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Contentious Resignations: Advice for Employers

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“I quit!” Two words no employer wants to hear. Resignations happen all the time, but when an employee quits on the spot, something has gone badly wrong. Resignations are generally seen as an employee’s voluntary act to terminate their employment contract; however, there are situations where a resignation can become contentious, leading to disputes and even potential legal consequences for employers. A resignation that can be considered contentious is one which does away with the normal process for employees – that of working within a given notice period – and instead the employee leaves with immediate effect.

 Some employers may be rejoicing at the resignation but for most, it should be a red flag!

What is a Contentious Resignation? 

A contentious resignation refers to situations where an employee resigns under conditions of dispute, disagreement, or any other form of conflict with their employer. This might arise due to alleged workplace issues, such as perceived bullying, unfair treatment, or disagreements over work expectations and evaluations. Such resignations can lead to potential legal disputes, reputational risks, and can also disturb the harmony and morale of the remaining team members.

In most cases,  a contentious resignation is one in which the employee in question metaphorically rips up their employment contract, waves goodbye to their notice period and walks out of the job. In other words, it’s a resignation with immediate effect. This can come in the form of a resignation letter, or a verbal resignation (especially when an employee resigns in the heat of the moment) and the employee will then leave on that day, no notice period provided.

My Employee Has Walked Out – What Should I Do?

We can all imagine the scenario: as an employer or manager, you are having a discussion with someone when you hear the words ‘I quit’ or you turn in to work one morning and find an empty seat and a letter of resignation on your desk. When an employee resigns for whatever reason, it can be a stressful event. When an employee leaves suddenly with no intention of coming back, then the stress is ever more acute.

There may be multiple reasons for their departure, from a failure of communication to a moment of great difficulty. Regardless, the important thing is to keep in mind that there are steps you can take as a company that can help mitigate the impact of unexpectedly losing a member of your workforce.

First Steps 

  1. Immediate Response: Address the resignation professionally, by acknowledging receipt of the resignation letter, offering the opportunity to discuss the matter and setting aside time to do so.  There are innumerate reasons as to why a member of choose to resign from an organisation. They key thing, though, is to understand the particular set of circumstances that led them to do so in order to avoid a potential claim.

    Take particular note of the language used, from both sides: ambiguous language, such as ‘I’m done!’ doesn’t necessarily constitute a resignation, although it may be construed as such. Allow for a ‘cooling-off’ period of a couple of days to consider the veracity of the resignation.

    Likewise, if as an employer you find yourself blurting out words that can be construed as a dismissal, try and retract them immediately if this wasn’t your intention so that you can successfully avoid claims of unfair dismissal at an employment tribunal.
  2. Open Dialogue: Offer a platform for the departing employee to voice their concerns or reasons for leaving. This is not about challenging the employee’s decision, but rather understanding their perspective and learning from it. It’s crucial to engage with the employee in question in a fair manner. Offer support where you can, and discuss the details where possible, and in strict confidence.
  3. Stay Calm and Professional: Avoid getting defensive or confrontational. Instead, empathise and listen. It’s important not to take things personally, even if the feedback is directed at specific management styles or decisions.
  4. Discover the Underlying Reasons:  Once the facts of the matter have been established, you can then go on to look at what constitutes the underlying causes. It’s important to get to the root cause of the resignation.  They may include matters such as:
  • Workplace bullying and harassment
  • Wages and pay disputes
  • Breach of contract
  • Unworkable stress
  • Unfair treatment in the workplace
  • Unfit health and safety standards
  • Unreliable or onerous hours

Once you find the causes, the solutions can then be decided upon. By doing so effectively, employers can prevent future resignations, avoid employment tribunals and potential legal action.

  1. Document Everything: From the resignation letter to follow-up meetings and discussions, document all details. This is crucial not just from a legal perspective but also for internal reviews and understanding patterns if they emerge.
  2. Legal Consultation: If there are allegations of mistreatment or if the employee hints at legal action, consult with your outsourced HR Support or legal professional familiar with employment law to ensure that you’re responding appropriately.
  3. Exit Interview: Conduct a formal exit interview. It provides an opportunity to understand the employee’s grievances and also offers closure to both parties.

The Consequences of Contentious Resignation 

Above all, the absolute worst thing that you can do as an employer when an employee hands in their written resignation is to dismiss it out of hand or ignore the underlying reason. Why?

  1. Unworked notice periods:  Losing employees suddenly can be hard for any business, especially at busy times of the year. Staff shortages can have a lasting impact on how customers and clients view your business, especially if it is no longer able to function as it otherwise would.
  2. Decreased Employee Morale: When remaining employees perceive that legitimate grievances are not being addressed, it can lead to decreased morale and trust in management. This could result in lower productivity and job satisfaction. The sudden departure of a team member can increase the workload on remaining employees, leading to stress, burnout, and further dissatisfaction.
  3. Increased Turnover: A single resignation can be a sign of larger, systemic issues within the organisation. Ignoring it can lead to further resignations as other employees might face similar concerns. Higher turnover rates can be costly in terms of recruitment and training.
  4. Loss of Valuable Feedback: Contentious resignations often come with critical feedback. Ignoring such resignations means missing out on opportunities to identify and address underlying issues within the company.
  5. Reputation damage:  It is easy to act rashly in the present, or become apathetic as life moves on. However, as an employer, both can be damaging to the reputation of the business in the long-term. The presence of social media – the ability for a disaffected employee to write to their followers or inform others – means that complaints over how a company has treated its employees can spread like wildfire, be the accusations true or not. As such, it is best for businesses to deal with a problem resignation promptly and effectively as a matter of course.
  6. Loss of Clients or Business: Especially in client-facing roles, a contentious resignation might disrupt client relationships or lead to a loss of business if the departing employee was pivotal in managing specific accounts.
  7. Legal Ramifications:  If the person resigning has reasonable grounds for their quitting the company, there may be grounds of discrimination or grounds that constitute a fundamental breach of contract on the part of the employer, then that may result in accusations of constructive dismissal. This is a difficult topic, and comes with a huge administration and time cost, without even beginning to mention the potential financial burden. If the reasons for the contentious resignation relate to legal issues (e.g., allegations of discrimination, harassment, or a hostile work environment), the employer could face potential legal action. Ignoring the resignation doesn’t absolve an employer of legal responsibilities.


When an employee hands in their resignation letter with immediate effect, failure to take the proper steps, or even to accept the reality and consequences, can have a harmful effect on any business regardless of industry.

Assistance should be sought so that their resigning doesn’t then become an example for others to follow.

At HR:4UK, we have the skills, expertise, knowledge and experience to help guide you through this often difficult process. To find out more, or for impartial advice, contact us today on 01455 444 222.

James Dawson

James is our resident wordsmith and has many years of experience in writing about a huge variety of topics from HR to Occupational Health and beyond. He has been published in numerous magazines and news outlets, and especially enjoys researching and analysing the current trends in the modern business world.

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