When is Resignation a Constructive Dismissal?

“…the prospect of continued employment must be shown to have been objectively intolerable and the employee must have resigned due to the intolerable situation and not for another reason.” (Extract from judgment below)

Perhaps you are an employer, and that troublesome employee who you’ve been hoping would resign does exactly that. Saving you, as you see it, from the risk, hassle, and expense of disciplinary or retrenchment proceedings. But are you really home and dry?

Or perhaps you are an employee, driven to resign by your employer’s constant maneuvering to make your continued employment unbearable. Do you have any recourse?

The answer to both questions lies in the Labour Relations Act’s definition of “dismissal”, which includes an employee resignation when “an employee terminated employment with or without notice because the employer made continued employment intolerable for the employee.”

And when there’s a dismissal, it has to be a fair one or the employer is in for a very expensive lesson. As we shall see …

The three requirements for “constructive dismissal”?

As confirmed in the Labour Court judgment we discuss below, there are three requirements for constructive dismissal to be established, all three of which must be proved by the employee –

  1. The employee must have terminated the contract of employment, and 
  2. The reason for termination of the contract must be that continued employment has become intolerable for the employee, and
  3. It must have been the employee’s employer who had made continued employment intolerable.

Note that there is no constructive dismissal if an employee resigns for any other reason, for example “because he cannot stand working in a particular workplace or for a certain company and that is not due to any conduct on the part of the employer.”

And a test for “intolerability”

“Intolerability”, said the Court, “is a high threshold, far more than just a difficult, unpleasant or stressful working environment or employment conditions, or for that matter an obnoxious, rude and uncompromising superior who may treat employees badly. Put otherwise, intolerability entails an unendurable or agonising circumstance marked by the conduct of the employer that must have brought the employee’s tolerance to a breaking point.”

The case of the specialist fraud and risk investigator in a bullet proof vest
  • A specialist fraud and risk investigator resigned from his employment with a bank after 17 years’ service, then successfully referred an unfair dismissal dispute to the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration), claiming constructive dismissal.
  • Suffering health problems and involved in high-risk investigatory work which put his physical security at risk (hence no doubt his wearing a bullet-proof vest), he claimed to have been subjected to ongoing victimisation, bullying and harassment. His complaints included grievance disputes not being attended to, refusal of compassionate leave, poor work performance assessments, disciplinary and incapacity proceedings – the list goes on.
  • Finding on the facts that there was “an accretion of conduct creating an increasingly oppressive work relationship for [the employee], with no functioning mechanism available to halt the deterioration”, the Court held that the employer had made the employment relationship intolerable. The employee was entitled to regard his resignation as a constructive dismissal and, that dismissal being an unfair one, the Court confirmed the CCMA’s compensation award of ten months’ remuneration.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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