Letters of Resignation - how important are they?

Submitted by Dawn on 11th July 2018

HR Consultants, HR, employee, resignation, wrongful dismissal

So, it’s ‘Bye Bye Boris’ and ‘Arrivederci David’.  Two of Theresa May’s biggest Brexit hard-hitters stormed from the building. 

24 hours later, the cabinet office revolving door finally ceased spinning and our troubled prime minister could at least relax in the knowledge that both gentlemen had the good sense and decency to pen comprehensive letters of resignation.

No formal resignation from Tarzan

Well of course!’ you’re thinking, ‘departing ministers always write letters of resignation’ - although whether it’s out of courtesy, we’re not so sure.  Possibly self-promotion and preserving their legacy might be nearer the mark.  But is it true that cabinet misters always formalise their resignation in writing?  Certainly not.  Remember Michael Heseltine?  Margaret Thatcher’s tousled-haired defence secretary (yes, Bo-Jo isn’t the first rebellious cabinet minister to suffer from an unruly mane)?  In 1986, Margaret Thatcher’s Secretary of State for Defence, christened Tarzan by the media, was so miffed at being put in his place in front of his cabinet colleagues that he famously picked up his papers and walked out.  No by-your-leave and certainly no letter of resignation.  Mind you, his redoubtable boss lost no time in confirming his departure with her own witheringly-worded letter.

Never assume

When an employee impetuously storms out of the office, apparently never to return, is it safe to assume they’ve quit?

Take care.  If you jump to the conclusion that they’re no longer your employee, without seeking confirmation - such as in a resignation letter - then you could be found liable for wrongful dismissal.

There have been instances when a staff member has thrown in their security pass, packed up their belongings and flounced out, never to return.  The employer has formally ceased the employment, only to be reprimanded by the tribunal, ruling that this wasn’t a “clear and unequivocal” resignation.

This should serve as a warning to employers that they should always follow up any suggestion of a resignation, to be sure it’s what it seems.  The obligation is on you to find out from the employee if they definitely have resigned and wherever possible ask them to confirm this in writing.

Time to cool off

You might think that a hastily scrawled note, declaring ‘I resign!’ or ‘I quit!’ or the less precise, ‘I can’t do this anymore!’ would do.  Not necessarily.  The courts may decide that, before you formalise their departure, you should offer your distressed employee a cooling off period.  We would recommend at least a week.

Let’s say your employee doesn’t dramatically walk out.  What if they just stop turning up for work - essentially they disappear.  Don’t take anything for granted.  They may be undergoing a health or domestic crisis.  You should, first of all, find out if they’re OK.  Only then, should you write to them, asking them to put their resignation in writing.

If there’s still no response, you need to write a letter along these lines - 

“We conclude that, by being absent, you have resigned and will not be returning to work with us.  If we don’t hear from you within 7 days, we will process you as a leaver.”

Whether Margaret Thatcher wrote to Michael Heseltine along similar lines, we can’t be sure!  Either way, he was doubtless too busy preparing his subsequent leadership bid to take much notice.

In conclusion, unless you have it in writing, never assume that an employee has resigned.  The hackneyed old saying has never been more appropriate - ‘Assume makes an ass out of u and me’.

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