Gardening leave: A comprehensive guide

Calum Grewar, Content Writer · 21 Aug

If you thought your resignation notice period would be filled with heartfelt goodbyes and leaving drinks, you’re probably wrong.

If you thought that, having been let go, your boss would at least let you tie up any loose ends and steal all the stationary, wrong again. You’re going on gardening leave. You’re angry about it because it feels like you're being exiled for a crime you didn't commit.

What's going on?

Before you start soul-searching in Fiji, here are the ins and outs of gardening leave.

What is gardening leave?

Gardening leave (also known as garden leave) is essentially a period of paid leave beginning from when you hand in (or are handed) your notice, to when your contract of employment terminates. This is typically between one and 12 weeks.

Why is it called gardening leave?

The term dates back to 1986. More specifically, it was popularised in an episode of the BBC sitcom, Yes, Prime Minister!, in which Sir Humphrey is put on ‘garden leave’ due to some suspected misconduct with a Russian spy.

In the episode, the usage of ‘garden leave’ refers to a period of paid suspension in which Humphrey is allowed to do nothing else – except perhaps a spot of gardening.

So, if you find yourself instructed not to come into the office or talk to your co-workers and friends, you’re probably on gardening leave. You might already be thinking ‘Yes! I don’t need to talk to anyone, but I still get paid, where do I sign up?’ Hold your horses, there's more to it.

What/Who is it for?

If this all sounds too good to be true, that’s because it usually is. Gardening leave is a weapon in your employer’s arsenal to stop you from joining a competitor or poaching clients or other employees. So although it may feel like the Fairy Jobmother conjured up this beauty, gardening leave is not for your friend. It can be an incredibly stifling and limiting period of time. 

In what world would your CEO pay for you to potter about pruning your geraniums? If you’ve been fired, or you’ve left on bad terms, garden leave is a way of restricting the damage you might cause the company.

This is achieved by banning correspondence within your current company, protecting themselves from your accessing sensitive information that could be passed on to a competitor, or worse, Private Eye!

To this, you might say ‘Fine, I’ll forego the whistleblowing and delay my stay in the Ecuadorian embassy. Let me just get on with my life.’ Unfortunately, there's likely to be a clause in your contract that, if you are on gardening leave, will prevent you from contacting competitors, let alone begin working for them.

It’s a move to protect the business interests of your employers, for, depending on your seniority, they will be keen to stop you moving on quickly to competitors before they have time to find an adequate replacement.

So, for your employer, your vast professional ability is much better potting some petunias than sowing seeds of discontent within the workplace. Or worse still, your formidable sales prowess could persuade clients to follow you wherever you go.

It’s why instead of dismissing you with a payment in lieu of notice, your employer will simply keep you at arm's length for 12 weeks while they find your replacement and enjoy the fruits of your labour. 

What are your employee rights on gardening leave?

Now feeling like your employers are impeding your future? Well, here's what you can expect from them while you’re away from the office but still under contract. As alluded to, you must receive your full pay and benefits as stated in your contract while on gardening leave.

For those who earn some of their wage from commission or bonuses, things are more complicated. If your access to servers and clients is blocked, you cannot earn any commission, impacting your average salary during leave. If this is the case, your employer may be in breach of contract. You can at this stage hit back with legal action, or at least a devastating rant on Facebook. Up to you. The name of the game here is about knowing your contract, and gardening leave rules.

Contract small print is key to a lot of this, so you may need legal advice at some point to clarify the working wording of employment termination means for you. For example, some cases have recently been taken up against employers for not providing employees with work, despite paying them fully.

These have become more common in recent years and as such the ‘right to work’ is changing, so check what your contract actually says. Furthermore, your contract may well have gardening leave built in as company policy, often meaning that your employer reserves the right to place you on gardening leave should you resign, or they resign you. However, if this isn’t explicitly stated, they need to consult you before taking any action, which is why knowing your contract beforehand can really help.

If benefits in your contract, such as company cars or phones, are needed for personal use, they can often be used until the expiry of your notice period. However, if they are company property, or if you use them solely for business purposes, you’ll probably have to give them back.

What are your employee rights while you’re on gardening leave?

Although you can expect certain minimum standards from your employer while you’re gardening, they ultimately have control. Forget booking that family trip to Bali, or that wild interrail adventure with your mates – your employer can ask you to return to work at any time. 

This can be for a variety of reasons. You may be needed to help with the handover to your successor; they may require your considerable and unparalleled expertise, or just want to sweet-talk you into taking your job back. Just as your employer must honour your contract until its termination, so must you.

Your employer can also send you on gardening leave if they make you redundant. For many, this is troublesome, as you may wish to use your gardening leave redundancy package as soon as possible to launch your own business or put it towards buying over an existing one.

However, gardening leave means you cannot work for other companies, including yourself. So, if you were planning to start up a rival firm, forget about it.

You can’t even enlist the support of your fellow employees because you’re most likely forbidden from contacting them. This means that your employer can at least try to avoid the stirring up of any scandal. A smart move, some might say.

So here we have a stalemate. Such is the struggle of being marooned on Garden Island. 

The best thing to do is try to enjoy it. As my recently made redundant Uncle Mark said, “Garden leave was the best time of my life!” So, take time to do you, and mentally prepare for another 20 years in the rat race. For many, it can be a wonderful period of well-earned rest from a hectic and unhealthy lifestyle.

General advice while on gardening leave.

The big one is don’t meddle or risk contract disputes. If your employer has honoured the contract, so should you, especially because periods like these can be volatile. Gardening leave is a good time to search for new jobs, as that’s not forbidden at all, although you cannot start working for another company during this time.

Or, you could use this freedom for self-enhancement. Take some time to attend a course, adding to your portfolio and making your employer all the more remorseful for losing you.

Just remember: gardening leave can vary depending on how long you’ve worked at the company (as this affects your notice period), what industry you are in, and how cut-throat your employer is. Therefore it's always important to know your contract and what your employer can and can’t enforce legally during gardening leave.

Thanks for reading, and good luck with the geraniums.



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