A common dilemma faced by many employees is a variation of this theme: “my supervisor or my co-workers are making my work life miserable. I feel harassed, demeaned and put down all of the time. I don’t think I can continue to work there. Can I just quit?” When confronted with a harassing, unkind, or simply unjust supervisor (or even demeaning co-workers) many employees ask themselves, should I continue to put up with this? Of course, no one should have to work in an environment where their contributions are not credited or where their co-workers make it a drag to go to work every day. Nonetheless, for persons facing a sexually harassing hostile workplace or discriminatory environment, the decision to quit can be complicated and have a dramatic effect on any future lawsuit or claim.
The legal buzzword for quitting your job because of intolerable working conditions is “constructive discharge.” In a constructive discharge scenario, although the employee is the moving party separating the employment relationship, courts have recognized that the employer created or allowed intolerable working conditions which were so serious that the employer effectively terminated the employment relationship. In California, proving that an employee’s decision to quit was in reality a “constructive discharge” is quite a bit more difficult than most people might assume.
Many years ago the California Supreme Court held that a constructive discharge occurs when “the employer either intentionally created or knowingly permitted working conditions that were so intolerable or aggravated that a reasonable employer would realize that a reasonable person in the employee’s position would be compelled to resign.” The intolerable conditions must be either unusually aggravated or amount to a continuous pattern of objectionable conduct. Generally a single incident would not be enough to substantiate a constructive discharge violation; however if the conduct is “sufficiently extraordinary and egregious” such that a reasonable employee would not remain on the job to earn a livelihood then a constructive discharge could occur.
In certain situations, lower courts have found intolerable working conditions, for example: a continuous pattern of sexual harassment; a supervisor who continuously yells and screams, threatens to fire the employee, and makes unfair and harsh criticism that remains uncorrected by upper management; or a supervisor’s campaign to fire an employee by frequently reassigning job duties and fabricating documentation. In sum, there must be objective evidence that the conditions were intolerable and that a reasonable person “in the shoes” of the employee would not tolerate the conditions.
The decision to quit your job, especially in tough economic times, can be quite important. So rather than assume that a jury would easily find that your workplace was “intolerable” make sure there is sufficient evidence, history and continuous conduct to support your decision to leave your employer.