Employment Termination Notice Periods – Are They Enforceable?

There was an article a few months ago on HR Daily Advisor about what to do if an employee quits their job without giving any prior notice.  In the absence of a written agreement to the contrary, there is no requirement that either an employer or employee give prior notice of their intention to terminate the employment relationship.  That is the basic meaning of “at will” employment.  Either side can terminate the relationship at any time for any or no reason (as long as the reason is not one prohibited by law).

As the article points out, when an employee quits without notice, it can cause many problems for the employer, some of which may result in extra expense.  When I prepare employment agreements for my clients, I always ask if they want to require the employee to provide prior notice before they can terminate their employment.  Having such notice can allow for a smoother transition by giving the employer time to find a replacement, or reallocate duties among the remaining employees if no replacement will be made, before the employee leaves.  For those employees who are in sales and have significant customer contact, it can give the employer time to contact the customers who will be effected and introduce them to another contact person at the employer.  This will give the employer a better chance of maintaining the customer relationship after the employee leaves.

So what are an employer’s options if an employee quits working without providing the contractually required prior notice?  While that would be a breach of contract by the employee, the employer’s options are limited.  The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Georgia law prohibits forcing the employee to continue working during the required notice period.  However, the employer would have a cause of action against the employee for any expenses it incurred as a direct result of not being given the required prior notice and may be able to use the employee’s breach of contract to avoid paying any compensation that would otherwise be due the employee after the termination of their employment (e.g., bonus or severance pay).  This does not extend to withholding payment of compensation for work that has already been done.  The proverbial “last paycheck” should not, as a general rule, be withheld from the employee, as the employer would risk violating the Fair Labor Standards Act and related Georgia laws.

An employee who fails to give the required notice can still be considered an employee of the employer during the required notice period.  As such, they will have a duty not to do anything that would be harmful to the interests of the employer.  This duty can be used by the employer as a basis to prevent sales employees or others who have significant customer contact from contacting its customers during the notice period or to sue such employees who do act contrary to the employer’s interests during that period.  It is generally easier to prove a violation of this duty than of a non-solicitation or non-disclosure covenant.  However, to make use of this duty, the employer must be willing to pay the employee their normal compensation for the notice period.

While an employer’s options for dealing with an employee who does not give the required prior notice of termination are limited, the existence of such a requirement can be helpful to the employer in the vast majority of cases where employees abide by the requirement.

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