How are an employer’s words which are ambiguous to be interpreted?*
This issue arose in case ADJ00017746 where the Adjudication Officer quoted the case of Devaney –v- DNT Distribution Company Limited UD412/1993 where the EAT set out the following objective test.
“Where words are genuinely ambiguous what needs to be decided is what the speaker intended? Did the employer mean to bring the contract to an end? In answering this question, what needs to be considered is how a reasonable employee in all the circumstances would have understood the employer’s intention. We find, having regard to the relationship that existed between the parties prior to the termination and the claimants evidence that (the Director of the respondent company) often expressed his feelings in very strong language, that the words uttered by him in an angry mood did not amount to a dismissal and were never intended as such”.
The Adjudication Officer in this case held that an objective assessment is therefore required to determine whether the employer intended to bring an employment contract to an end and how a reasonable employee in all the circumstances would have understood that intention.
Again this is a helpful decision by an Adjudication Officer dealing with cases which can be sometimes unclear as to what an employer meant and what an employee thought it meant.
For employers it sets out the dangers at times of saying something when it may be better to hold off and deal with matters by way of correspondence in a cool and clear way.
*Before acting or refraining from acting on anything in this guide, legal advice should be sought from a solicitor.
**In contentious cases, a solicitor may not charge fees or expenses as a portion or percentage of any award of settlement.