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Don't be a Quitter: Why Quitting in the Face of an Illegal Workplace is (Usually) a Bad Idea

June 18, 2014

 

 • An employee who needs an accommodation for a disability is told there's no work for him, and
     he should just quit.

     • An accountant in a company with state contracts finds that the company is illegally overbilling
     the state. Her boss tells her to resign quietly.

     •  A victim of sexual harassment in the workplace is given two options: (a) take two weeks pay
     and resign quietly, or (b) just quit.

Fearful of harming their employment record and not knowing what the right thing to do is, employees frequently quit their jobs when their employers have done something illegal to them. What they don't realize is:

  a. Quitting your job makes it much more difficult to collect unemployment insurance; and

  b. Quitting your job makes it much more difficult to pursue your employer for their illegal acts in
      court.

A. Damaging your "permanent record"

Workplace records aren't like your records from high school; they don't follow you wherever you go. There's no "permanent record" floating out in the ether someplace that all corporations can get hold of.

In other words, when you're applying for a job, unless your prospective employer asks for your previous employment history, they can't get it. If they do ask, and you have to say that you were fired, a brief explanation will hopefully get you past it. And it's not clear that you'll be hired quicker by being able to say that you quit without another job ready rather than that you were fired.

B. Collecting Unemployment

Getting unemployment insurance requires that you have been fired for reasons other than misconduct. If you quit, you will have a higher burden to carry in order to get your unemployment insurance. You will have to demonstrate that your quitting was through no fault of your own. Your employer will dispute this, and it will be more difficult to prove than if you were actually fired.

C. Affecting your rights

Employees who are fired illegally by an employer have a lot of rights available to them. Employees who quit have far fewer.

If you quit your job, and you want to pursue your legal rights, in order to get compensation for future damages you will have to show that no reasonable person would have stayed in that workplace. That's a lot harder to show than you would think. Courts have made it very difficult to demonstrate this type of "constructive termination," as they call it. What you and I might think would be intolerable to any reasonable person, the courts have said we all should be able to tolerate anyway.

D. Leverage

If your employer asks you to quit, that's because they want you gone. By accommodating them, you take away some of the leverage you have to negotiate. Imagine how much more quickly and better your conflict with your employer might resolve if you stay in the workplace when they really, really want you gone.  

E. Illegally Harassing Workplaces

One of the few exceptions to my "don't quit" rule of thumb may be the workplace where employees are being illegally harassed. It of course depends on your situation, but if you are being harassed because of your race, sex, religion, disability, or a handful of other protected characteristics, and you find you can't stay in the workplace, the rules I've discussed above may not apply.


The bottom line is that, if you feel that your workplace has become so intolerable that you can't stay there, talk to an attorney before you take any action that may affect your rights.

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