Special Feature on Constructive Dismissal Part 2: Why HR Practitioners Must Be Savvy of the Contracts Act 1950

Image

The law of contract is very much embedded in the doctrine of constructive dismissal. In Malaysia, a big chunk of the body of principles of contract law is put into statutory form in the Contracts Act 1950.

Every HR practitioner must be familiar with the landmark case of Wong Chee Hong v Cathay Organisation [1988] 1 MLJ 92, which laid down the principle that in cases of constructive dismissal the test that ought to be applied is the “contract test”.  It is basically to establish if the employer is guilty of a breach of a term or condition of the employment contract that goes right down to the root of contract.

The contract test means that the complaint of constructive dismissal will only succeed where the employee is able to prove that the employer was guilty of conduct which was repudiatory or in fundamental breach of the contract and that the employee treated himself as discharged following the breach. A modern case on point would be Anwar Abdul Rahim b Bayer (M) Sdn Bhd [1988] 2 CLJ 197.

Constructive dismissal has been referred to as “a doctrine that gives life to an employee who has been dismissed without just cause or excuse”, as per Dato’ Abdul Malik Ishak J in Moo Ng v Kiwi Products Sdn Bhd, Johor & Anor [1998] 3 CLJ 475:

“It is a doctrine that gives life to an employee who has been dismissed without just cause or excuse… This doctrine hinges on the contract test as elucidated by Lord Denning in Western Excavating (ECC) Ltd v Sharp [1978] IRLR 27. In a broad sense constructive dismissal occurs when an employee repudiates a contract of employment. The repudiation may take the form of a breach, anticipatory breach or notice on intention. It may be expressed or implied and must go to the substance of the contract. If an employee asserts that he has been constructively dismissed, he must establish that there has been conduct on the part of the employer which breaches an express or implied term of the contract of employment going to the very root of the contract.”

The onus of proving constructive dismissal lies with the employee. The employee has to prove on a balance of probabilities that:-

  1. The employer’s conduct amounted to a breach of contract which entitled the employee to resign; and
  2. Whether the employee made up his mind and acted at the appropriate point in time soon after the conduct which he complained of had taken place.

The employer’s defence, therefore, has to bear in mind these two limbs of the employee’s burden of proof. Employers must take advantage of the power conferred by contract law that even if there is a breach by the employer, it does not necessarily amount to sufficient cause for constructive dismissal unless the breach goes to the root of the contract and, if affirmative, whether the breach was a fundamental one.

Since the doctrine of constructive dismissal pivots on contract law, it would augur well for HR practitioners to expand their vista on the subject by a deeper understanding of contractual principles and statutory provisions.  In court, every constructive dismissal case is decided on it merits in accordance with contractual principles, and in today’s dynamic workplace environment, understanding the nuances of a constructive dismissal claim is essential to the practice of HR. An employer’s good intentions in making changes to an employee’s condition of employment will be irrelevant unless the court implies a term into the contract that the employer can “reasonably” alter the terms of employment. As an anticipatory measure, employment contracts must be carefully worded, and to this aim HR practitioners must be shrewd as to the yesses and nos of the Contracts Act 1950 in addition to the prevailing employment legislation in order to safeguard the employer from potential claims for breach of contract. When a claim is made, HR practitioners need to step out of their administrative role into that of an employment law advisor to the organisation’s top management in order to contrive the correct defence mechanism.

Advertisements

Special Feature on Constructive Dismissal Part 1: Juicing the Turnip: Mediation and Mediative Methods of Managing Constructive Dismissal

CD

Staring this week, we shall feature a four-part series on constructive dismissal.

The series is aimed at informing the public in general, and new HR practitioners in particular, about the doctrine of constructive dismissal.

Note that this series, as with our other blog entries, are merely intended as as general information and not meant as legal advisory.

In the context of constructive dismissal in Malaysia, there is a provision for a conciliation process under S.20 of the Industrial Relations Act1967 to resolve the matters between the employee and the employer. Only after this has failed will the matter be referred to the Minister of Human Resources who will decide whether the case should be heard by the Industrial Court.

Parties involved in a constructive dismissal dispute are encouraged to enter into mediation with the intention of reaching a consensual settlement. In mediation, the mediator controls the processes through the stages of introduction, joint sessions, caucus and agreement, while parties control the outcome. The mediator merely assists in identifying and articulating parties’ interests, priorities and intentions.

Mediation is intended to reduce the backlog of cases before the Industrial Court and promote a speedy resolution to the dispute. The advantages of mediation as opposed to litigation are apparent. The mediation process takes up less time than the settlement of a court case and a successful mediation procedure may minimise the financial exposure of both parties.

We are of the view that organisations can adopt “mediation” strategies which forestall potential constructive dismissal claims even before employees have a chance at thinking them up.

Generally, being procedurally fair and compliant to statutory provisions relating to disciplinary sanctions will go a long way. Having an open, transparent and honest two-way communication with employees via meetings or townhalls about the state of the business especially if a laying-off exercise is unavoidable can help minimise the risk of potential claims for both constructive and unfair dismissals. Seeking employee consent and “buy-in” of new policies prior to implementation will take the mutual  trust and confidence factor between employer and employee to a different level, not to mention acting as a contractual safeguard for the employer. Employees who are not kept in the dark will be more inclined to accept the employer’s decision, even though they may not necessarily agree with it.

When it comes to performance issues of individual employees, the ploys may be a little painstaking but the result is well worth it. Explain what the employee has done wrong and provide constructive criticism. Set clear and genuine performance targets, meet the underperformer to discuss the problem, and then devise a potential solution with them. Following this, clear performance goals should then be set and implemented with dates agreed for a follow-up meeting to discuss whether the proposed solution has been working.

This “target-setting” approach may have to be repeated several times before the employer can decide to let the employee go.

To help the process along, employers may issue a warning for  underperformance, as well as cases of misconduct. Legally, a warning is not a precursor to dismissal, however, allegations about misconduct or underperformance should be made out clearly and in full to the employee. The employee then needs to be given a chance to respond, even if the employer is planning to dismiss them. Employers also need to genuinely consider their response.

Dismissing employees is something that cannot be hastily done.  The way an organisation conducts the dismissal may have an impact on whether the employee takes legal action. Give ample notice, pay the required amount of compensation and offer to help them find another job where possible. The whole thing must be carried out in the most professional and non-vindictive of demeanours in order to get the best of the situation and avoid the worst.

And finally, we like the judgement of Farley J in the 1993 case of Standard Trustco Ltd.:

“… you cannot get blood from a stone but you can get some juice from a turnip if it is squeezed the right way.”