Is it possible to quit a job without actually submitting a resignation letter?
The answer is yes, as a recent Nova Scotia Labour Board ruling underscores. In that case, a woman lost her claim for constructive dismissal over a toxic work environment created by the alleged passive-aggressive behaviour by her boss.
While she never submitted her resignation letter, she told the board she planned to quit, asked them to communicate through her lawyer and accepted (and started) a new job while finishing up her vacation entitlement.
The woman worked as a bookkeeper with Cornerstone Cape Breton Association – Strategies for Building Healthier Relationships. She started with Cornerstone in 1998 as an independent contractor working eight hours a week. Her job evolved and she eventually started working full-time hours.
About half of her time was spent as a bookkeeper with the balance spent on programming with the association’s clients. Her last day of work at Cornerstone was Sept. 10, 2018, and her last pay day was Oct. 19, 2018. She took a new job with Canada Immigration and Citizenship on Sept. 18, 2018, for an eight-month term at 35 hours per week.
She argued she was forced to resign, or was constructively dismissed, because of the toxic work environment created by her manager and co-worker that began in March 2018.
While she said the incidents in question may not look serious, cumulatively they were passive-aggressive and an attempt to devalue both her and her work.
Things went south following an incident in March involving TJ, an aggressive client. It was not so much the client’s behaviour, but the reaction of her boss, that affected her and the working relationship, she said.
The employer’s position
Cornerstone said the woman resigned in September 2018. She sent emails to the chair of the board of directors stating she intended to quit. It said there was no evidence she had changed her mind about resigning, and she advised that any further communication would be through her lawyer.
Further, she accepted a full-time job with another employer prior to her resignation emails, and she did not return to work nor make arrangements to do so.
Simply put, it was clear she resigned and therefore could not have been terminated, it said.
The toxic environment
There were a number of incidents the woman alleged that backed up her claim for constructive dismissal. They included:
- Missing Visa cards: She gave her boss Visa cards when she went on vacation. When she returned, the cards were gone. She said her boss did not appear concerned the cards were missing, despite Cornerstone’s limited funding. The company said the cards went missing, and it decided to cancel and re-issue the cards. Ultimately, they were found. Her boss said she did not hide the cards, and had no reason to do so.
- Locks changed in building: On Sept. 20, 2018, the woman spoke to the building manager for Cornerstone’s office. He told her the locks to the building had been changed on the company’s instructions. But Cornerstone explained that the locks had been changed for a simple reason: They discovered the key to the communal bathroom, shared by other tenants, opened all their doors. This was a security breach and new keys would have been provided to the worker once she returned from her sick leave.
- Missing keys: The woman said, when she returned from vacation at the end of July 2018, the filing cabinets were locked and the keys were in a safe. (Both her boss and a co-worker were on vacation when she returned.) She needed access to the cabinets to do her job. Her boss, though, said to her knowledge the keys were in the same place they always were. The company said there would be no purpose to hiding these keys to confuse the employee.
- Air conditioning: She said, during the week of July 23, 2018, she had no access to AC because the doors to the office were shut. That was done to exclude her from conversation, she said, and her co-workers barely spoke to her during this period. The company, though, said it offered her a personal AC unit, which she declined. The door was shut only because they thought she had left the office for the day and were having a meeting and wanted the room to be cooler. Upon hearing of the worker’s concerns, a new AC unit was ordered for her.
There were also issues around blocked emails, allegations of recorded conversations and how an agitated woman who entered the office was treated.
The aggressive client incident
In March 2018 a client, identified as TJ, arrived at Cornerstone without an appointment, the woman said.
She agreed to meet with him, and he started eating food with a knife. A co-worker brought him a fork and left the woman alone with TJ to continue the meeting while he attended another meeting.
TJ ultimately became aggressive and disrespectful with her and used inappropriate language before leaving. She was very upset, and said this client was large and known to be violent. She was within reach of the panic button at all times but did not use it. She was afraid of how he might respond.
Her boss was on vacation at the time, but they discussed what happened on her return. Her boss was aghast at the incident and attended a case management conference with her to address the issue and set a plan for the process moving forward. The boss asked her if she was satisfied with the outcome, and she said yes.
The incident was also addressed by the board of directors, and it decided to install security cameras and replace the panic buttons to improve response time. It also offered counselling to the woman.
The woman, though, said she was chastised after the board meeting for having met with TJ alone on the grounds it was not consistent with Cornerstone’s policies. She was also upset that her boss refused to tell her if the co-worker, who left her alone with TJ, was going to be held accountable for his role in the incident.
She said she did not feel respected during the discussions, and that her boss dismissed her suggestions on how to improve things as being too expensive. She also took issue with a letter, sent by her boss to the board, about all the “good work” she had done. That’s because she believed her boss described her co-worker’s work as “excellent.”
She also took exception to the installation of a camera outside the office with a monitor that allowed workers to see a client before granting them entry. She claimed she had not been told in advance about the camera being installed, even though she knew it had been planned.
She took sick leave from Sept. 10-17, 2018, and then vacation leave from Sept. 17, 2018, to Oct. 19, 2018. She sent an email to the board of directors on Sept. 14 stating that she was going to quit and would be seeking employment elsewhere.
She said she had retained a lawyer, but testified she never actually submitted her resignation letter and changed her mind. But she did not tell anyone at Cornerstone that she had changed her mind and advised that any future correspondence should go through her lawyer.
She admitted, at trial, she gave the company no reason to believe she was coming back.
On Sept. 17, 2018, she emailed the board of directors again to say she had her resignation letter ready and wanted to ensure he would receive it. She referred to her week of sick leave, and her intention to take five weeks’ accrued vacation beginning that day. Further, she asked for a date to be set when she could pick up her personal belongings.
The board responded, confirmed her vacation entitlement and said once she submitted her resignation letter they could arrange a time to pick up her belongings. She never did forward the resignation letter.
On Sept. 19, she wrote to the board and noted that her email access had been blocked and said her lawyer would be in touch the following week.
She was then hired by Citizenship and Immigration Canada for an eight-month term. She applied for the position in September 2018 and was offered the new position around Sept. 10. That was before her first email to the board about her planned resignation.
She did not mention her new job to the board, and instead made comments about having to apply for EI benefits.
The board ruled there was no question she resigned her employment, despite the fact she never forwarded a letter of resignation.
“The Board needs to consider that a valid resignation must have a subjective and an objective component, showing that (she) had the subjective intention of quitting, and that a reasonable person in the employer’s position would believe that she had carried out her subjective intention,” it said.
She never returned to work. She gave no reason for Cornerstone to believe she would ever return. During her leave, she applied for and accepted an offer to work for a different employer. She began working at this full-time job during her vacation leave period.
It found no evidence that her boss was acting in a passive-aggressive manner towards her.
“These disagreements, clouded by a perception of bad intentions on (her boss’) part, seem to have coloured several of the innocuous interactions between (her) and (her boss) from March to September 2018 with a negative brush,” the board said. “As a result, the complaints she raised in support of her position are unfounded or misrepresentative of the situation, and collectively, do not amount to a fundamental change in her employment or the creation of a toxic work environment.”
For more information, see Murray-Farrell v Cornerstone Cape Breton Association- Strategies for Building Healthier Relationships, 2022 NSLB 89 (CanLII)