Dismissing a short-term probationary employee can be a risky
proposition, with expensive consequences if not done properly.
Where just cause exists, the employee can be terminated with
minimal risk that compensation will be awarded. However, in
probationary employment, the decision to terminate is not always
based on just cause. Instead it may be based on other
considerations such as whether certain performance goals were met.
This article focuses on how to terminate without just cause.
Statutory notice period
The Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code provides minimum
standards for required notice when an employer terminates without
cause. Other provinces have similar legislation. Section 72 of the
Code sets out required notice periods based on the length of
employment, but there is no minimum notice period for an employee
whose length of employment is less than three months. The law
requires that an employer must notify the employee in writing and
on a date that is before the expiry of the three-month
The written notice must be addressed directly to the employee. In
Robichaud v. Austrian Inn Limited, 2013 NSLB 125, for
example, the labour board declined to recognize indirect notice.
The employer wanted to rely on a sign that had been posted in the
dining room as evidence of timely notice served to staff. The sign
informed all customers that the Inn was due to close on a certain
date. Even though it was posted where staff might have seen, it was
phrased as a thank-you to customers and did not address staff.
Therefore, the board found that notice was not given within the
three-month period (although it was also held that the employer had
done what it could to avoid the layoffs and the original decision
against the employer was set aside).
This three-month period cannot be extended by an employee's
unavailability. In Fish v. True North Diner, 2010 NSLST 2,
the employer missed the deadline because the server it wished to
terminate was on vacation at the time and could not be reached. The
Tribunal, interpreting the exemption strictly, rejected that
Common law dismissal
Despite the fact that compensation is not required by statute
within the three-month period, it may still be required under
common law. This can result in disproportionate notice periods for
short-term employees. For example, in Deacon v. Moxey,
2013 CanLII 54099 (ON SCSM), a sales employee who was employed for
only two weeks was awarded six and a half weeks of notice.
Regarding the effect of statutory minimums, the court in Deacon
v. Moxey stated:
[T]he Act does not confer on employers a general
right to terminate, without notice, the employment of any employee
whose employment has not yet reached three-months' duration.
The Act establishes certain minimum employment standards.
The Act does not codify the common law governing
An employment contract must be sufficiently explicit that the
employee is probationary. If it is not, common-law notice may still
result. In Lura v. Jazz Forest Products (2004) Ltd., 2014
BCPC 247, the defendant's argument that the claimant was a
probationary employee failed because his alleged probationary
status was not clearly spelled out in the employment
Courts have increased common law damages when the employee was
lured away from stable employment or other business enterprises. In
Taggart v. K.D.N. Distribution & Warehousing Ltd, 1997
CanLII 14952 (NSSC), the plaintiff's offer letter contained no
reference to a probationary period and, when he was terminated,
there was no reference to the fact that he had been a probationary
employee. The court refused to find that he had been on probation
when he was dismissed and awarded six months' notice.
What this means for employers
There are certain actions an employer can take to mitigate the
risks identified above:
Ensure there is an express reference to probationary status
within the employment contract, including a timeline and the
requirement to demonstrate an ability to meet standards of
Consistently reinforce evaluative criteria during the
Terminate in a good faith manner.
Terminate by direct notice to an employee in writing within the
applicable labour standards exemption period (often three
If dismissing a probationary employee, ensure that the
probationary employee's status is made clear in the termination
With awareness of the associated risks and good and timely legal
advice, an employer may be able to use the probationary period as
it is intended; that is, as a way to determine whether the new
employee will be the right fit and, if not, to end the relationship
on a timely and less expensive basis.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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