a termination in disguise?
Sometimes employers too easily confuse when an employee has voluntarily decided to leave. Whether through insincerity or neglect, this is one situation where employers may try to rid themselves of an undesirable employee, without paying any severance. But not so fast. Some resignations are actually terminations in disguise.
If an employee is faced with an ultimatum between resigning or dismissal, it will almost never be a valid resignation. Some employers feel that by offering the opportunity to resign instead of facing allegations of misconduct, they are doing their employee a favour. In some cases this may be true. But in many other there is an ulterior motive. Employers know that proving just cause for dismissal is a difficult task, so they will sometimes threaten misconduct as a means to provoke a resignation instead. However, courts often recognize that employees who submit hasty resignations when faced with unproven allegations of misconduct have not legally resigned. Rather these are resignations given under pressure or duress, which are almost never upheld. A true resignation is a voluntary act, not a camouflaged termination.
A resignation must also not be given on impulse. The law recognizes that spontaneously made statements or actions, such as walking off the job after an argument, usually do not constitute a valid resignation. Several court cases have held that employers must not seize upon an employee’s emotional outbursts. In one recent decision, the court even went as far as stating that employers have a duty to provide a cooling off period to an employee who proclaims “I quit” in the heat of the moment and then confirm whether this is truly his or her intention.
A resignation, to become effective, has less to do with an employee’s statements and much more to do with his or her actions. The real test is whether an employee’s actions are consistent with someone voluntarily wishing to leave and not return. I currently have such a case. In it, the employee emphatically denies that she told her employer that she was “done” although the employer certainly feels that she did. However, she still came to work the next day as if nothing unusual had happened. It was only then when her employer, not expecting her to show up, purported to accept her resignation allegedly given the night before. The problem with the employer’s case is that, if my client truly intended on leaving for good, she would not have come back to work the very next day. So when she was told to leave, it should be viewed as a termination, not the other way around.
Employees tendering their resignation are sometimes free to withdraw it and continue working as before, as long as the employer has not already accepted the resignation and taken steps to move on. For example, an employee who gives two weeks’ notice of his or her resignation is entitled to change his or her mind, but only if the employer has not already hired or promoted a replacement.
What about an employee who is asked to leave after giving advance notice of their future resignation? Unless that employee engaged in misconduct and resigned before it came to light, employees who are asked to leave during their resignation notice period are entitled to payment for the remainder of the time frame they were prepared to work.
Even an employee who just does not show up for several days may not have resigned either. Courts often caution employers against snapping up the opportunity to claim an employee has resigned or abandoned their job and a number of cases have found that, in this situation, an employer has to take steps to reach out to the employee and try to confirm whether he or she no longer wants their job, before concluding there is a resignation.
The lessons for both employees and employers is clear. If either side finds itself in the “twilight zone” somewhere between a resignation and a termination, there are several practical steps to consider:
- From an employee’s perspective, immediately protest any assertion that you resigned, if that was not what you intended to do. Further, if unclear, request that your options be outlined in writing and seek advice before taking any action, especially before leaving the workplace, as difficult as that may be.
- From an employer’s perspective, the courts are increasingly requiring evidence that they were looking out for an employee’s best interests before accepting what appears to be a resignation. Therefore, if an employee’s behaviour or statements towards resigning are out of character or appear given impulsively, it is a good idea to ask them to first take some time to consider their actions and confirm their intentions in writing.
Published in the Globe and Mail.