Heat of the moment resignations and unfair dismissal

As most Australians understand, there are circumstances in which a resignation by an employee may be construed as arising from an unfair dismissal. To put it another way, Australian fair work law regards a resignation by an employee as a dismissal by the employer in certain circumstances such as where deliberate provocative conduct by the employer is designed and intended to force an employee to resign. Normally, this is motivated by an employer attempting to evade unfair dismissal laws. In such a situation, the law entitles the employee to sue for unfair dismissal on the basis of an alleged “constructive dismissal”

There are many posts published on my web site about this concept.

Around this issue,  a whole body of case law has developed to the effect that there are contexts in which an employer will accept a resignation from an employee at its peril  if it is tendered in the “heat of the moment”.The wise employer will wait for the employee to “cool off” before regarding it as a genuine resignation.

Here is a summary of the legal principles.

“The Legal Principles

The legal principles governing the application of section 386(1) in the context of cases where the employee is said to have resigned rather than been dismissed are well established. Together with an analysis of its legislative history, they were recently set out by a Full Bench of this Commission in Bupa Aged Care Australia Pty Ltd v Tavassoli 8 as follows:

“(1) There may be a dismissal within the first limb of the definition in section 386(1)(a) where, although the employee has given an ostensible communication of a resignation, the resignation is not legally effective because it was expressed in the “heat of the moment” or when the employee was in a state of emotional stress or mental confusion such that the employee could not reasonably be understood to be conveying a real intention to resign. Although “jostling” by the employer may contribute to the resignation being legally ineffective, employer conduct is not a necessary element. In this situation if the employer simply treats the ostensible resignation as terminating the employment rather than clarifying or confirming with the employee after a reasonable time that the employee genuinely intended to resign, this may be characterised as a termination of the employment at the initiative of the employer.

(2) A resignation that is “forced” by conduct or a course of conduct on the part of the employer will be a dismissal within the second limb of the definition in section 386(1)(b). The test to be applied here is whether the employer engaged in the conduct with the intention of bringing the employment to an end or whether termination of the employment was the probable result of the employer’s conduct such that the employee had no effective or real choice but to resign. Unlike the situation in (1), the requisite employer conduct is the essential element.”

Although decided under a previous Act, 9 the following approach of the Full Bench of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in O’Meara v Stanley Works Pty Ltd10 remains generally relevant to the consideration of section 386(1):

“In this Commission the concepts have been addressed on numerous occasions and by a number of Full Benches. In Pawel v Advanced Precast Pty Ltd (Pawel) a Full Bench said:

“[13] It is plain that the Full Court in Mohazab considered that an important feature in the question of whether termination is at the initiative of the employer is whether the act of an employer results directly or consequentially in the termination of the employment and that the employment relationship is not voluntarily left by the employee. However, it is to be noted that the Full Court described it as an important feature. It plainly cannot be the only feature. An example will serve to illustrate this point. Suppose an employee wants a pay rise and makes such a request of his or her employer. If the employer declines and the employee, feeling dissatisfied resigns, can the resignation be said to be a termination at the initiative of the employer? We do not think it can and yet it can be said that the act of the employer i.e. refusing the pay rise, has at least consequentially resulted in the termination of the employment. This situation may be contrasted with the position where an employee is told to resign or he or she will be terminated. We think that all of the circumstances and not only the act of the employer must be examined. These in our view, will include the circumstances giving rise to the termination, the seriousness of the issues involved and the respective conduct of the employer and the employee.”

In the Full Bench decision of ABB Engineering Construction Pty Ltd v Doumit (ABB Engineering) it was said:

“Often it will only be a narrow line that distinguishes conduct that leaves an employee no real choice but to resign employment, from conduct that cannot be held to cause a resultant resignation to be a termination at the initiative of the employer. But narrow though it be, it is important that that line be closely drawn and rigorously observed. Otherwise, the remedy against unfair termination of employment at the initiative of the employer may be too readily invoked in circumstances where it is the discretion of a resigning employee, rather than that of the employer, that gives rise to the termination. The remedies provided in the Act are directed to the provision of remedies against unlawful termination of employment. Where it is the immediate action of the employee that causes the employment relationship to cease, it is necessary to ensure that the employer’s conduct, said to have been the principal contributing factor in the resultant termination of employment, is weighed objectively. The employer’s conduct may be shown to be a sufficiently operative factor in the resignation for it to be tantamount to a reason for dismissal. In such circumstances, a resignation may fairly readily be conceived to be a termination at the initiative of the employer. The validity of any associated reason for the termination by resignation is tested. Where the conduct of the employer is ambiguous, and the bearing it has on the decision to resign is based largely on the perceptions and subjective response of the employee made unilaterally, considerable caution should be exercised in treating the resignation as other than voluntary.”

In our view the full statement of reasons in Mohazab which we have set out together with the further explanation by Moore J in Rheinberger and the decisions of Full Benches of this Commission in Pawel and ABB Engineering require that there to be some action on the part of the employer which is either intended to bring the employment to an end or has the probable result of bringing the employment relationship to an end. It is not simply a question of whether “the act of the employer [resulted] directly or consequentially in the termination of the employment.” Decisions which adopt the shorter formulation of the reasons for decision should be treated with some caution as they may not give full weight to the decision in Mohazab. In determining whether a termination was at the initiative of the employer an objective analysis of the employer’s conduct is required to determine whether it was of such a nature that resignation was the probable result or that the appellant had no effective or real choice but to resign.” 11

Although determined by the English Court of Appeal, the following approach taken in CF Capital PLC v Willoughby 12  is also generally consistent with that of Australian courts and tribunals:

“37. The ‘rule’ is that a notice of resignation or dismissal (whether given orally or in writing) has effect according to the ordinary interpretation of its terms. Moreover, once such a notice is given it cannot be withdrawn except by consent. The ‘special circumstances’ exception as explained and illustrated in the authorities is, I consider, not strictly a true exception to the rule. It is rather in the nature of a cautionary reminder to the recipient of the notice that, before accepting or otherwise acting upon it, the circumstances in which it is given may require him first to satisfy himself that the giver of the notice did in fact really intend what he had apparently said by it. In other words, he must be satisfied that the giver really did intend to give a notice of resignation or dismissal, as the case may be. The need for such a so-called exception to the rule is well summarised by Wood J in paragraph 31 of Kwik-Fit’s case and, as the cases show, such need will almost invariably arise in cases in which the purported notice has been given orally in the heat of the moment by words that may quickly be regretted.

  1. The essence of the ‘special circumstances’ exception is therefore that, in appropriate cases, the recipient of the notice will be well advised to allow the giver what is in effect a ‘cooling off’ period before acting upon it. Kilner Brown J, in paragraph [15] of his judgment in Martin’s case understandably referred to such a period as an opportunity for the giver of the notice to recant, or to withdraw his words; and this is in practice what is likely to happen. I would, however, be reluctant to characterise the exception as an opportunity for a unilateral retraction or withdrawal of a notice of resignation or dismissal since that would be to allow the exception to operate inconsistently with the principle that such a notice cannot be unilaterally retracted or withdrawn. In my judgment, the true nature of the exception is rather that it is one in which the giver of the notice is afforded the opportunity to satisfy the recipient that he never intended to give it in the first place – that, in effect, his mind was not in tune with his words.”

I apply these principles and, in the context of the current statutory scheme, particularly the full bench observations in Bupa Aged Care Australia Pty Ltd v Tavassoli, in determining this matter.”

Foale v Davsan Pty Ltd T/A Seaton Hotel (2018) FWC 1085 delivered 21 February 2018 per Anderson DP