What is Constructive Discharge?

Most people know that it is illegal to fire an employee for certain reasons (for more on wrongful termination, click here).  However, what if, instead of firing you, your employer makes your working conditions so intolerable that it’s nearly impossible for you to continue working?

Under Michigan law, an employer is considered to have “constructively” fired someone when they make an employee’s working conditions “so intolerable that a reasonable person in the employee’s position would feel compelled to resign.”  The standards for constructive discharge are pretty high.  Merely getting a bad performance review, being disciplined, being socially snubbed at work, or even being insulted would generally not be considered such horrible treatment that you were forced to quit.  However, if your employer makes your work environment unsafe or abuses you to the point that you cannot even do you job, you may have a constructive discharge claim.

For example, say an employee reported an employer’s illegal activity to a government agency, and the employer wanted to get back at the employee and maybe even force him to quit.  The employer stops taking the employee out to lunch and takes other employees instead, starts nitpicking the employee’s grammar in all the memos the employee writes, and yawns loudly whenever the employee speaks in meetings to embarrass the employee.  These actions are probably not enough that a Court would decide that a reasonable person in that position would be unable to continue working, and you would not prevail in a “constructive discharge” argument.

On the other hand, say an employee complained to her employer about her supervisor sexually harassing her.  The harassment stops, but the supervisor is angry and wants to get back at her.  He photoshops her face on to inappropriate pictures and posts them throughout the workforce, spreads rumors to coworkers that she is promiscuous, and moves her to a less favorable shift.  These actions would almost certainly be considered enough that a reasonable person in the employee’s position would feel compelled to quit, and you would prevail in your “constructive discharge” argument.

It is important to remember that “constructive discharge” is not a “cause of action” by itself, but rather a legal theory that you use as part of your overall case.  In other words, if it would have been illegal to fire an employee, but instead of firing them you effectively force them out through making an intolerable working environment, you are considered to have “constructively” fired them and it is treated the same as if the employee had been fired outright.  If it would not have been illegal to fire the employee, winning an argument that they were “constructively discharged” is irrelevant because that only means that they are considered to be fired, but the firing itself would have been legal anyways.

If you have questions about “constructive discharge,” or believe that you were forced out of your job for illegal reasons, call Gold Star Law to see if we can help.