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Constructive discharge: When you’re forced to quit

If you’re forced to quit a job, is that really any different than being fired?

Some employers will go out of their way to make an employee feel unwelcome without actually firing him or her. Instead, the employer simply tries to make the targeted employee’s life as difficult as possible, pushing him or her to quit.

Often, that sort of action is a tactic to avoid paying unemployment benefits or fulfilling a severance clause in a contract. Other times, it’s done in retaliation after an employee reports some wrongdoing at the company, like sexual harassment or safety violations. The employer hopes that the targeted employee will either find another job or just quit.

In reality, however, pushing an employee to quit like that may be a constructive discharge — which is the equivalent of being fired.

There’s a significant difference between the sort of ordinary poor treatment that an employee might suffer at the hands of a callous or indifferent boss and the type of treatment faced by an employee who’s targeted for a constructive discharge. The employer’s conduct has to be truly outrageous — enough to make any reasonable person quit.

Some examples of truly outrageous conduct include:

  • Demotions unrelated to job performance
  • Humiliating treatment
  • Physical threats or intimidation tactics
  • Ordering an employee to break the law
  • Pointed refusals to accommodate someone’s physical disability, pregnancy, or religion
  • Encouraging other employees to harass the targeted employee

For example, imagine that an engineer at a company becomes targeted after he reports a safety violation at his company. His manager abruptly removes him from an important project without explanation. When meetings are held for his team, he’s intentionally left out. When he does find his way into a meeting, he’s summarily told to go fetch coffee for the others — as if he were an office assistant and not a valuable member of the team. Humiliated, he finally quits.

Given the totality of the circumstances, it might be fairly easy for a court to conclude that the employer was retaliating against the employee for his prior complaint and that the employee’s resignation was essentially forced.

A constructive discharge may amount to a type of wrongful termination, depending on the circumstances. If you’ve been victimized this way, an evaluation of your case may show you the way to use the law to fight back against this kind of treatment.



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