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Constructive termination: When forcing an employee to quit is the same as being fired

Under the constructive termination principal, if you quit your job because the working conditions were so intolerable, your employer may still be responsible as if you were fired. If you had no reasonable alternative given the intolerable working conditions, read on.

But note, not every worker who quits can assert a constructive termination claim. In fact, when an employee quits, it can become difficult to show that the employer constructively terminated the employee's employment. Feeling like your employer did something wrong may not be enough. The employer's conduct must have effectively forced you to quit.

In California, an employee must show:

  1. His/her working environment was so unusually adverse that a reasonable employee in a similar or same situation would have felt compelled to resign; and
  2. The employer either intended to force the resignation or had actual knowledge of the intolerable working conditions.

So what type of action on behalf of an employer is enough for a constructive termination claim? A continuous pattern of extraordinary conduct or harassment is required before your resignation can be considered as a constructive termination. For example, a single negative performance evaluation or an isolated act does not typically amount to intolerable or unusually adverse working conditions. However, in a severe situation, say a crime of violence by the employer against an employee or a requirement by your employer to commit a crime may be enough to constitute unusually adverse conditions. Similarly, harassing an employee based on a protected characteristic, such as a disability, injury or illness may qualify.

It may be difficult to successfully assert a constructive termination claim if your employer did not know about the intolerable working conditions. To demonstrate that your employer forced the resignation, you must show that the employer intended to either create or maintain intolerable working conditions or that the employer had knowledge of the conditions. For example, an employee must notify a manager, supervisor or someone in a position of authority concerning the conditions so that the employer has an opportunity to attempt to remedy the situation first.

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