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|The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United Kingdom and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (December 2010)|
In employment law, constructive dismissal, also called constructive discharge, occurs when employees resign because their employer's behaviour has become so intolerable or heinous or made life so difficult that the employee has no choice but to resign. Since the resignation was not truly voluntary, it is in effect a termination. For example, when an employer makes life extremely difficult for an employee, to attempt to have the employee resign, rather than outright firing the employee, the employer is trying to effect a constructive discharge.
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.
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.
In the United States, constructive discharge has differing meanings depending on the jurisdiction. In California, the California Supreme Court defines constructive discharge as follows:
"In order to establish a constructive discharge, an employee must plead and prove, by the usual preponderance of the evidence standard, that the employer either intentionally created or knowingly permitted working conditions that were so intolerable or aggravated at the time of the employee's resignation that a reasonable employer would realize that a reasonable person in the employee's position would be compelled to resign."
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 circumstances in which an employee is entitled are defined in common law. The notion of constructive dismissal most often arises from a fundamental breach of the term of trust and confidence implied in all contracts of employment. In order to avoid such a breach "[a]n 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." Whilst a breach can be of the implied term of trust and confidence, a fundamental breach of any of the express or implied terms of a contract of employment is sufficient.
The Department of Trade and Industry states:
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.
Although they tend to mash into one in a tribunal, strictly there are two types of constructive dismissal: statutory and common law.
At common law 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, e.g. 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.
Under statute 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.
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 (e.g., 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 when the employer's serious breach causes 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.
Constructive dismissal is typically caused by:-
A flexibility clause does not allow the employer to change a type of job 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.
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.
The conduct by the employer could be:
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.
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, but even if a breach was waived, the last straw revives it for the purpose of determining whether overall there was a repudiation.
If the employer alleges that the employee 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.
An employee who stays on for a year after refusing to sign a new contract does not necessarily accept it.
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.
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 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.