Many employees would be skeptical about signing undated letters of resignation, especially in the light of recent developments. Perhaps employers should likewise be cautious about using those letters because they could find themselves breaching an employment contract or facing a claim of unjustifiable dismissal.
The practice of using undated resignation letters might have been followed routinely in political circles until the recent judgment of the Supreme Court stirred up the hornet’s nest. In a landmark decision, the Court ruled that the leader of the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party (“JLP”) the Hon. Andrew Holness acted unconstitutionally, unlawfully and contrary to public policy when he procured pre-signed and undated letters from the then (and maybe still current) senators Arthur Williams and Christopher Tufton. The letters were signed at the time of the senators’ appointment and were later used by the Opposition Leader to effect their resignation. In its judgment, the Court expressed concern that this practice had the potential to interfere with the senator’s freedoms of thought, conscience, expression and association guaranteed by the Constitution because the letters were procured for the specific purpose of ensuring that the senators would abide by the official view of the JLP on the Caribbean Court of Justice.
The political sphere is but one context in which pre-signed undated letters of resignation are used. Prospective employees of corporate entities might be and sometimes are asked to sign similar letters at the beginning or during the course of their employment. In the ordinary course of things, such a practice would not rise to the level of a constitutional claim given the usually private commercial nature. So what exactly is the legal effect of such letters when procured in the normal setting of an employer-employee relationship?
Depending on the different scenarios, the answers might vary.
Pre-signed undated letters of resignation will be void and of no effect if signed under compulsion or duress. In 2000, the Malaysian High Court had to decide whether undated resignation letters signed by a director upon his appointment to a company was valid to effect his resignation. That Court found that as a matter of law resignation under compulsion is no resignation. It concluded that where a person is required to sign an undated letter as a condition for appointment as a director, the only inference that could be drawn is that it was signed under compulsion or duress. It appears from this case and from general employment law principles that such letters cannot be valid to effect any resignation unless they reflect the present unforced intention of an employee to resign.