Quitting by text, ghosting and walking out – what are the legal implications?

With quiet quitting on the rise, People Management asks experts about the consequences of employees resigning in this way and how to prevent it

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UK office workers are ‘quietly quitting’ their jobs for better prospects elsewhere, using methods such as ‘ghosting’, texting their resignation or simply walking out of the workplace, a survey has revealed.

The instantprint study of 1,000 UK employees found that 15 per cent of workers have declared their resignation by ghosting – the act of ceasing all contact and ignoring communication.

The data revealed that just under half (47 per cent) had quit via text, email or voicemail, just under a third (29 per cent) had walked out and 28 per cent admitted to purposefully underperforming at work.

Widely associated with employee burnout, the idea of quiet quitting – where employees become disengaged from work and do the bare minimum of their duties –  has attracted a flurry of attention, and the term has seen its popularity boosted after a plethora of viral videos on TikTok.

To avoid employees quitting in this way and keep them engaged, Ranjit Dhindsa, head of employment at Fieldfisher, says it is both an organisational and a leadership challenge. She says managers and leaders should adopt a “ flexible style that recognises the differences of the people they manage”, noting that “everyone is different and imposing standard rules and processes does not create long-term engagement and can lead to resignations”.

But what are the legal considerations for employers that are left without a formal resignation, or dealing with quiet quitters? People Management consults with experts to discover the consequences of these actions, and what measures organisations can take to prevent them from occurring.

Legal considerations

Richard Kenyon, partner at Fieldfisher, says anyone who leaves their job without giving notice – for example, someone who only sends a text to say they quit – is in breach of their contract of employment. As a result, the employer cannot insist that the employee serves out their notice because it is not possible to obtain specific performance of an employment contract. The employer’s lawful course of action, he suggests, would be to seek damages if it can demonstrate any monetary losses caused by the violation. But, “such losses may be difficult to identify and relatively small, especially faced with how time consuming a legal process could be", he adds.

Similarly, Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, says when an employee leaves without giving any notice, this can put the business in a difficult position and they may struggle to cover the employee’s duties. Being short staffed without notice increases the pressures on colleagues who may have to take on extra responsibilities.

If this occurs, Palmer says the first step is to check the employee’s contract to see if there is any contractual right to deduct money from their final pay cheque for the additional cost of covering their duties. “You may be able to pursue a breach of contract claim against them through the civil courts,” she notes, but says that, before doing this, it is important to weigh up whether or not it would be worthwhile.

However, Pam Loch, employment law solicitor and managing director of Loch Associates Group, explains that, when faced with a ghosting situation, it is crucial that employers do not “jump to conclusions”, and in the first instance should consider the incident an unauthorised absence, until it can be established why the employee is not at work.

She also advises employers to be aware of “heat of the moment quitting”, which occurs when an employee decides to quit and leaves but then changes their mind, and says organisations should be careful to consider if the employee who has walked out did so because they have a “protected characteristic”, such as childcare concerns or a disability, which may have led to their conduct. “Where there is a disability, the Equality Act 2010 places an obligation on employers to make reasonable adjustments so an employer may have to consider taking a different approach to the situation,” she says.

Preventing and managing quiet quitters 

Lisa Seagroatt, managing director of HR Fit for Purpose, says it is important for businesses to understand the psychology of ghosting. An employee halting communication typically means avoiding conflict with the boss, so, she says, as an employer you should be asking why – was the workplace tense? Was there a breach between the employee and employer previously, which would suggest a bad work environment? If that is the case, says Seagroatt, the employee may have just “switched off”.

She adds that, in her experience, people frequently leave jobs because they do not like change and are content with the “status quo”, which makes them more likely to disengage and do the bare minimum until they leave, frequently having a negative impact on their former co-workers. “Managing any employee with this type of attitude isn’t easy, but it’s important to work openly and consistently with them if you can; this may include using a more formal approach to facilitate improvement if that’s possible,” says Seagroatt.

No-shows, ghosting and sub-par work, according to Steve Herbert, wellbeing and benefits director at Partners&, have always been “a feature of the workplace and doubtless always will be”.

“Such actions will usually mean that the employer/employee relationship is already past the point of no return and employers should therefore not expend too much time or energy on the departing employee,” he says.

However, Herbert argues that the business should try to support and engage the remaining staff to “avoid one unfortunate department becoming a steady flow of departing talent”.

When asked if she had experienced ghosting or an employee walkout, Gemma Dale, lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, says that when she worked in operational HR there had been instances when staff members just stopped showing up for work, leaving their employer “unclear” about their intentions. “On an entirely practical level, organisations should not simply assume that an employee has resigned and should take appropriate steps to contact the individual and follow a due process to end employment if applicable,” says Dale.

But she adds that “employers should carefully consider what might be occurring in the working environment that is leaving employees so dissatisfied or disengaged that they would deliberately underperform or leave without notice”. If it happens frequently, it is likely to be “indicative of a deeper problem”, she says.