If you are terminated by your employer and:
 firstly, there is no “just cause” for your termination; and
 secondly, you do not have a written employment agreement or, if you do, there is no clause restricting you to only the statutory notice of termination required by the Employment Standards Act, 2000 of Ontario (the “ESA”) (or, if there is a such a clause, it is not enforceable against you – refer to the checklist in our earlier blog about this),
then, in addition to your statutory entitlements on termination under the ESA, you are likely entitled to “common law” reasonable notice of termination.
An employee’s termination entitlements at “common law” generally are significantly more than those required by the ESA.
“COMMON LAW” REASONABLE NOTICE - EXPLAINED:
Employment in Ontario is purely contractual between the employer and the employee. Employers can terminate employees at any time – they do not need a reason.
However, if they do terminate, the obligation of giving “reasonable notice” is imposed by the law of Ontario, both by the ESA and ‘judge-made’ law, subject to any written employment entered by the employer and the employee that varies or changes the general law of Ontario applicable to employment terminations.
Unless the employer and employee agree otherwise in their written employment agreement, the law in Ontario imposes an obligation on employers to give reasonable notice before terminating an employee generally. Either an employer must give this reasonable notice before terminating or, if they do not, they will have to pay to the employee an equivalent amount for that reasonable notice that was not given. Employees must give reasonable notice before resigning, too, but that notice is generally much shorter.
Generally, “common law” reasonable notice by employers is: (a) determined by the Court, often in wrongful termination lawsuits commenced by employees; and (b) determined based on multiple factors in each case, such as the employee’s age, position, responsibility, years of service, compensation received and ability to find alternative employment.
Effectively, an obligation to give reasonable notice is designed to lessen the impact of a termination, particularly for the employee. The employer has the opportunity to take the necessary steps to replace the employee and the employee can seek and obtain comparable, alternate employment.
If an employer terminates without providing reasonable notice, but had an obligation to do so, the employer has breached the parties’ employment relationship and will likely have to pay damages equivalent to the amount of reasonable notice that should have been provided to the employee.
These damages are commonly called “pay in lieu of notice” and are calculated based on all, or the global, compensation and benefits the employee would otherwise have earned had he or she actually continued to be employed during the reasonable notice period. Generally, this calculation will include salary, pension contributions, bonuses, commissions, equity grants, if any (such as stock options, etc.), corporate vehicle use and other taxable and non-taxable benefits, if they formed part of the employee’s regular and recurring compensation during employment.
These damages also incorporate and include the statutory notice required by the ESA. However, an employer must actually pay to the employee any statutory severance pay required by the ESA, by lump sum, based on a specific formula set out by the ESA, unless the employee agrees otherwise. In other words, the employer cannot satisfy its statutory severance pay obligation by giving notice of termination to the employee – rather, it must actually be paid.
There is no ‘golden rule’ to accurately predict the amount of reasonable notice for each case of termination. It is difficult to predict, often. Some lawyers use the ‘month-per-year’ rule of thumb, but that is not the law. Every case is different, generally, and must be analyzed based on the specific circumstances of the case. Generally, however, it is reasonably safe to assume that the longer the years of service, older the employee and more responsibility the employee had, the longer will be the reasonable notice period in the case.
Reasonable notice rarely exceeds two (2) years, but there are a few cases in which the Court exceeded this commonly accepted maximum for reasonable notice in Ontario.
Generally, an employee’s entitlement to reasonable notice will be dependent on that employee’s specific factors, all of which must be considered together in that particular case.
WHAT IS ‘WORKING NOTICE’?
If an employer decides to give reasonable notice of termination before terminating (i.e., during the relationship), it is commonly referred to as ‘working notice’. Employers often use ‘working notice’ to avoid paying an amount to the employee for reasonable notice after termination – it can significantly reduce the liability of the employer. This way, they derive more value, too, because the employee will continue to work for the employer during the reasonable notice period (as opposed to being terminated abruptly, in which case the employer will likely have to pay the equivalent amount for the reasonable notice that was not given to the employee).
During the working notice period, the employee continues to work ordinarily and the employer continues to pay the usual compensation and benefits – effectively, a status quo arrangement. The employer may progressively discipline the employee during the working notice period and, if proper “just cause” arises, may terminate the employee without compensation. Generally, the employee will be entitled to some time away from work, reasonably, for the purpose of searching for and obtaining alternative employment, such as attending job interviews, etc.
If the ‘working notice’ period is equal to or more than what the Court would determine to be reasonable notice of termination, the employer will not have to pay the employee terminated-related compensation when the working notice period ends. If the working notice is too short, the employer may still have to pay common law reasonable notice at the end of the working notice period. Every case has to be analyzed based on the specific circumstances.
CONCLUSION – HAVE A WRITTEN EMPLOYMENT AGREEMENT:
Most employers wish to avoid having to deal with “common law” reasonable notice – it is both unpredictable and very expense, especially if the employee sues the employer for wrongful termination alleging insufficient notice was given or paid to the employee.
In order to avoid the “common law” being applied to the employment relationship, there must be a written employment agreement properly entered by the parties before the relationship starts. If so, the employer can avoid the uncertain and potentially expensive outcome the common law may impose.
Therefore, from an employer’s perspective, at least, there should always be a written employment agreement entered, which clearly and simply outlines the employee’s entitlements in the event of a termination without cause, particularly if they may be less that what the “common law” may award to the employee. In addition to minimizing costs, enforceable termination provisions also offer more certainty to both parties if the relationship ends.