Contracts can be changed with notice

Having the terms of your job forcibly changed is usually taboo. However, the tables are turned when advance warning is provided.

Most employees believe their jobs can seldom be varied without their consent but, as an Ontario judge recently confirmed, this is not the case. If employees insist on clinging to the letter of the terms of their employment contracts, they must also be prepared to look for other work if a change is accompanied by appropriate notice.

Darrell Wronko, 42, believed his consent was needed before his employer could significantly vary the terms of his contract. With his latest promotion after 18 years of service, Wronko had agreed to a new contract containing a stipulation he would receive two years’ salary should he lose his job. Shortly after, however, a new company president was hired who believed 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 he was fired. Not surprisingly, Wronko declined to sign, believing the company could only implement such a substantial change if it obtained his consent. In response, the president 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 accept the revised contract or there was no job for him anymore. Believing such a change could not be imposed on him, Wronko treated the situation as though he had been terminated. However, this was not the action his employer had taken. The court found 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 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 is to the employee’s job.

In addition, employers should always 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 the employer’s version of the events believed.

For more information see:

Wronko v. Western Inventory Service Ltd. (Oct. 11, 2006), Docket 04-CV-276690CM1 (Ont. S.C.J.).

Daniel Lublin is a Toronto employment lawyer, specializing in the law of wrongful dismissal. He can be reached at [email protected].

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