Beware of Forcing Workers to Quit

Hounded by the press, facing a trial in Congress, and abandoned by his own party, President Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974. He remains the only U.S. president ever to resign the office.

But if Nixon had been a corporate manager instead of a public servant, he might be able to argue that he was actually fired.

That's because of a little-known legal concept called constructive termination. In constructive termination an employee quits her job because her working conditions have become unbearable.

The resignation is voluntary.

A court, however, might view such a resignation as involuntary because by not repairing the working situation, the employer has, in effect, forced the employee to leave. An employee forced to leave under these circumstances can successfully sue her former employer. So beware.

You may sometimes find yourself wishing that Bertha Bademployee "would just quit." But don't look the other way — because Bertha's discomfort can become your legal problem.

Take Action

Encourage employees to come to you.

You don't want to face a constructive termination lawsuit over a problem you didn't even know existed. Suppose, for example, an employee feels she must quit because she can no longer face the racial epithets being left in her voicemail or e-mail. That's a problem you could have taken steps to correct if you knew about it. Make yourself accessible.

Investigate all claims.

If an employee comes to you with a complaint, take it seriously. Investigate to figure out, as best you can, what's really going on. Don't just hope the problem will "go away."

If you find that an employee's complaint is valid, take action to solve the problem; ignoring it may be seen as condoning the behavior. Deal with the problem directly, openly and honestly. Offer training to employees who are causing the problem or, if need be, discipline (including terminating) those responsible.

If an employee has a performance problem, deal with it.

Meet with the employee and counsel him for improvement or, if need be, discipline the employee. Never resort to giving an employee the cold shoulder, ignoring him at meetings, leaving him out of events or otherwise passively expressing your displeasure.

Stay Out of Jail

Never assume that forcing an employee to quit will end all employment problems and prevent a lawsuit for termination.

Bob Rosner is the co-author of The Boss's Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2001), along with Allan Halcrow, former editor of Workforce Magazine and Alan Levins, senior partner of San Francisco-based employer law firm Littler Mendelson. Rosner is also founder of the award-winning workingwounded.com. He can be reached via fax at (206) 780-4353, and via e-mail at: bob@workingwounded.com.

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