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Employee who handed in her keys and said "I'm done" did not resign

As a general rule, if an employee resigns using clear and unambiguous language, their employer is entitled to take it at face value. The courts, however, recognise that there may be circumstances where it is appropriate to investigate the context in which the words were spoken in order to ascertain what was really intended and understood. And, of course, if the words themselves are ambiguous, employers must find out whether the employee intended to resign before taking any further action. 

In Cope v Razzle Dazzle Costumes Ltd, the tribunal had to determine if an employer had jumped the gun when it decided to treat the words "I'm done" as a resignation.


Mrs Cope worked on the factory floor in a small manufacturing business run by a husband and wife team, Mr and Mrs Parker. She fell out with one of her co-workers (Sam) who resigned and accused her of bullying. Mrs Cope denied the allegations and said that if she had to continue to work with Sam (presumably during his notice period) she would go on sick leave. The owners told her that she had to behave professionally towards Sam and that they were both "assets" of the business.

Mrs Cope asked for a meeting to discuss the situation and said that she would resign if things were not sorted out. The next day she asked to speak to Mrs Parker and was informed that she was out of the office attending a hospital appointment. Mrs Cope's feelings of anxiety were exacerbated by the fact that her stoma bag had leaked. She returned to the office hoping to speak to Mrs Parker (who was aware of her medical condition), and was told that she hadn't yet returned to work. At that point Mrs Cope left her factory keys on the counter, said "I'm done" and walked out of the building. 

That colleague believed that Mrs Cope had resigned and informed the owners of this. Mr and Mrs Parker accepted that interpretation and didn't speak to Mrs Cope to clarify the situation despite the fact that they had received a text from her later which explained why she had walked out:  “..sorry to bother you at home. I couldn’t wait earlier to speak to you I tried but 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.”

The following day, Mrs Cope submitted a two week sick note complaining of 'stress and anxiety'. A week or so later, she asked for a meeting with the owners which took place. They refused to let Mrs Cope return to work on the basis that she had resigned and they had accepted her resignation. She brought a number of claims against them including unfair dismissal and wrongful dismissal.


Mrs Cope won both claims.

The tribunal acknowledged that a resignation doesn't have to be in writing and can be made using words or by conduct. But, it decided that no reasonable employer would have taken the view that Mrs Cope had unambiguously resigned in these circumstances - particularly given the fact that her words and actions had been made when she was in a highly anxious state. She had not used the words "resign" and her subsequent behaviour (including submitting the sick note) was inconsistent with someone who had resigned. 

The tribunal held that the employers took the opportunity to get rid of Mrs Cope because her dispute with Sam was disrupting the business. It awarded her compensation of £7,448.96 which included notice pay, loss of earnings and a basic award. 

Tips for other employers

1. Unless there is a clause in an employee's contract of employment requiring them to give you written notice, they can resign verbally. 

2. If an employee gives only oral notice, check the contract of employment and, if it requires the employee to give written notice, ask them to do so. The notice period will not usually start to run until the employee has given you written notice. 

3. If you are in any doubt about whether someone has resigned, ask them to confirm their intentions before treating their employment as coming to an end.

4. Don't act too hastily if an employee resigns in the heat of the moment, in temper, or under extreme pressure. Write to the employee and ask if they intended to resign and give them a limited deadline to respond (a day or two should be sufficient). 

5. If your employee has resigned in clear and unambiguous terms and there are no special circumstances (such as those set out in 4 above), you do not need to give them a 'cooling off period'. You can confirm their resignation immediately and, they will only be able to retract it if you agree. 

6. Provided an employee has complied with their contractual terms regarding giving notice, their resignation will be effective even if you refuse to agree to it. 

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