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In employment law, constructive dismissal, also called constructive discharge, occurs when employees resign because their employer's behaviour has become so heinous or made life so difficult that they may consider themselves to have been fired. The employee must prove that the behaviour was unlawful — that the employer's actions amounted to a fundamental breach of contract, also known as a repudiatory breach of contract.

The exact legal consequences differ between different countries, but generally a constructive dismissal leads to the employee's obligations ending and the employee acquiring the right to make claims against the employer. For example in the United Kingdom, a claim for "unfair dismissal" and a claim for "wrongful dismissal" may arise.

The employee may resign over a single serious incident or over a pattern of incidents. Generally, the employee must have resigned soon after the incident.

The notion of constructive dismissal comes from the concept that (as it is phrased in United Kingdom law) "An employer must not, without reasonable or proper cause, conduct himself in a manner calculated or likely to destroy or seriously damage the relationship of trust and confidence between the employer and the employee." (Courtaulds Northern Textiles Ltd v Andrew [1979] IRLR 84, EAT.)

Contents

Examples of actions potentially justifying resignation

  • Failing to pay wages due.
  • Putting managers into excessively difficult work situations without supporting their decisions.
  • Harassment or humiliation, particularly in front of less senior staff.
  • Victimisation of the staff member.
  • Unilaterally changing the employee’s job content or terms of employment.
  • Significantly changing the employee’s job location at short notice.
  • Falsely accusing an employee of misconduct or of not being capable of carrying out their job.
  • Undue demotion or disciplinary procedures.
  • Sabotage of employee's work product either directly or indirectly with repeated interruption, confusing or inaccurate direction, or uncommunicated deadline changes.
  • Vandalizing the employee's workspace, home or other personal property. Such tactics could range from minor destruction of immaterial items to more severe acts of vandalism.
  • Forced attendance of a social event against the employees wishes.

UK law

In United Kingdom law, constructive dismissal is defined by the Employment Rights Act 1996 [1], section 95(1)(c):

The employee terminates the contract under which he is employed (with or without notice) in circumstances in which he is entitled to terminate it without notice by reason of the employer's conduct.

The Department of Trade and Industry states [2]:

A tribunal may rule that an employee who resigns because of conduct by his or her employer has been 'constructively dismissed'. For a tribunal to rule in this way the employer's action has to be such that it can be regarded as a significant breach of the employment contract indicating that he or she intends no longer to be bound by one or more terms of the contract: an example of this might be where the employer arbitrarily demotes an employee to a lower rank or poorer paid position. The contract is what has been agreed between the parties, whether orally or in writing, or a combination of both, together with what must necessarily be implied to make the contract workable.

Types of constructive dismissal

Although they tend to mash into one in a tribunal, strictly there are two types of constructuve dismissal: statutory and common law.

At common law[1] the requirement is acceptance of a repudiatory breach, which means the employer has indicated it no longer considers itself bound by an essential term of the contract, eg the requirement to pay wages or the requirement not to destroy the mutual bond of trust and confidence. It matters not if the employer did not mean to repudiate the contract[2].

Under statute[3] the requirement is employer's "conduct" allowing the employee to "terminate without notice"; as this can only happen with a repudiatory breach it amounts to the same thing.

Relation to unfair dismissal

A common mistake is to assume that constructive dismissal is exactly the same as unfair treatment of an employee - it can sometimes be that treatment that can be considered generally evenhanded nevertheless makes life so difficult that the employee is in essence forced to resign [4] (eg, a fair constructive dismissal might be a unilateral change of contract justified by a bigger benefit to the business than the inconvenience to the employee), but the Employment Appeal Tribunal doubts that it will be very often that the employer can breach ERA96 s98(4) whilst being fair.

A constructive dismissal occurs the employer's serious breach causes[5] the employee to accept that the contract has been terminated, by resigning. The fairness of it would have to be looked at separately under a statutory claim for unfair dismissal.

The problems for the employer are that constructive dismissal is a contractual claim, which can be made in a tribunal for up to £25,000 or in court without limit, and, by dismissing constructively, it by definition misses out on the correct procedure meaning that even if the reason was fair, the decision was probably not, and so an unfair dismissal usually arises, creating a statutory claim alongside the contractual claim.

The court can look behind the lack of, or different, stated reason given by the employee at the time of resignation to establish that a cover story was in fact a resignation caused by fundamental breach[6].

Typical causes

The person causing the dismissal does not need the authority to dismiss, as long as they acted in the course of employment[7][8][9].

Grounds

Constructive dismissal is typically caused by:-

  • unilateral contract changes by the employer such as:
    • deliberate[10] cuts in pay or status (even temporary[11]),
    • persistent delayed wages,
    • refusal of holiday[12],
    • withdrawal of car[13],
    • suspension without pay (or even on full pay[14]),
    • dramatic changes to duties, hours[15] or location (beyond reasonable daily travelling distance[16]), or
  • breach of contract in the form of bullying, eg:
    • ignoring complaints[17],
    • persistent unwanted amorous advances[18],
    • bullying and swearing[19],
    • verbal abuse (typically referring to gender[20], size[21] or incompetence[22]),
    • singling out for no pay rise[23],
    • criticising in front of subordinates[24],
    • lack of support (eg forcing to do two peoples' jobs)[25],
    • failure to notify a woman on maternity leave of a vacancy[26],
    • refusal to confirm continuity on TUPE transfer[27],
    • revealing secret complaints in a reference (even ones required by a regulator[28]), or
  • breaches such as:
    • behaviour which is arbitrary, capricious, inequitable, intolerable or outside good industrial practice[29],
    • offering an incentive to resign to avoid performance managing capability[30],
    • refusal to look for an alternative role due to workplace stress[31],
    • disproportionate disciplinary penalty[32],
    • employer cons employee into resigning[33].
Flexibility & mobility clauses

A flexibility clause does not allow the employer to change a type of job[34] as it is implied that the flexibility is to operate within the original job.

A mobility clause is subject to the implied term of mutual trust which prevents the employer from sending an employee to the other side of the country without adequate notice or from doing anything which makes it impossible for the employee to keep his side of the bargain[35].

Insufficient grounds

There is no right to automatic pay rises[36]. Nor is a smoking ban a breach[37].

Compensation

The employee's conduct is irrelevant to liability, although it can affect quantum; in other words it cannot get the employer off the hook, but could reduce compensation if he helped bring about his own downfall.

Timing

The conduct by the employer could be:

  • a one-off serious breach of contract,
  • anything to the employee's detriment (not necessarily a breach of contract) that acts as a last straw[38] after a string of serious breaches[39],
  • a serious breach that acts as the last straw after a string of less serious breaches[40], or
  • a string of less serious breaches related in time and nature that add up to a serious breach (random mistakes over the years are not enough - it would be more like a sustained campaign to undermine).

Employee must resign quickly

The employee has to resign within a reasonable time of the trigger, which is the one-off outrage or the last straw. The employee could work under protest while he or she finds a new job[41].

Waiver

If the employer alleges that the employee waived a breach by not resigning, each breach needs to be looked at to see if it was waived separately[42], but even if a breach was waived, the last straw revives it for the purpose of determining whether overall there was a repudiation[43].

Affirmation

If the employer alleges that the employer has affirmed a breach by not resigning, the employee could point out that no consideration was paid for it and so no contract change has been accepted. Acceptance of a replacement job would prove affirmation[44].

An employee who stays on for a year after refusing to sign a new contract does not necessarily accept it[45].

Last straw

The last straw does not have to be similar to the earlier string of events or even unreasonable or blameworthy - it need only be related to the obligation of trust and confidence and enough that when added to the earlier events the totality is a repudiation[46].

Notice period

Although the employer's breach must be serious enough to entitle the employee to resign without notice, the employee is entitled to give notice if he prefers, so could enjoy the benefit of wages during the notice period.

To prevent the employer alleging that the resignation was caused by a job offer, the employee should resign first and then seek a new job during the notice period.

During the notice period, the employer could make the employee redundant[47] or summarily dismiss him, if it has the grounds to do so fairly, otherwise the reason for termination will be resignation and not dismissal, since the employee cannot serve a counternotice[48].

References

  1. ^ Western Excavating (ECC) Ltd v Sharp [1978] ICR 221
  2. ^ Lewis v Motorwold Garages Ltd [1986] ICR 157
  3. ^ ERA96 s95(1)(c)
  4. ^ Savoia v Chiltern Herb Farms Ltd [1982] IRLR 166
  5. ^ British Leyland UK Ltd v McQuilken [1978] IRLR 245
  6. ^ Weathersfield Ltd v Sargent [1999] ICR 425
  7. ^ ERA96 s95(1)(c)
  8. ^ Hilton International Hotels (UK) Ltd v Protopapa
  9. ^ Insert footnote text here
  10. ^ Cantor Fitzgerald International v Callaghan [1999] ICR 639
  11. ^ Wadham Stringer Commercials (London) Ltd and Wadham Stringer Vehicles Ltd v Brown [1983] IRLR 46
  12. ^ Lytlarch Ltd v Reid [1991] ICR 216
  13. ^ Triton Oliver (Special Products) Ltd v Bromage (EAT 709/91) IDS Brief 511
  14. ^ William Hill Organisation Ltd v Tucker [1999] ICR 291
  15. ^ Greenaway Harrison Ltd v Wiles [1994] IRLR 380
  16. ^ Courtaulds Northern Spinning Ltd v Sibson [1988] ICR 451
  17. ^ Goolds v MccOnnell [1995] IRLR 516
  18. ^ Western Excavating (ECC) Ltd v Sharp
  19. ^ Korkaluk v Cantor Fitzgerald International [2004] ICR 697
  20. ^ Isle of Wight Tourist Board v Coombes [1976] IRLR 413
  21. ^ Palmanor v Cedron [1978] IRLR 303
  22. ^ Cortaulds v Andrew [1979] IRLR 85
  23. ^ Gardner v Beresford [1978] IRLR 63
  24. ^ Hilton Hotels v Potopapa [1990] IRLR 316
  25. ^ Seligman v McHugh [1979] IRLR 316
  26. ^ Visa International Service Association Ltd v Paul [2004] IRLR 42
  27. ^ Euro-Die (UK) Ltd v Skidmore (EAT 1158/98) (2000) IDS Brief B665/14
  28. ^ TSB Bank plc v Harris [2000] IRLR 157
  29. ^ Woods v WM Car Services (Peterboriugh) Ltd [1981] ICR 666
  30. ^ Billington v Michael Hunter & Sons Ltd EAT 0578/03, IDS Brief 758
  31. ^ Thanet District Council v Websper EAT 1090/01, IDS Brief 728
  32. ^ Stabley Cole (Wainfleet) Ltd v Sheridan [2003] ICR 297
  33. ^ Caledonian Mining Co Ltd v Bassett [1990] ICR 425
  34. ^ Land Securities Trillium Ltd v Thornley [2005] IRLR 765
  35. ^ United Bank Ltd v Akhtar [1989] IRLR 507
  36. ^ Murco Petroleum Ltd v Forge [1987] ICR 282
  37. ^ Dryden v Greater Glasgow Health Board [1992] IRLR 469
  38. ^ Logan v Commissioners of Custom and Excise [2004] IRLR 63
  39. ^ Abbey National plc v Robinson [2001] IDS Brief 680
  40. ^ JV Strong & Co Ltd v Hamill [2001] IDS Brief 684
  41. ^ Jones v F Sirl & Son (Furnishers) Ltd [1997] IRLR 493
  42. ^ Logan v Commissioners
  43. ^ Lewis v Motorworld Garages Ltd
  44. ^ Bunning v GT Bunning & Sons Ltd [2005] EWCA Civ 983
  45. ^ Aparau v Iceland Frozen Foods plc [1996] IRLR 119
  46. ^ Omilaju v Waltham Forest London Borough Council [2005] ICR 481
  47. ^ ERA96 s139(1)
  48. ^ ERA96 s95(2)(b)







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