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Can You Legally Require Employees to Give 2 Weeks' Notice?

Donna Fuscaldo
Donna Fuscaldo

Two-week notice may not be a law but there are ways to encourage employees to follow that best practice.

  • Two weeks' notice isn't a legal requirement but is common practice when leaving a job.  
  • There are state laws governing final paychecks and accrued paid time off.  
  • To reduce the impact of employees immediately leaving, be sure to cross-train and have a pipeline of talent.  
  • This article is for business owners designing an employment policy and/or want to limit turnover.

When an employee is leaving your company, you might expect they give two weeks' notice, but that doesn't mean they will. Despite work etiquette and standards, there are no laws requiring employees to give any notice, let alone two weeks, before quitting. Sure, contracts exist that if breeched could impact compensation or trigger a lawsuit, but there aren't any legal protections when an employee decides to leave. That being said, there are ways to lower the odds of that happening and quickly recover if it does occur.

Can you legally require employees to give two weeks' notice?

Unexpected departures, especially of key employees, can cause untold upheaval to a business. Nevertheless, employers can't legally force someone to stay.

Nadira Byles, an HR Consultant at Justworks, said employees who don't work under an employment contract likely have an at-will employment agreement.

"At-will employees can be terminated at any time with or without cause," Byles told Business News Daily. "Employees also have the same right and can leave at will any time without any legal consequences."

Two-week notice isn't a federal law, but some states have specific regulations surrounding paid time off and final paychecks.

"In California, if an employee resigns without notice, employers have 72 hours to pay both final wages and unused vacation time," said Byles. [Want help tracking your paid time off? Check out our best time and attendance systems for small businesses.]

According to the advocacy group Workplace Fairness, 24 states including Arizona, California, New York, Maine, Kentucky, and Nebraska have laws requiring employers to pay any unused vacation time in the last paycheck. In those states, workers can only challenge a business over accrued paid time off (PTO) if the business owner explicitly promised to pay unpaid vacation time in the final paycheck, noted Workplace Fairness. Twenty-six states don't have any laws pertaining to accrued paid vacation.

Key takeaway: Two weeks' notice is not a federal law. Most employment is at-will which means employers can fire someone at any time and employees can quit without notice. Some states do have rules regarding the last paycheck and accrued paid time off.

What is a two-week notice?

It is important employers have a clear understanding of exactly what two weeks' notice is, which is simply a courtesy an employee extends when quitting a job. The employee formally resigns through a resignation letter and offers to continue working for two business weeks. Keeping the employee on for those additional two weeks is usually welcome by the employer, as they use the time to prepare for the resignation and start looking for a replacement. It can also be an opportunity to train other employees to fill the void.

"It's not a policy but its common practice," said Tiffany Glenn, vice president of human resources at ADP. "I would say (quitting on the spot) is more common with small businesses versus larger-scale businesses because of the nature of their size and the challenges they are up against."

Key takeaway: The two weeks' notice is a courtesy extended to an employer, not a requirement. It gives employers time to prepare for an employee's departure and find a replacement.

How do you prevent employees from quitting without notice?

Turnover is part of running a business, particularly smaller ones. With tight budgets and limited resources, it can be hard to compete against larger employers. Losing an employee is bad enough, but when it's seemingly out of nowhere it can be harmful to operations and morale.

To limit the chances of that happening to your business, Glenn said to maintain an open dialogue with employees about their feelings toward work, the organization, challenges, and/or obstacles.

"It's not the norm for people to leave with such urgency," said Glenn. "Sometimes having those conversations prevent exits and departures of this nature."

While two weeks' notice can't be a requirement it can be an expectation, one that is laid out in the employee handbook. That way employees know what is expected of them when they resign.

Key takeaway: Small business owners can't avoid employees leaving on the spot completely, but they can reduce the odds. Having ongoing conversations with staff and setting expectations can limit frequent turnover.

What do business owners do if an employee quits without notice?

If an employee quits on the spot, mitigating the impact of the loss is the top priority. If roles go unfilled it could hurt productivity, harm business relationships and result in lost sales.

Anissa Wilson, an HR services manager at Oasis, said business owners need to make a quick and swift assessment of what is lost and then reassign the tasks to ensure the business isn't interrupted. It's important to take the opportunity to weigh options when situations like this arise. You may be able to complete the duties without replacing the employee.

Losing certain employees can be a huge hit to the business, particularly if the person was a strong performer or held vital knowledge. In those instances, it may be worthwhile to try to get them to stay. That may mean offering more compensation, vacation time, a promotion, or a combination of all three.

"If that employee is a true top performer, you will want to retain the talent," said Byles. "The biggest challenge is transferring knowledge."

Key takeaway: It can be a shock and blow to the can be a shock and a blow to the organization. It's important to take swift action to reassign the duties and evaluate if you need a replacement. If the individual is important to the business, consider making an offer to keep them from leaving.

How do you develop a policy for an employee quitting?

Just like you have a policy for terminating employees, it pays to have one for quitting too. The more you plan for the unexpected the better you'll handle employee departures. To set out clear expectations, the company policy on quitting should include:

  • Employee notice of resignation: Employees are expected to give two weeks' notice if they're quitting. Failure to do so could result in the employee not being able to work for the company again. "You can't legislate it, but you can have an expectation clearly laid out," said Wilson.

  • Put it in writing: To protect everyone, the notice should be in writing either via a company form or a notice letter. It should include the reason the employee is leaving and the effective date of departure. If an employee chooses to quit verbally, confirmation of that notice should be sent to the employee shortly thereafter.

  • Rehire rules: Employees leave for a variety of reasons. Better opportunities, family matters and layoffs are high on the list. Sometimes those employees look to come back. With that in mind, you should include in your policy guidelines on rehiring former staff. Most companies will rehire employees who were let go because of a reduction in the workforce or who voluntarily resigned. Those who were let go because of performance or insubordination usually aren't hired back. You may choose not to rehire employees who didn't provide advance notice when they left.
  • Cross-training: Small business owners are at a disadvantage. They don't have the budget or the staff to train several people for a singular task.

    "Too many times we've seen our clients have one person who knows how to do one role or function," said Wilson. "It would choke the company if the employee were to leave. It's always better to have more than one person know how to do a function."

    Cross-training employees should be an ongoing process, not a one-off when an employee quits.
  • Keep the pipeline fill: Employee turnover happens, even at the best companies. It can either make or break your business depending on how prepared you are to deal with it. If you build a pipeline of potential candidates for your key roles, losing one employee won't be as devastating.

    "Succession planning is key," said Glenn. "It's always important to be sourcing inside and outside the organization. You may not need to recruit those people in the moment, but you'll have a warm list of candidates to go to at any given time."
  • Don't forget the exit interview: It's important to conduct a substantive exit interview. It's your opportunity to gain insight into what's the employee liked or hated about the business. It's also an opportunity to collect any company-owned equipment and turn in keys or door entry cards.

    "While you should do all you can to retain top talent some will eventually leave. Turnover is a natural part of the workforce life cycle," said Byles. "The exit interviews give you the opportunity to discuss the reasons for leaving and identify how the organization needs to change to better attract, develop, and retain top talent."

Key takeaway: To prevent problems, it pays to have policies on quitting that require employees to give a two-week notice. Employees should provide their resignation in a letter and undergo an exit interview. It's important to focus on cross-training your staff and keeping the talent pipeline full to prevent any work slowdowns as the result of unexpected workforce changes.

 

Image Credit: Zinkevych / Getty Images
Donna Fuscaldo
Donna Fuscaldo,
Business News Daily Writer
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A lifetime New Yorker, I am a veteran finance and business journalist that has contributed to several national media outlets including Forbes, Investopedia, and Bankrate.com. I have spent my career providing consumers and business owners with advice and guidance to help them navigate the world of finance. As a senior finance writer, I report on all aspects of finance from managing cash flow to choosing the best accounting software.