No working environment is perfect. But some working environments can be so toxic, oppressive, and even abusive that no reasonable person could be expected to continue working in them. While in most cases employee terminations are explicit (i.e., their boss tells them they are fired), terminations can also occur through less direct means, such as those outlined above. If an employee quits due to refusing to suffer an objectively intolerable working environment that their employer created, could that also be considered a type of termination? If you have questions or concerns, consider discussing constructive termination with a Richmond employment lawyer.
What Is Constructive Discharge?
Constructive discharge essentially is termination by a different name. It occurs in cases where working conditions have become so intolerable, difficult, or unpleasant that a reasonable person would feel compelled to resign. The legal theory of constructive discharge exists because employers often attempt to circumvent wrongful termination claims by not technically “firing” employees. In the employer’s mind, they may be able to avoid liability for wrongful termination by pointing out that the employee was not fired but quit. However, they may still be liable if the constructive discharge was for an illegal purpose (more below).
Examples of Conditions That Indicate Constructive Discharge
Every case of constructive discharge is different and, like many types of employment law cases, tends to be extremely fact-specific. Federal courts have held that the relevant inquiry is whether a “reasonable employee” would feel “compelled to resign.” To do so, they consider the following circumstances:
- Reduction in salary
- Reduction in job responsibilities
- Reassignment to menial or degrading responsibilities
- Reassignment to work under a younger supervisor
- Badgering, harassment, or humiliation designed to encourage resignation
- Offers of early retirement
- Offers of continued employment on terms less favorable than the employee’s former status
When Is Constructive Discharge Unlawful?
Constructive discharge is not necessarily always unlawful. When it is proven, courts consider it to be analogous to explicit termination, and explicit termination in an at-will employment state like Virginia is generally unlawful where it is discriminatory or retaliatory. As such, constructive discharge is unlawful in the following cases:
- Discrimination: Discrimination claims, such as race discrimination, sex discrimination, and age discrimination brought under a “hostile work environment” theory often involve allegations of constructive discharge
- Harassment: Sexual harassment claims, including those based in hostile work environment and quid pro quo, often arise after the victim was constructively discharged
- Retaliation: Claims for unlawful retaliation, such as for an employee refusing to engage in criminal activity or participating in whistleblowing activity, also often involve claims of constructive discharge
Get Help From a Richmond Employment Lawyer
If you have questions or concerns about constructive discharge, you may have various legal options in relation to wrongful termination. To learn more, please contact a Richmond employment lawyer at Pierce / McCoy by calling 804-502-2320 or using our online contact form.