Employees sometimes quit and claim they had no choice because work conditions were so terrible. Sometimes, they sue.
In most such cases—the argument is called “constructive discharge”—courts side with employers, provided there’s no evidence the employee suffered an adverse employment action such as a transfer, demotion or pay cut. Courts don’t want to provide incentives for employees to quit. They generally expect them to develop reasonably thick skins when it comes to workplace conflicts.
Recent case: Sheila Seeney, who is black, worked for 25 years at a residential treatment facility for people with mental and physical disabilities. Then she got a new supervisor, a black man. The two did not hit it off.
First, Seeney arrived at work to find a client had soiled himself. She asked her new supervisor to help her get the patient to the shower. When he told her to first clean up the client in a basin, she refused. That earned Seeney a three-day suspension for insubordination. Shortly after, she complained tothat the new boss was sleeping on the job. That’s when he got suspended.
Obviously, the two didn’t get along. They bickered back and forth until an argument about cleaning out a refrigerator made Seeney so angry she quit.
Then she sued, alleging race discrimination and arguing that she had no choice but to resign.
The court disagreed. It pointed out that, other than the legitimate suspension for not following instructions, Seeney couldn’t pinpoint any adverse actions she had suffered. She hadn’t been demoted or fired, never got aevaluation and never missed out on a raise. She simply had conflict with her supervisor.
Plus, there was nothing to indicate that race had anything to do with their inability to get along—since both are black. The court dismissed Seeney’s lawsuit. (Seeney v. Elwyn, No. 10-2707, 3rd Cir., 2011)
Final notes: It’s true: Sometimes supervisors make work life miserable for employees they want to get rid of. They mistakenly believe that if the employee quits of her own free will, she can’t sue.
In this case, the supervisor didn’t do anything that could be construed as severe enough to justify quitting. However, if the supervisor had moved Seeney to a different shift or rated her low enough on her evaluation to cut off a promotion or raise, the case might have been closer.
Of course, Seeney would also had to have shown that race was an underlying motivation. Don’t assume because the two belonged to the same race, discrimination wasn’t possible. The EEOC recognizes intrarace discrimination, too. One common example is so-called color discrimination, in which a light-skinned black boss prefers other light-skinned blacks over dark-skinned blacks.
Other possibilities include discrimination based on one’s national origin, such as a preference for black applicants who descend from slavery over black applicants who emigrated more recently from Africa.
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