In a recent case, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) was asked to determine whether an employer had a duty to ascertain the reason behind an employee’s ambiguous resignation letter and if their subsequent refusal to allow the employee to rescind their resignation was equal to unfair dismissal.

The case, East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust v Mrs P Levy, centred around an employee who wished to transfer from the employer’s records department to a similar role in their radiology department. Following her application, Levy received a provisional offer for the role and was aware of the employer’s internal policy which required those wishing to change departments to resign from their current role first before reengaging in their new position.

Whilst still awaiting final confirmation of the job offer from the radiology department, Levy submitted a resignation letter to her current manager following an altercation with a colleague. This resignation letter was duly accepted, however a few days later the provisional offer from the radiology department was withdrawn due to Levy’s high number of sick days.

Levy then attempted to rescind her resignation, however having taken advice from the internal HR department her manager chose not to accept this, believing there was no obligation on him to do so. Instead he proceeded to inform Levy that her employment would be terminated on the pre-agreed date and that she owed 88 hours of pay in outstanding annual leave.

Levy proceeded to bring a claim of unfair dismissal to an employment tribunal (ET) who upheld her claim. The ET ruled that it had in fact been the employer who had ended Levy’s employment, adding that as it was company policy to submit a resignation letter when moving departments, it would have been clear that this was the intention of the employee rather than to terminate her employment completely. Whilst the ET accepted the employer’s argument to some degree, that the wording used in the resignation was unclear, they ultimately ruled that a reasonable employer would have considered the context of the situation and understood Levy’s’ true intentions.

The employer went on to lodge an appeal with the EAT, which was ultimately dismissed. In their argument the employer again cited the ambiguous nature of the resignation letter and Levy’s use of the word ‘notice’. However, the EAT explained that given the special circumstances of this case, notably the employer’s well known internal policy for job transfers, the use of ‘notice’ could equally have referred to a transfer from the records department.

This ruling reminds employers that when faced with a resignation letter they should always clarify with the employee what their intentions are. In instances where the wording of the letter is ambiguous then a follow up meeting should be held to remove any doubt. Ultimately even where the employer would prefer the employee to leave the business they should not force the issue, as this case has shown how doing so could result in a successful claim of unfair dismissal.