Could you sack a workforce by mistake by email?

08-05-2012 09:54

That is exactly what Aviva did when an exit email was delivered by mistake from its HR department to the entire workforce of Aviva Investors of more than 1300 employees.  The email was intended for one employee only.  It contained instructions to handover company property and security passes as they exited the building together with a reminder of their obligations not to misuse any confidential information about the company they were leaving.

Minutes later relived staff received a grovelling apology from HR for sending the blanket email.

So what is the legal position and possible consequences of a mistake such as that?

Well there are no statutory requirements as to the procedure of receiving notice of termination of employment. It is also rare to come across a contractual requirement that notice of termination has to be accepted with any special formality or in a particular way.

It is a common misconception that notice, particularly notice of resignation, is not valid unless it has been "accepted", or that a party can "refuse to accept" another party's notice of termination. This is not the case with the position at common law being that a notice, once validly given, is effective and can neither be "refused" by the recipient or "withdrawn" by the person giving it, without the other's agreement.

However, where the employer gives short notice in breach of contract, it will not be effective if the employee chooses not to accept it, although such cases will be rare in practice with majority of contracts of employment containing a payment in lieu of notice clause.

So, the worst case scenario for Aviva was that more than 1300 employees accepted their notice of termination which Aviva could not withdraw without their consent and all brought claims for unfair dismissal and for protective awards for failure to consult claiming 90 days pay each in addition to compensation for unfair dismissal…..ouch that split second mistake by HR could have been a very expensive and perhaps fatal mistake for AVIVA and highlights the fact that employers should be very careful when communicating a notice of dismissal and the method in which it is to be delivered.    

If you would like any more information on this topic or any other employment law issues, please contact Christina Merrington.

Go back