1 year ago, I accepted a new job with an education budget included. I turned down their initial job offer. When they asked if there was anything that could entice me to reconsider, I countered with the options of an increased salary or an education budget.

The job became too much... I was given many duties well outside of the job description I signed when I took the job. Also, an employee that left was not replaced and I had to take on many of his duties as well. I have been stressed to the point of affecting my health and working endless hours of overtime that I don't get paid for because I'm on salary.

Now that I have accepted another job (similar pay, less stress/hours), I am being asked to repay the education budget and realizing that the job offer did stipulate 2 years of employment. I am trying to negotiate with the employer based on the fact that I wouldn't have accepted the job without the education. However, if that fails, I still think I have a case because the clause is worded "I will to the best of my ability continue to work for (company) for 2 years". I have put every effort I have into the job, put in all the time required to keep up with the added duties, and in the end I am still being asked for more.

Would the "best of my ability" argument hold up if I get taken to court?

(Amount: $2500, Country: Canada)

  • Please add country tag. Also how much money are we talking about?
    – Pete Belford
    Sep 1 '15 at 15:31
  • Added above: amount is $2500, I'm in Canada.
    – JTSU
    Sep 1 '15 at 15:39
  • Who wrote the contract - specifically the clause? Did you discuss the clause or did the employer write it and you agreed to it?
    – jqning
    Sep 1 '15 at 16:16
  • The employer wrote the clause/contract.
    – JTSU
    Sep 1 '15 at 17:08

There is a general common law doctrine of contract interpretation which tells us that ambiguities are construed against the drafter. In your case, had the employer intended to require two years of work (or else reimbursement back to them) they could have explicitly stated this. The fact is, the contract is written as it is for a reason, likely to entice you to accept the offer of employment. They softballed the requirements to get you to take the job and now they are trying to play hardball.

I would hope that a court would find this and tell the employer to think about these clauses next time. The fact is, after a deal goes south is a bad time for an employer to start explaining what these terms mean.

You have fulfilled your half of the bargain. If the facts are as you say they are then you satisfied the "best of my ability" condition.

Another problem you might have is if the employer does not take you to court but instead continues to make threats, maybe sends a collections agency after you. In that case you will need to get an injunction to stop the employer. In other words, get a court to state that you do not owe them any money and enjoin them from continuing to as if you do.

EDIT: as a commenter mentioned, a contract may explicitly provide that ambiguous terms will not be construed against either party.

  • The one thing I'd consider here, is that these clauses are extremely common and well-known. I've never heard of an employer offering money for education and not including an explicit requirement to continue employment for a duration after the education payment, except in very small employers (who probably don't know better). Unless the employee didn't ever get notice of this clause (outside of the contract itself) it seems unlikely to be viewed favorably; and, at least in all three of my positions, it's always been covered in HR orientation, if perhaps a bit cursorily.
    – Joe
    Sep 1 '15 at 19:45
  • @Joe You are saying that a company with an established education-reimbursement program covers the term of an employment condition during orientation? I agree with that. But I am familiar with many education plans that have no continued employment requirement. For example - plans where you get $1000 per year education fund, or plans where employer pays 50% of qualified tuition. In fact, among the policies that I am familiar with, none has a continued employment requirement. As was stated, there are ways to make these requirements explicit!
    – jqning
    Sep 1 '15 at 20:01
  • I suppose what I'm saying is I wouldn't be surprised if they did make it explicit, but the OP simply didn't notice.
    – Joe
    Sep 1 '15 at 20:02
  • @Joe... I understand what you are saying. This is the third employer that has given me a tuition budget, and neither of the first two required any education duration or reimbursement. As for this employer, there is no explicit statement, just the one listed above. I only accepted the position under the terms of education budget in lieu of increased salary and would not have signed if it were not for the "best of my ability" clause. I would not have been willing to enter into an explicit 2 year requirement form the start, knowing the job could go south.
    – JTSU
    Sep 1 '15 at 20:09
  • I should also mention that I do work for a very small employer (~13 employees)... there is no HR, no orientation, no written policies & procedures.
    – JTSU
    Sep 1 '15 at 20:31

I cannot say how Conract Law differs from U.S. law under in Canada; however, if this was in the U.S. it would be difficult to win. I'd have to (meaning you should have an attorney) look at the rest of the contract, but these educational/tuition reimbursement incentives in employment contracts are pretty typical and the employer generally gets to recoup if you don't fulfill the minimum commitment. Courts don't like to invalidate these societally beneficial types of contractual obligations on the basis that the job ended up being too much work or much harder than anticipated. Usually, there are definitions that outline the meaning of key terms. However, I can see "best of your ability" really meaning "unless you become disabled", except if all of your duties are clearly outlined in the contract and you can show that you were clearly forced to operate far in excess of these standards.

But again.... nobody can really assess this to any reasonable degree without analyzing the whole contract.

  • My job duties were clearly specified in the offer of employment that I signed. In the end, the added duties I was meant I was only left 2-3 hours per day to work on the duties that existed in the job offer. I can prove through email trail that I brought this to my manager's attention multiple times, requesting support in order to keep up with everything. I had to work upwards of 30 hours of unpaid overtime per week. I did find out that overtime pay is required in Manitoba, even for salaried employees so I suppose I could use the angle that they owe me a lot more money than I owe them.
    – JTSU
    Sep 2 '15 at 14:39
  • 1
    Possibly. Usually employment contracts tend to say "duties include, but are not limited to...", but if there are only specific things you were hired to do, and those duties were expanded upon, you could have a shot at arguing the new duties were outside the scope. Taking on more work, within those duties, can often times be within the purview of the managing supervisor. Again it would really depend on the language. Usually employment contracts are pretty tightly drafted but you're describing something that sounds very limited in scope.
    – gracey209
    Sep 2 '15 at 15:11

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