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Approximately 1.2 billion Catholics woke up this week to the news that Pope Benedict XVI has given two weeks’ notice of resignation.  The Vatican Radio’s website reported the 85-year-old Pope said his health is the reason for the surprise announcement.

“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” he said. Given that it’s been almost 600 years since the last time a Pope quit, chances are good that this news took the Vatican by surprise.

The last Pope to stroll off into the sunset of retirement was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415.  The position will now be vacant until Benedict’s successor is chosen, likely in March, by a conclave of Cardinals (apparently those over the age of 80 need not apply for this role) casting secret ballots.

Benedict has given papal recognition to the legal premise that, like employers, employees must also give reasonable notice of their intention to terminate the employment relationship.  Whether the notice obligation is set out in an employment contract or not, a resigning employee faces legal consequences for abandoning employment without giving appropriate notice.

In some Canadian provinces, employment legislation dictates the notice requirement for resigning employees.  B.C.’s Employment Standards Act, on the other hand, contains no such requirement (the notice of termination obligations set out in Part 8 of the B.C. legislation apply only to employers, not employees).

In the absence of a contractual clause, employees still have a common law obligation to provide reasonable notice of resignation.  The employee’s notice obligation is intended to allow the employer a reasonable amount of time to arrange its affairs or find a substitute employee.

If the employee fails to provide reasonable working notice of resignation, the courts can award damages against the employee.  This is an extremely rare occurrence in Canada but, when the departing employee possessed specialized skills or left the employer in a very vulnerable situation, the employer could obtain significant damages for wrongful resignation.

It is good practice for both employers and employees to agree, in an employment contract, on the appropriate notice of resignation.  As with most other elements of the employment relationship, getting it in writing will likely avoid costly disputes later on.  The difficult question can be, when establishing the notice obligation in a contract, how lengthy should the notice period be?

For some reason there has developed a widely-held notion that two weeks’ notice of resignation is sufficient in most instances.  Where that came from is anybody’s guess (though it’s apparent Pope Benedict bought into the concept) because there is no accepted formula for notice.

In entry-level or unskilled positions two weeks’ notice may be sufficient but in most other responsible occupations (Pope?) the period should be lengthier.  Depending on the degree to which the position requires specialized skills, the employer could be facing a period of three to six months to find a replacement.

The important thing is for the employer to reasonably assess its circumstances, as well as those of the labour market in it shops, to estimate the time it will take to locate a replacement employee.  The outcome of that assessment should dictate the notice period which goes into the employment contract.

If there is no employment contract containing a resignation clause, the employee should examine the situation and provide ample notice to allow the employer a fair opportunity to manage the transition.  Most employees should provide notice of resignation, in writing, to their immediate boss.

Which raises the question, if you’re Pope, to whom do you address your letter of resignation?

Robert Smithson is a labour and employment lawyer, and operates Smithson Employment Law in Kelowna. For more information about his practice, or to subscribe to You Work Here, visit