Opinion: “Quiet Firing” is a Legal Minefield for Employers

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Opinion:

While the phenomenon of ‘quiet quitting’ has been widely discussed, a counter-trend known as ‘quiet firing’ has been gaining traction. This underhanded strategy involves employers making an employee’s job conditions unbearable, hoping they’ll resign voluntarily. However, this age-old tactic, legally known as constructive discharge, can backfire spectacularly.

A Legal Storm: The Case of Jennifer Champagne

A notable example of constructive discharge’s legal implications emerged in the recent case of Jennifer Champagne, a dental assistant in Connecticut. She claimed she was forced to resign due to a sexually hostile work environment. In 2021, a jury sided with Champagne, and the U.S. District Court District of Connecticut awarded her damages, ruling her resignation equated to constructive discharge. This decision was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Unpacking Constructive Discharge

Constructive discharge occurs when an employer deliberately makes working conditions intolerable, compelling a reasonable person to resign. Legally, this is equivalent to outright dismissal, entitling the employee to unemployment benefits and the ability to sue for wrongful discharge.

The Fine Line for Employers

While employers must enforce rules and sometimes make unpleasant decisions, actions like persistent verbal abuse, ignoring unlawful harassment, drastic pay cuts, or degrading tasks can lead to a finding of constructive discharge.

Subtle Tactics and Their Risks

More subtle tactics, such as changing remote work policies or imposing unrealistic expectations, could also be interpreted as constructive discharge, depending on the employer’s intentions.

Why Direct Firing is Safer Legally

Surprisingly, direct dismissal can offer more legal protection to employers than quiet firing. A well-documented process of addressing performance issues, followed by a justified termination, can stand strong in court against claims of discrimination or wrongful termination. In contrast, constructive discharge leaves employers vulnerable to allegations of intentional infliction of emotional distress and other claims.*