Leaving in a Huff

HR managers are constrained when workers quit without notice

By Dana Wilkie Oct 1, 2013
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At many companies, employees are told they must give two weeks’ notice before leaving their job.

But is a notice of any kind required? And if someone walks out the door suddenly—leaving deadlines hanging and colleagues in the lurch—is there anything an HR professional can do?

Unless there’s an employee-signed contract allowing a company to withhold bonuses, paid vacation or other benefits from workers who don’t give a specified amount of notice, organizations can’t do much, HR experts and labor attorneys agreed. Even if there is a contract, some said, an employer’s actions may be constrained.

“There’s no legal obligation, barring an actual contract, for giving notice,” said Michael D. Haberman, a consultant at Georgia-based Omega HR Solutions Inc. “However, employers are within their rights to withhold things like vacation pay, sick pay or bonuses, depending on the state. According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, they only have to pay for time actually worked. However, state law, in some cases, does require that vacation that has been earned but not used does have to be paid out.”

Jon Hyman, a partner in the labor and employment practice at Ohio-based Kohrman Jackson & Krantz PLL, said many employees aren’t aware that the standard two weeks’ notice requirement is not binding. However, there may be internal policies that trigger what he called “reciprocal response.”

“For example, a policy says you, the employee, forfeit your accrued vacation time if you don’t give the company two weeks’ notice,” Hyman explained.

Competition Concerns

In some highly competitive industries it’s an unwritten rule that employees leave the day they resign or are fired. For instance, in sales, companies don’t want to give departing workers too much time to download sensitive information or to persuade customers to leave with them.

“I used to work in the hotel industry, and it was common to hire people who worked for other hotels and for people to leave us for [competitor] hotels,” recalled Sharlyn Lauby, president of Fort Lauderdale-based ITM Group, a management training company. “I never ran into an issue when a salesperson decided to resign and they were surprised that it would be their last day. Everyone handled it very professionally.”

Often, companies that do require employees to leave the day of a resignation or firing pay them for the ensuing two weeks. And some employers provide severance to make up for layoffs done on short notice.

Taking ‘Notice’ to a New Level

In a September 2013 interview with the New York Times, Kind Snacks CEO Daniel Lubetzky said he expects workers to give a minimum of two months’ notice before leaving. Those who report directly to Lubetzky must give two years’ notice.

“In exchange, I’m blindly loyal to” employees, he told the Times.

Lauby’s reaction? “This seems a bit lopsided to me.”

She pointed out that “if the company started experiencing financial losses and needed to do layoffs, I’m sure it wouldn’t wait two years before letting go of employees, right?”

Most employees work “at will”—meaning they can be fired at any time, for any reason—and it’s not uncommon for organizations to give workers no notice before letting them go. Some even give fired employees just a few minutes to clean out their desks, and then have security guards escort them out the door.

Experts acknowledged that it may seem unfair for companies to demand notice when they sometimes don’t extend the same courtesy.

“I understand that it’s in the best interest of the employer [who is firing employees] to have a break that is quick,” said Daniel Schwartz, a partner in the labor employment litigation practice of Connecticut-based Shipman & Goodwin LLP. At the same time, when it’s the employee initiating the break, the company “wants as much notice as possible.”

What’s Good for the Goose…

In some states, courts are requiring companies to extend the same “notice” to fired employees that they require of workers who decide to leave.

Of course, behaving brusquely may work against both employee and company.

“It’s such a morale killer when employees watch friends being escorted out by guards,” Hyman said. “That only makes sense if you think an employee’s dangerous or is going to download all the company secrets on their way out the door.”

For this reason, companies may want to reconsider policies requiring those who are laid off for business reasons, not “cause,” to leave the same day.

“There’s this misperception that when employees are let go, there will be seeds of discontent in the workplace, that they will talk badly about the company, not work hard, look for ways to undermine the company,” Hyman said. “But watching a friend who’s perceived as a good worker being walked out the door has a much better chance of being detrimental to the workplace.” 

By the same token, employees who quit abruptly risk damaging their professional reputation. When phoned for references, HR managers usually won’t divulge whether a worker left without notice, but word gets around, said Holly DePalma, director of HR services at Pennsylvania-based MidAtlantic Employers’ Association, a membership organization that provides workplace consulting services. 

“There’s too much liability in negatively trashing someone’s reputation” when HR managers are called about employees who have left abruptly, she said. “But I’m in Philadelphia, and this is a small town, and people talk.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM. ​

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