What your employment contract says
A key factor affecting your rights when you’re leaving a job is your employment contract. It may include terms that deal with how your employment can be ended. (Note there’s always an employment contract between a worker and an employer, even if nothing is in writing.)
Many employment contracts set out how much notice you must give to the employer if you quit.
Make sure you’re aware of any term in your contract that might limit your future activities. For example, a non-compete clause that tries to limit your ability to take a similar job. Or a non-solicitation clause that tries to prevent you from recruiting customers from your current job. Terms like these may or may not be enforceable — the more restrictive they are, the less courts are willing to enforce them. Still, you want to be clear-eyed about whether you are risking a legal battle.
The law actually presumes a non-compete clause to be unenforceable. The burden is on the employer to prove the restriction is needed to protect a real business interest of theirs. As well, the employer has to show the restriction is reasonable in terms of its time period, geographic area covered, nature of activities prohibited, and overall fairness. And that the restriction is clear, certain, and not vague.
You must give notice if you quit
If you quit your job, you have a legal obligation to tell your employer ahead of time. The main purpose of the notice is to give the employer a reasonable time to adjust to your departure.
The amount of notice to give
Your employment contract may set out how much notice you need to provide.
If not, the amount of notice must be reasonable in the circumstances. The factors in play include the duties and responsibilities you have, how long you’ve been in the job, and the time it would reasonably take the employer to have others handle your work or to hire a replacement.
For more junior workers, two weeks’ notice is common. For workers with a lot of responsibility, four weeks’ notice is more typical. However, these are only general guidelines.
Giving plenty of notice is recommended if you want your employer to give you a good reference when you apply for a new job.
How you give notice
The best way to tell your employer you quit is to give them a letter of resignation. To be effective, your resignation must be clear and have an end date. Your employer should have no doubt about your intention to quit. Uttering the words “I quit!” as part of an emotional outburst is not enough.
If you give your employer notice
When you tell your employer that you quit, your employer can accept or refuse.
If they accept, you’ll continue to earn your regular wage until your last day of work.
If your employer refuses (and says “take your things and go home, you’re done here”), they must pay you compensation. They must pay you for the amount of notice you have given. Or if your legal entitlement to notice on dismissal is a shorter period, they can pay you for that shorter period. (See our information on how much notice an employer needs to give.)
Your employer must pay any outstanding wages
Regardless of whether you notify your employer ahead of time that you’re quitting, your employer must pay all wages owed to you through your last day of work. This includes annual vacation pay, statutory holiday pay, and overtime.
If you’re covered by employment standards law, your employer must pay your outstanding wages within six days of your last day of work.
Your eligibility for Employment Insurance benefits
If you quit your job, you will usually not be eligible to receive Employment Insurance (EI) benefits. The exception to this rule is if you had no other reasonable choice except to leave your job. Some examples are:
- you experienced sexual or other harassment
- you experienced discrimination
- your working conditions were unsafe
- you needed to move with a spouse or dependent child to another place of residence
- your employer made major changes to your work duties or pay
When you apply for EI, you will have to describe your situation and explain what steps you took to fix the problem before you quit. If you convince EI you had no other reasonable choice but to quit, you may be eligible to receive EI benefits. See the federal government’s website for more on eligibility for EI if you quit.
If you didn’t quit voluntarily, but were “constructively dismissed”
Sometimes a worker who quits their job doesn’t truly leave the job voluntarily. They may be reacting to a form of veiled dismissal. Instead of saying “you’re fired!”, an employer might do something more subtle that causes you to feel like you have no reasonable choice but to quit. It might be an unexpected demotion. Or a significant reduction in hours or pay. If so, you may have experienced a constructive dismissal.
This applies when your employer does something that:
- changes a key aspect of your employment in a major way, and
- isn't something they're allowed to do under your employment contract, and
- you don’t agree to or accept.
If you’ve been constructively dismissed, you have the same rights as someone who was fired without cause. That includes the right to notice (or pay instead). For more, see our information on when your job changes in a big way.