To prove "constructive discharge," employees must show that their employer made the work environment so intolerable that it forced them to quit.
So, how can you prevail in such lawsuits or, better yet, prevent them in the first place? One tactic: Obtain signed resignation letters from departing employees.
Better yet: Always conduct exit interviews with departing employees, and keep notes of your conversations. That way, in the event of a constructive-discharge suit, you have notes that, in most cases, say the person is leaving because of a better opportunity, better pay, "needs a lifestyle change," etc. If the employee does voice complaints in the exit interview, you can ask for more details and promise to follow up, which may help cool the employee's lawsuit plans.
Recent case: An HR director complained that his job had become difficult due ?to resistance and tension surrounding his efforts to promote diversity. He soon began telling colleagues that he planned to quit. He even announced his departure while speaking to a group of managers.
When the company merged two divisions, it rolled the HR director's job into another one. He wasn't offered another job because the company understood that he was leaving, based on his previous announcement. He soon accepted a new job at another company, submitting a courteous resignation letter.
Nevertheless, he sued, allegingand constructive discharge. A district court sided with the company, and an appeals court agreed. Noting the voluntary nature of his resignation, the court said a jury could find only that he quit voluntarily. The court also rejected his constructive-discharge claim, saying that no evidence pointed toward an intolerable work environment. (Honor v. Booz-Allen & Hamilton, No. 03-2076, 4th Cir., 2004)
Lesson: In this case, a thorough exit interview may have eased the tensions enough to prevent the HR director's lawsuit. Plus, it would have documented that he was leaving voluntarily.
- How to Fire an Employee the Legal Way: 6 Termination Guidelines
- What's working in comp & benefits: Vol. 1
- Another reason to keep good records: Proving when you made decision to terminate
- Don't get even: The rules, risks of post-employment retaliation
- New Jersey's whistle-Blower law sets tough burden for employers