Employees who quit in frustration when their harassment complaints go unheeded can sue, claiming they were “constructively discharged” because conditions were unbearable. That’s why it’s crucial for the HR office to respond to each and every complaint.
Doing so can head off a surprise lawsuit—such as the kind filed by a frustrated employee who gives up and walks off the job.
What’s more, even if the employee quits, your efforts to resolve her problems can be proof that things weren’t as bad as she alleges. That’s what happened in the following case.
Recent case: Ana Vanartsdalen, who is Mexican-American, worked as a violations clerk for Evesham Township. Her job required her to help citizens who came in to pay fines. Sometimes her heavy accent frustrated customers.
When Vanartsdalen was on, her job was restructured into two positions. Someone from HR visited her at home and explained, offering Vanartsdalen a choice of the two new jobs. She picked one and returned to work under another supervisor.
The supervisor was impatient with Vanartsdalen’s accent, sometimes telling another employee to take over for her. This embarrassed Vanartsdalen. She complained to HR, which intervened and offered to transfer her to another similar position under another supervisor. She refused, quit and sued.
The court said she couldn’t prove conditions were so severe that she was forced to quit. It pointed to the efforts HR had made to accommodate her, especially the transfer offer. The court dismissed the case. (Vanartsdalen v. Township of Evesham, et al., No. 05-1508, DC NJ, 2007)
Final note: This case is a powerful reminder that the HR office should document all interactions with employees. You don’t know when the information will come in handy.