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Case law update: An employee who said “I’m done” and handed in her keys had not resigned

Background: What does the law say about deciding whether an employee has resigned or not?

The starting point is that if an employee resigns using clear and unambiguous language, their employer is entitled to accept it. That said, the courts are aware that sometimes it may be necessary to take a more detailed look at the context around the words that were spoken, in order to decide whether that was really what the employee meant and what the employer understood the employee had done.

In addition, it follows that if the words themselves were in any way ambiguous, an employer needs to investigate whether the employee intended to resign before it takes any action in response.
These concepts were illustrated and looked at in the case of Cope v Razzle Dazzle Costumes Ltd, in which the Employment Tribunal had to decide whether an employer had been too hasty when it decided to accept the words “I’m done” as a resignation.

What was this case about?

Mrs Cope was employed by a small manufacturing business run by a husband and wife, Mr and Mrs Parker. She clashed with one of her co-workers, who then accused her of being a bully. Mrs Cope denied the allegations and said that if she had to continue to work with this co-worker she would get signed off sick. Her employer told her that she had to behave professionally towards the co-worker and that they were both “assets” of the business.

Mrs Cope requested a meeting to discuss the situation, saying that she would resign if things were not sorted out. The following day she asked to speak to Mrs Parker but was told that she was off site and unavailable. Mrs Cope’s anxiety was intensified at this point by a leak to her stoma bag (she had previously undergone a colostomy, which her employers were aware of). She returned to the office hoping to speak to Mrs Parker and was told by a colleague that Mrs Parker had not yet returned to work. At that point Mrs Cope left her factory keys on the counter, said “I’m done”, with a hand gesture to indicate she was finished and walked out of the building.

That colleague believed that Mrs Cope had resigned and informed Mr and Mrs Parker of this. They accepted that interpretation without speaking directly to Mrs Cope to clarify the situation. This was despite the fact that they had received a text from her later which explained why she had walked out: “..sorry to bother you at home. I couldn’t wait earlier to speak to you I tried but I couldn’t stay there any longer. My nerves are shot. Never in my whole life have I ever been made to feel like this.”

The following day, Mrs Cope provided a sick note, citing ‘stress and anxiety’ and signing her off work for two weeks. Approximately one week later, she asked for a meeting with Mr and Mrs Parker, which they agreed to. At this meeting, they refused to let Mrs Cope return to work, saying that she had resigned and they had accepted her resignation.

Mrs Cope issued employment claims including unfair dismissal and wrongful dismissal.

What did the court decide?

Mrs Cope won her unfair dismissal and wrongful dismissal claims.

The Employment Tribunal accepted that a resignation doesn’t have to be in writing and can be made using words or by conduct. However, it decided that no reasonable employer would have taken the view that Mrs Cope had unambiguously resigned in these circumstances – particularly given the fact that her words and actions had been made when she was in a highly anxious state. She had not used the words “resign” and her subsequent behaviour (including submitting the sick note) was inconsistent with someone who had resigned.

The Employment Tribunal rules that the employer had taken the opportunity to get rid of Mrs Cope because her dispute with her colleague was disrupting the business. It awarded her compensation of £7,448.96 which included notice pay, loss of earnings and a basic award.

Advice for dealing with this situation in your workplace:

  • Be aware that, unless there is a clause in an employee’s contract of employment requiring them to give you written notice, they are entitled to resign verbally only. Provided an employee has complied with their contractual terms regarding giving notice, their resignation will be effective even if you refuse to agree to it.
  • If an employee only resigns verbally, but their employment contract stipulates that they must give written notice, ask them to do so. In this scenario, the notice period will not usually start to run until the employee has given you written notice and this serves as a clear record of an unambiguous resignation.
  • If you are in any doubt about whether someone has resigned, look at the wider situation leading up to the resignation before taking any action. Ask yourself what prompted the resignation: Was the employee angry, upset or stressed? Did they act in the heat of the moment? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, give them a “cooling off period”. An effective way to do this is to write to the employee and ask if they intended to resign and give them a limited time (24 to 48 hours would be enough) to reply to you.
  • If your employee has resigned in clear and unambiguous terms and there are no unusual circumstances (such as those set out in the point above), you can confirm their resignation immediately and they will only be able to retract it if you agree to it.
  • Do not be tempted to accept an employee’s resignation because it would be easier for the business if they left, as, whilst continuing to manage their employment may be challenging, responding to an employment tribunal claim can be far more time consuming and expensive for an employer in the longer term.

We would be happy to provide further specific advice to enable to you effectively manage these types of situations.

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