Like in all common law jurisdictions, relationships between employers and employees in Nigeria are primarily governed by their contracts of employment and any applicable employment laws for the time being in force. Contracts of employment would typically deal with issues such as nature of work, hours of work, emoluments, holidays, sickness, termination, notice period, disciplinary procedures, etc. Despite the provisions of the contracts, disputes still arise between the parties. Some of the issues that lead to disputes in employment include termination without notice, failure to follow laid down procedure/policies, non-payment of termination benefits, failure to give notice of termination, withholding or deduction of salaries, etc. When this happens, the aggrieved party mostly the employee would usually issue proceedings against the employer at the National Industrial Court after making demands of the employee. The court with exclusive jurisdiction to deal with employment disputes in Nigeria is the National Industrial Court.
Legal Considerations for Employers
Prior to any termination of employment, it is very expedient that employers carry out some house-keeping with respect to important issues that may arise in the course of termination. Importantly, some of the legal issues which employers are expected to consider in the termination of any employment contact can be categorized into pre-termination, during termination and post-termination.
The legal issues which employers should avert their minds to and effectively consider before the termination of the employment of an employee includes:
- Review of Employment Contract: Prior to terminating any employment, it is important for the employer to thoroughly review the terms and conditions of the employee’s engagement and familiarize themselves with the provisions of the contract. Particular attention should be paid to issues like notice period, payment in lieu of notice, outstanding benefits including bonuses, return of company assets, etc.
- Review of the Employment Laws: In addition to the review of the contract, employers should ensure they review the relevant laws governing their relationship and specific industry. Some local laws protect certain industries and it is important that any termination complies with the provisions of industry specific laws, like local content laws.
- Compliance with Company’s Policies: Most organizations would have company policies usually contained in the staff handbook. The handbook would typically deal with issues such as disciplinary procedure, warnings, suspensions, definition of (gross) misconduct, payment in lieu of notice and the like. It is very important that prior to any termination an employer familiarizes itself with these policies and ensure that due process is followed and that the letter and spirit of the policies are complied with.
- Disciplinary Hearing: Some terminations would be as a result of breach of company policy such as conflict of interest, insubordination, habitual lateness to work, misuse of employer’s resources, absence without authorization, etc. In such situations, employers are also expected to conduct disciplinary hearings for any employee that breaches any of the employer’s policies. The essence of the disciplinary hearing is to ensure that the employee is given the opportunity to explain themselves and for the employer to consider the next step of action which is either to accept the employee’s explanation, warn, suspend, or dismiss the employee. Whatever is the case, employers must ensure that they comply with their own laid down disciplinary procedure. Contemporaneous notes must be kept of the proceedings and any decision made during the disciplinary process must be in writing. Any person subjected to any such proceedings must be given a fair hearing. The courts are likely to find that the employee was not given a fair hearing if the laid down procedure was not followed.
Having followed some or all of the steps outlined above and satisfied that the employment should be terminated, it is important that the employer considers the issues discussed below during the termination process.
- Termination Letter: In the course of terminating employment employers are required to issue termination letter to the employee. The termination letter would inform the employee of the reason for the termination of the employment. If the termination was due to a breach of policy resulting in a disciplinary hearing, it is important to set out the allegations against the employee and the findings made as part of the termination process. The letter will also inform the employee whether or not the termination is immediate and without notice, the effective date of termination, any payments in lieu of notice, any accrued benefits, return of company assets, including ID cards, etc.
- Payments to the Employee: Further to the termination letter issued to the employee, the employer is required to pay any outstanding benefits including the salary of the employee for the period already worked. Except in cases of gross misconduct, in the event that, the termination is immediate, the employer is required to pay the employee’s the required salary in lieu of notice as set out in the contract. Other earned entitlements such as bonuses and allowances are also to be paid to the employee within reasonable time upon termination.
- International Best Practices: Employers have an obligation to ensure that every action taken with respect to the termination or dismissal of employees complies with international labour best practices. Over the years, the National Industrial Court of Nigeria has departed from mere compliance with local laws and provisions of contract and decided that the processes leading to the termination or dismissal of employees must comply with international labour best practices. For example, it used to be the practice in Nigeria to simply state in a termination letter that an employee’s services ‘were no longer required’. The NIC has held over several cases that an employer cannot now terminate the employment of an employee without stating the reason for such termination. It is therefore very important that employees look beyond the mere provisions of the contract of employment and local laws when considering terminations.
Despite following the above steps, an employee who is terminated could still be aggrieved by the termination and take steps to claim compensation after the termination. If this occurs, some of the steps to be taken by the employer are highlighted below.
1. Letter Before Action: It is usual for an employee who is dissatisfied by the termination of his employment to issue letter before action to his employer. This is usually done through the employee’s lawyers but it is not unusual for the employer to receive one directly from the employee. A letter before action would typically contain the purported ways in which the former employees say they are dissatisfied, proposed claims and demands of the employee and an ultimatum that the employer meets the demands of the employee within a particular time. It would usually end with a threat that if the demands are not met within the time stated, legal action shall commence.
2. Seek Legal Advice: An employer that has received a letter before action is expected to seek legal advice immediately with respect to the proposed claims and demands of the employee in order to determine how best to respond to the notice before legal action. It is best to proceed on the basis that legal action shall be commenced if there is no response by the employer within the time stated in the letter before action.
3. Respond to Notice before Legal Action: Having assessed the demands made in the letter before action and the all the processes leading up to the termination of the employment, the employer is expected to respond appropriately to the letter before action. There are several ways to respond to a letter before action. First, the employer could effectively respond by rejecting the claims and demands of the employee where employer is of the view that the termination has fully complied with the employee’s contract, the company policies and the law. The employer could also respond by paying the demands made in the letter before action in full or they could respond by making an offer or calculating what they say is the former employee’s entitlement following their termination. Whatever the case, the general advice is never to ignore a letter before action when received.
4. Legal Action: It could be the case that an employee commences legal action against his employer despite the employer’s response to the employee’s letter before legal action. The legal action by the employee will set out the case of the employee and his demands before the court. The employer is required to promptly seek legal assistance in defending the legal action commenced by the employee.
The relationship between employers and employees in Nigeria are mostly governed by their contracts of employment and the applicable employment laws. Employers are expected to have regard to some legal considerations before, during and post-termination of employments. Before the termination, employers are required to have adequately reviewed the contract of the employee, company’s policies and the law. It is also important that disciplinary hearing is conducted before termination where applicable.
During termination, the employer is required to issue termination letter which details the allegations and reasons for the termination. The employer is also required to make appropriate payments such as earned bonuses, salaries, payment in lieu of notice etc., to the employee. Employers are expected to go beyond the provisions of the contract and local laws and comply with international labour best practices. After termination, an aggrieved employee may issue letter before legal action to the employer. The employer is required respond to the letter before legal action. Finally, an aggrieved former employee may commence legal action at the National Industrial Court against the employer in which case the employer is required to seek legal assistance to defend the legal action.
Read the original publication at Goldsmiths.