Factory supervisor who handed keys in and said ‘I’m done’ did not resign and was unfairly dismissed, tribunal rules

Judge said a ‘reasonable employer’ could not have considered the actions to be an ‘unambiguous’ resignation

A factory supervisor who handed in her keys in an “anxious state” and said she was “done” did not resign and was unfairly dismissed; a tribunal has ruled. 

The Birmingham tribunal ruled that the Claimant, Natalie Cope who was anxious after a colleague accused her of bullying and then her stoma bag leaked, was a victim of unfair and wrongful dismissal when Razzle Dazzle Costumes (RDC) took her leaving the workplace as a resignation. 

The tribunal found that RDC took the chance to dismiss Cope as her dispute with a colleague was “a troublesome situation”, and “grasped the opportunity” to determine that Cope resigned so they could keep the other colleague on – and that managing both parties was a “difficulty”. 

Claims of wrongful and unfair dismissal were successful, but a further claim of disability discrimination did not succeed.

Cope was employed as a factory/supervisor cutter on 8th January 2017 and the tribunal heard she had a “good working relationship” with Lorna Parker – now deceased – who owned the business with her husband Ken Parker.  It was found that the pair bonded as they were both undergoing medical treatment at the same time.

In the summer of 2021, the tribunal noted a colleague of Cope’s, Sam Riddell, resigned and accused Cope of being a bully after they fell out at work. On 31st August, RDC informed Cope of the accusations, and she denied bullying Riddell, adding that if she was made to work with Riddell she would “have to go on sick leave”.   Mr. Parker advised Cope to “remain professional” as they were both “assets” to the business, to which she agreed by saying she would be “supportive and stay committed to get through a difficult situation”. 

On 8 September, Cope requested a meeting with Mr and Mrs Parker and “threatened to resign” if the situation was “not sorted”. The tribunal heard that Mr. Parker reassured Cope he would “sort things out”, but Cope told the tribunal that at this time, she was “anxious” about the bullying allegations made against her by Riddell. 

The next day, Cope was said to be in an “anxious state” and “upset” about the situation with Riddell, so she called the office to speak to Mrs. Parker, but sales manager Keri Edwards told her that Parker was at a hospital appointment and unavailable.  This caused Cope’s anxiety to increase, and this was “intensified” by a leak to her stoma bag. She attended the office just before 1pm to ask if Parker had returned, and Edwards said she was “visibly upset”. 

The tribunal heard that Cope – who had three days holiday booked, starting the following day, and would often return her keys before going on annual leave – put her keys on the desk and said, “I’m done” with a hand gesture that indicated “she was finished”. 

Cope told the tribunal that her anxiety was “going through the roof” and that she was visibly shaking. She then hugged Edwards and left, which the tribunal said was “not a goodbye hug” but done because Cope was upset.  It pointed out that at no point did Cope say she was resigning or that she was not coming back to work and determined that it would have been apparent to Edwards that she was “very anxious and clearly upset”. It also said that RDC should have been “cautious to consider that [Cope] was terminating her employment by these words and actions”.   Edwards told Mr. Parker that Cope had resigned and the tribunal found that he did not check with her to see if that was correct. 

On 9th September Cope contacted Mrs. Parker by text to say “I couldn’t stay there any longer. My nerves are shot. Never in my whole life have I ever been made to feel like this”, which the tribunal determined to mean she couldn’t stay at work that day because of her “anxious state”. 

On 10th September, Cope told Mr and Mrs Parker she was going to submit a sick note – which she did for stress and anxiety until 24th September– and was still not asked if she had resigned. Mrs. Parker told Cope that Mr. Parker was dealing with the issue and Cope then requested a meeting. 

A meeting took place between Cope and the Parkers on 21st September, during which Cope apologised for leaving and requested that she return. Mr. Parker said that he and his wife believed she had resigned and the tribunal deduced the pair informed Cope that it would “cause problems” to take her back, as they had since taken Riddell back. The tribunal noted the submission of a sick note was “clearly incompatible with an employee who had resigned”. 

On 23rd September another meeting took place, the conclusion of which was that Cope would not be allowed to return to work. Cope was issued a letter at the meeting which said while she did not put her resignation in writing, her “intentions were very clear”. 

The tribunal said that while a resignation can be oral or by conduct, and does not need to be written, no “reasonable employer” could have considered Cope’s actions to be an “act of unambiguous resignation”, and that the hand gesture she used “added nothing to the words spoken” by an anxious Cope.  It also said that RDC relied on Edward’s claim that Cope had resigned and that her leaving in an upset way, was “insufficient” to conclude she had resigned – it also said they did not take the “simple step” of clarifying.

Employment Judge Wedderspoon said that on the balance of probabilities RDC “took the opportunity to dispense” with Cope as her dispute with Riddle was a “troublesome situation”.

The tribunal awarded Cope £7,448.96 which included notice pay, loss of earnings, a basic award and loss of statutory rights. 

Deborah Scales, senior solicitor at Clarkslegal, said this case should remind employers that it’s wise to allow a “cooling off period” to any employees who infer a resignation when emotions are running high. “There is no fixed amount of time for this cooling period as it will depend on all the circumstances and will ultimately be for a tribunal to decide what is reasonable,” said Scales. 

Meanwhile, Alexandra Mizzi, legal director at Howard Kennedy LLP, said employers need to “take care” when an employee appears to resign in the heat of the moment, especially if they do so in an ambiguous way. “ It’s often sensible in such cases to follow up in writing to confirm that the employee intended to resign,” said Mizzi. 

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