Employment Contracts and Fresh Consideration
By Shafik Bhalloo, Sasha Ramnarine, Devin Lucas
An essential element in the formation and enforceability of any contract is consideration. Each party receives a benefit from the contract and may suffer corresponding detriment. This benefit and detriment are referred to as consideration. Without it, a contract is not binding or enforceable.
Employment contracts are no exception to this rule. Without consideration, any employment contract that is formed between an employer and employee is not enforceable. In today’s economy, many employers are involved in reorganizing or downsizing. This often leads to the employer unilaterally changing the terms of employment of an existing contract by adding significant duties or reducing compensation or other benefits. An employer may ask an employee to sign a new contract with introduce more restrictive terms which have not previously been discussed with the employee. The employee often agrees to these changes without much question. The issue that arises in such situations is whether unilateral changes to a contract of employment made by the employer after the employee has started employment are enforceable if there is no new consideration provided to the employee.
Courts in Canada have held that fresh consideration must be given by the employer to the employee in exchange for modified terms to an existing employment contract. The following cases demonstrate this principle.
In Singh v. Empire Life Insurance Co., the primary issue before the British Columbia Court of Appeal was whether or not the terms of an Employment Agreement were enforceable. Harry Singh commenced work on September 1, 1998 as the Regional Manager for the Vancouver Bayshore. At Mr. Singh’s request, a representative of the employer provided a letter of comfort dated September 1 to Mr. Singh. The letter stated:
This is a Letter of Comfort stating that Harry Singh is offered the position of Regional Manager of Empire Financial Group with a total compensation package of $170,000 made up a number of components. Effective September 1, 1998. A formal letter and contract will follow.
Subsequently, Mr. Singh received another letter dated the same day under the heading “Re Confirmation of Offer – Regional Manager, Vancouver Bayshore”. This letter confirmed specific details of Mr. Singh’s employment with respect to his salary and the fact that the initial term would be for 2 years. Mr. Singh continued in that employment for five months before the Employment Agreement was executed. This agreement contained a termination clause stating that “the termination will be effective at the end of the appropriate period of notice according to applicable provincial legislation”. In November 2012, Mr. Singh’s position became redundant and he was let go. Mr. Singh then commenced an action against the employer claiming damages for the remaining ten months in the two year term. The employer argued that the contract was terminable on two weeks’ notice pursuant to the Employment Standards Act.
The Court of Appeal upheld the lower court’s finding that the employer could not rely on the provisions of the subsequently signed agreement, which were less favourable to Mr. Singh than the terms of the original contract. In so holding, the Court affirmed the leading British Columbia Court of Appeal decision of Watson v. Moore Corporation Ltd.
In Watson, McEachern C.J.B.C., writing for the majority, found that unless the employer had a clear intention of terminating the employee’s employment prior to the employee executing the contract amendment, the mere forbearance from termination at this juncture was not adequate consideration for the amendment.
The Court of Appeal in Singh ultimately found that when the Employment Agreement was signed there was no benefit passing to Mr. Singh that he would not otherwise be entitled to. As such, the contract was held to be unenforceable.
In the Ontario Court of Appeal case of Hobbs v TDI Canada Ltd., the Plaintiff, Hobbs, was an experienced advertising salesperson who took a job with TDI Canada Ltd. (“TDI”). Prior to his start date, there was an oral agreement between Hobbs and TDI on the commission rates Hobbs was to receive. Shortly after Hobbs commenced his employment, he was given a non-negotiable Solicitor’s Agreement. The Solicitor’s Agreement provided for a more restrictive commission rate than what was previously agreed to. Further, the Solicitor’s Agreement allowed TDI to revise the commission rate at its sole discretion. Hobbs subsequently signed the document as he would otherwise not receive payment. As time passed, Hobbs was not paid the commissions that he believed were owed to him; therefore, he resigned from the company and sued TDI for the outstanding commissions.
The Ontario Court of Appeal considered the enforceability of the Solicitor’s Agreement. The Court of Appeal determined that the agreement did not form part of Hobbs’ employment contract for lack of consideration. As a result, the Court of Appeal ordered TDI to pay Hobbs the commissions he was owed based on the earlier oral agreement. In reaching this decision, the appellate court reviewed a number of leading authorities on the requirement of consideration in employment contracts and stated:
 … [Francis v Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce] makes it clear the law does not permit employers to present employees with changed terms of employment, threaten to fire them if they do not agree to them, and rely on the continued employment relationships as the consideration for the new terms.
 In Techform Products Ltd., Rosenberg J.A. similarly recognized that new consideration is required in order to modify an existing employment contract. He stated at para. 24:
It is also consistent with the principle fundamental to consideration in the context of an employment contract amendment — that in return for the new promise received by the employer something must pass to the employee, beyond that to which the employee is entitled under the original contract. Continued employment represents nothing more of value flowing to the employee than under the original contract.
The Court of Appeal further addressed the power imbalance in employment relationships and the vulnerability of employees in relation to their employers at para. 42:
The requirement of consideration to support an amended agreement is especially important in the employment context where, generally, there is inequality of bargaining power between employees and employers. Some employees may enjoy a measure of bargaining power when negotiating the terms of prospective employment, but once they have been hired and are dependent on the remuneration of the new job, they become more vulnerable.
What do these cases mean for employers?
The above noted decisions clearly stand for the proposition that an amendment to a pre-existing employment contract will not be enforced unless there is an added benefit to both parties. A basic rule of thumb for employers to follow is to have an employee sign a contract that is suitable to the employer before the employee commences his or her employment. Alternatively, it is critical when introducing new terms to a pre-existing employment contract that employers provide fresh consideration to the employee. The lack of fresh consideration increases the risk that the modified terms of an employment contract will not be upheld by a court of law.
What would be considered adequate consideration?
There are no cases that outline a specific test to determine what constitutes adequate consideration when an employer modifies the terms of employment. In Krieser v. Active Chemicals Ltd., Neilson J. provides some guidance as to what would form adequate consideration in the employment context. At para. 35, Neilson J. stated:
I have found, however, that the defendant must show something more than continuation of the plaintiff’s employment on more onerous terms for an uncertain time to establish adequate consideration. Some additional advantage must flow to the plaintiff for agreeing to the new terms. I find that the defendant has failed to establish that here. There is nothing in the terms of the Contract that confers a benefit on the plaintiff. Nor do I see any basis for concluding that signing it provided him with any increased security of employment, either expressly or implicitly. The plaintiff remained a probationary employee under both the Contract and the Act, and could be dismissed with no notice during the first six months of his employment. While the Contract thereafter provided more generous notice provisions than the Act, these were less generous than his common law rights once several years of employment had been completed.
Neilson J. indicated that the consideration must be some ‘additional advantage’ moving to the employee. Yet, it is unclear what this additional advantage must be. In the writer’s view, the nature of this advantage would invariably depend on the type of position that is held by an employee. Some advantages may include an increase of vacation pay, notice requirements, life insurance, severance pay, or health and dental benefits. The sufficiency of consideration is still an open question at this point; however, it is a significant issue that will likely have far reaching implications for employers and workers throughout Canada.