Author: Daniel A. Lublin
Having the terms of your job forcibly changed is usually taboo. But the tables are turned when advance warning is provided.
Most employees believe that their jobs can seldom be varied without their consent. As an Ontario judge recently confirmed, those employees are mistaken. If employees are preparing to cling to the letter of the terms of their contracts of employment, they must also be prepared to look for other work if a change is accompanied by appropriate notice.
Darrell Wronko believed that his consent was needed before his employer could significantly vary the terms of his contract. Just promoted, Wronko had agreed to a new contract containing a term that he would receive two years’ salary should he lose his job. Shortly after, however, a new company president was hired who believed that Wronko had negotiated a “sweetheart” deal. Wronko was asked to sign an altered contract that would pay him about 70 per cent less in the event that he was fired. Not surprisingly, Wronko declined to sign, believing that the company could only implement such a substantial change if it obtained his consent. In response, the president then sent Wronko a letter giving him exactly two years’ notice that the clause in his contract would be unilaterally amended.
When the two-year clock ran out, Wronko was told to either accept the revised contract or that there was no job for him anymore. Believing that such a change could not be imposed on him, Wronko treated the situation as though he had been terminated. But Wronko wasn’t terminated. The Court found that his employer had a right to vary the terms of his contract by providing him with sufficient notice – in this case, exactly two years.
The lessons for employees are clear:
If appropriate notice of a change is given, be prepared to accept the changes or begin to look for another job.
The period of notice needed for an employer to impose a significant change is the same amount of notice needed for an employer to terminate an employee. As Wronko had negotiated for a two-year severance package, the court deemed the two-year warning he received to be an appropriate amount of time. Anything less than two years would have led to a different result.
Employers can usually impose minor changes without having to provide any warning. However, each case must be assessed to determine how integral the change was to the employee’s job.
Take notes of important conversations. Although credibility was not a turning point in Wronko’s trial, the Court preferred his version of the events because he had made notes after disputed conversations. Therefore, where changes are orally imposed, having notes will improve the chances of having your version of the events believed.