The end of the employment relationship can be messy and disputes over ambiguous resignations commonly arise.
In cases where, for example, an employee has just stormed out in the thick of an argument or a tense workplace situation, it can be difficult for employers to determine whether an employee has genuinely resigned or not.
A recent Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) took a closer look at unclear resignations and what the risks are for employers.
What are the facts of the case?
In East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust v Levy, the facts are relatively straightforward. Mrs Levy worked in the records department. She applied and was given a conditional offer to a role in the radiology department.
After receiving this offer, she sent in a letter which said ‘Please accept one month’s notice from the above date’. The employer wrote back confirming receipt of notice and stated her last day of work.
Unfortunately, the offer was later revoked and she tried to withdraw her so-called ‘notice of resignation’. The employer declined to accept this. The employee lodged a claim for unfair dismissal and the employer defended the claim, maintaining that she had resigned.
What did the Employment Tribunal decide?
The Employment Tribunal had to look at what a reasonable recipient would have understood. They concluded that her letter had been ‘ambiguous’ – it did not clearly specify whether Mrs Levy was providing notice to leave the records department or to leave her employment relationship with the employer. To a reasonable recipient, the letter would lead them to agree that Mrs Levy was not terminating her employment relationship with her employer, but informing them of her intention to move to another department.
The EAT agreed with the Employment Tribunal’s decision and dismissed the appeal.
What can employers learn from this case?
In most cases, when someone hands in their resignation letter, it will be considered unambiguous. But it is important to think about the context and circumstances.
If you are unsure about whether they have actually resigned, it is essential to clarify their intentions.
What should employers do if an employee resigns in the heat of the moment?
In the heat of the moment, one of your employees may snap and say ‘I’ve had enough and want to quit!’
However, once they have calmed down, they may change their mind. In these cases, it may be reasonable to give the employee some time to calm down and think about whether they actually do want to resign. If the resignation was in the heat of the moment and you refuse to allow the person to return once they have calmed down, you may face an unfair dismissal claim.
An Employment Tribunal may decide that there was no valid resignation and by not allowing the resignation to be withdrawn, your actions constitute a dismissal.
Seek legal advice to discuss resignations in more depth and get pragmatic and commercially savvy guidance for your specific workplace situation.