A successful claim for Constructive Dismissal against an employer can be an extremely costly penalty, and not just in financial terms. Following on from the need for a solid grievance policy, as well as dealing with harassment and victimisation quickly and fairly, it is important to take note of the very real threat of facing a claim for Constructive Dismissal.
Constructive dismissal, according to Sections 186 (1)(e) and 193 of the Labour Relations Act (LRA), is when “an employee terminates a contract of employment with or without notice because the employer made continued employment intolerable for the employee”. In other words, the employee felt that, due to the environment created by the employer s/he had no other option but to resign.
This does not mean that any situation with which an employee is unhappy would be eligible to be deemed a basis for Constructive Dismissal. Common complaints about aspects of their work, their employer, or their duties and tasks does not automatically mean that it has become intolerable for the employee to continue employment. For a Constructive Dismissal to occur, the intolerable circumstances must have been created by the employer due to which the employee feels the only recourse left to them is to resign. Complaints and grievances that are considered valid to be deemed intolerable include (but are not limited to) assault, sexual harassment, victimisation, or harassment. Many of these complaints potentially have separate claims but can also form the basis for a claim of Constructive Dismissal.
For a claim of a Constructive Dismissal to be successful, the employee will have to prove to the Commissioner that there were no ulterior motives behind his/her resignation, in other words, that but for the intolerable circumstances being alleged, the employee would have remained in the employ of the employer indefinitely.
The Commissioner will look for the following five elements to prove a Constructive Dismissal:
- The circumstances at work were so intolerable that the employee could not continue.
- No reasonable alternative was available to the employee at the time and resignation was the only way the employee could escape the circumstances.
- The intolerable circumstances were the reason the employee resigned.
- The employer caused the intolerable working situation.
- The employer was in control of the intolerable working situation.
Ideally, any serious grievance an employee lodges should be resolved in a fair and equitable manner within the company. It is difficult for employees to prove Constructive Dismissal at the CCMA if they had not exhausted all internal procedures, where it is a reasonable option. By example, it would not be considered reasonable for an employee to lodge a serious grievance, such as sexual harassment, where the employee is employed in a small business and the alleged harasser is the employer.
A company that does not have a grievance procedure or internal complaints policy, could find themselves in jeopardy as an affected employee could cite this as a reason that they had no other options available to them to resolve the conflict, and resigned to escape the situation. This again emphasises the necessity for an established and robust company grievance policy, and the need for a Human Resource support structure or agency, and employers are strongly advised to implement such measures.