A recent, rather colourful, case out of British Columbia serves as a cautionary tale for employers in respect of equivocal resignations by employees, and provides some guidance to employers on how to respond to a resignation “bluff” from an employee.
In Haftbaradaran v. St. Hubertus Estate Winery Ltd., 2011 BCSC 1424, a Kelowna winery learned the hard way how not to respond to an equivocal resignation from its winemaker. The Court in this case found the plaintiff winemaker to be an emotional perfectionist and prone to “hissy fits”. Indeed, in a notable passage from the Reasons for Judgment, the Court expressly agreed with the employer’s assertion that the employee was a “pain in the ass”. Following a miscommunication between employer and employee respecting a day off, the owner of the winery and the employee had a tense and emotional meeting in which the employee raised – without warning or prior context – a litany of complaints and accusations against his employer, some entirely illogical. This unfortunate meeting escalated to the point where the employer swore, the employee broke down in tears, and the employer advised that if the employee was unhappy with his job, perhaps he should look for another one. In response, the employee took out his keys to the winery facilities and invited the owner to fire him. The owner responded by telling the employee to get out of his office. The employee smiled, said “Good luck making wine”, then gathered his personal effects and left the winery property.
Now, keep in mind that the trial judge held that nothing that had occurred to this point constituted a dismissal of the plaintiff. However, he also held that nothing amounted to a resignation either, echoing the standard test for resignation:
…the objective test of the disinterested and reasonable observer. Would such an observer conclude from the employee’s words and actions that the employee had irrevocably quit his or her job? Would that observer conclude that the employer had accepted the resignation as an end to their relationship?
When an employee is ambiguous in his or her words and conduct with respect to resignation, what is an employer to do? Pursuant to this case, it is clear that what the employer should not do is simply accept the employee’s conduct as a resignation, and proceed accordingly. In this case, the employer responded to the emotional meeting and the employee’s conduct by sending him an e-mail that presumed he would no longer be working for the winery, and asked whether he would be prepared to stay on for a 4 week period to “clean up all the loose ends” caused by his “departure”.
The Court held this e-mail to be a termination of the Plaintiff’s employment. It further held that the employer’s communication to the Plaintiff should instead have referred to the meeting, acknowledged the ambiguity of the parties’ positions when the meeting ended, and invited the plaintiff to return to the winery to “iron out their differences”. A reasonable observer, knowing what had passed between the parties earlier in the day, would have viewed the e-mail as a communication of the defendant’s decision to no longer put up with the plaintiff’s behaviour. The e-mail terminated the plaintiff’s contract of employment with the defendant.
What can be gleaned from this case is that in situations wherein an employee’s conduct appears consistent with a resignation, but there is doubt as to whether it meets the objective test, an employer would do well to resist falling for such a “bluff” from its employee by proceeding to process a resignation or otherwise communicate the acceptance of a resignation. The prudent course is to seek clarity from the employee through an invitation to meet and discuss the issues. To do otherwise runs the employer a risk of a finding of wrongful termination in the absence of an objectively clear and final resignation.
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