The Legal Drawbacks of Quitting

To an employee in a bad work environment, quitting seems like an appealing option. Maybe a new boss has joined the company and is stifling your opportunity to advance, holding you to unrealistic expectations, subjecting you to unjustified performance scrutiny, or some combination of any or all of the above.  Maybe a coworker or supervisor is treating you in a generally hostile manner or interfering with your work.

Employees who have to deal with these types of adverse work situations often feel trapped: they could either grin and bear the negativity to continue holding onto the job (usually with the hope that the situation improves on its own), or quit and face the uncertainty of unemployment or the possibility of entering into an equally bad or worse employment situation somewhere else. Many employees will choose the option of quitting as it can offer a sense of immediate gratification and enables them to take back some feeling of control over otherwise unmanageable circumstances.

Yet, despite how attractive the idea is of having the separation occur on the employee’s own terms, quitting is rarely the best approach from a legal standpoint. And, when employees are faced with grim circumstances at work that prompt thoughts of quitting, they usually have more options than they think.

Why Quitting Can be Problematic

The practical downsides of quitting can be obvious and may include burning professional bridges, jeopardizing employment references necessary to secure reemployment, or risking a prolonged period of unemployment in the absence of another job offer. The legal ramifications of quitting may be less obvious, but they are just as important for an employee to contemplate.

I. Quitting Usually Disqualifies an Employee from Unemployment Benefits

In Illinois, an employee who quits voluntarily without good cause attributable to the employer is not eligible to receive unemployment benefits. “Good cause” depends on the facts of the specific case, but essentially, the situation has to be serious enough such that a reasonable person in the same situation would leave the job.  820 ILCS 405/601.  Good cause includes situations such as a doctor deems the employee incapable of working, the employee is suffering sexual harassment at work, or the employee had to leave work because of verified domestic violence such that the employee’s continued employment would jeopardize the safety of the employee or his or her spouse, minor child, or parent.  Good cause does not include instances in which there is a mere personality conflict between the employee and a supervisor or coworker, or in which the employee suffers job stress (unless the employer has made the working environment so bad as to essentially change the terms and conditions of the employment).

II. Quitting Can Cut Off Damages from Legal Claims that an Employee May Have

The factual circumstances that cause employees to think about quitting may be derived from conduct on the part of the employer that may give rise to legal claims. For instance, if a supervisor is subjecting the employee to unjustified performance scrutiny or hostility after the employee announced a pregnancy, disclosed a disability, took a medical leave, or engaged in other protected conduct, the employee may have actionable legal claims.  Similarly, if the employer treats the employee an adverse manner as compared to others outside of the protected class, including disparate treatment on the basis of age, gender, race, national origin etc., the employee may have viable legal claims.

If an employee voluntarily quits under circumstances where the employer’s conduct gives rise to legal claims, the employee risks cutting off lost wages and other damages stemming from those claims because any losses the employee suffers as a result of the separation could be deemed attributable to the employee.

In rare instances, an employee may be able to argue that the resignation amounted to a “constructive discharge” to prevent damages from being cut off, but this is a very difficult legal argument to make, and most courts recognize “constructive discharges” only in the most extreme cases, for example, where the working conditions become so intolerable that a reasonable person in the employee’s position would have felt compelled to resign. Typically such circumstances are found to exist in very egregious situations where physical threats are made or where a person’s safety is endangered.  Absent extenuating circumstances, the more common situations of job hostility or stress do not necessarily pass muster.

Other Options Apart from Quitting            

If an employee is faced with a hostile or adverse working environment, he or she should consult with an attorney to explore whether any legal claims may exist and what options are in the best interests of the employee. Those options may include making an internal complaint about the employer’s conduct to give the employer an opportunity to investigate and correct the inappropriate or unlawful behavior.  Those options may also include negotiating a separation.

Employees often find it very difficult to make internal complaints of discrimination, but this can be done with the assistance of an attorney if necessary. When an employer is formally notified of the problem and knows that the situation has become serious enough for an employee to retain counsel, the employer is often much more receptive to working toward an internal resolution with the employee, even if the employee has previously attempted to resolve the situation himself or herself to no avail.  If, instead, the employer takes further adverse action against an employee after making a complaint of discrimination, the employer risks subjecting themselves to liability and exposure for unlawful retaliation.

A more permanent option to explore apart from quitting, other than making an internal complaint, is to attempt to negotiate a separation. The benefits of negotiating a separation as opposed to simply resigning are that the employee may have the potential to leverage legal claims or the good will that they have accumulated during their tenure in exchange for a severance payment and other significant terms: such as medical benefits, outplacement services, the employer’s agreement not to contest unemployment benefits, a positive reference, the employer’s agreement not to disparage the employee, and other employee-favorable items.  A negotiated separation can give the employee an opportunity to leave the old employer amicably and ease the transition so that the employee minimizes the financial and professional burdens of the job loss.  If the employee or his or her attorney can successfully negotiate a separation with the employer, the employee will generally leave on much better terms than if the employee had chosen to simply resign.

Each employment situation is different and every employee has individualized objectives so those contemplating quitting should consult an attorney before doing so in order to ensure that they are informed of all of their options and can make the decision that best suits their needs and goals.