Where does the law stand regarding heat of the moment decisions made by employees?

The law is not black and white when it comes to resignations made in the heat of the moment. As with all aspects of employment law, the expectation on an employer is to be reasonable. This means that it will come down to the specific circumstances of each individual situation.

An employer needs to look at whether or not the language used was clear and unambiguous. Put simply, how clear was the intention to resign by the employee’s words or actions? Were they refusing to follow a specific instruction, or work on a particular job, or was it clear that they meant that they had no intention of continuing in their employment from that moment on? Where the actions are open to interpretation there is an onus on the employer to check what the employee actually meant to do.

Where an employee resigns, in the heat of the moment, using unambiguous words or actions, there is no duty on the employer to seek to recover the situation and investigate the employee’s true intention. There is no legal authority supporting an obligation to do so and it would, in the view of the Tribunals, place too high a burden on employers to imply any such duty.

What this means is that where words or actions of resignation are unambiguous, an employer is entitled to treat them as such and accept the employee’s resignation on face value at once, unless there are special circumstances arising due to personality conflicts or individual characteristics that would call into question whether or not this was the genuine intention. Words spoken or actions expressed in temper, in the heat of the moment, under extreme pressure, where the employee is under significant emotional distress or has insufficient mental capacity at that time to form that clear intention may be viewed as special circumstances.

Where special circumstances exist, an employer should allow a reasonable period of time to elapse before accepting a resignation at its face value, during which time information may come to light which casts doubt upon whether the resignation was really intended and can properly be assumed. If an employer does not look into the circumstances then they run the risk that something may come to light which shows that it wasn’t reasonable for them to conclude that there was an intention to resign making this an unfair dismissal. However, such a reasonable period of time is likely to be relatively short, such as a day or two. It will not be two or three weeks later when the employee realises they cannot get another job, benefits or claim on their payment protection insurance.

It should be noted, though, that the employer is supposed to make a reasonable investigation to determine if resignation was what the employee meant. This is not a general right to withdraw a resignation intentionally given. When the intention to resign was there then it is entirely at the employer’s discretion to allow it to be withdrawn if the employee asks.

For any further clarification, please call our 24 Hour Advice Service on 0844 892 2772.