A genuinely hostile work environment – at least in legal terms – doesn't actually occur all that often. You can be bullied, berated and intimidated all workday long, but you won’t be able to collect unemployment unless you can prove your work environment was legally hostile. You must quit for a specific reason that qualifies under the law, the most common being discrimination – meaning that the abuse aimed at you is based on your gender, sexual orientation, age, race, nationality, religion or disability.
Keep written records of your workplace environment, and be sure to report the offensive behavior to your supervisor or human resources department before you make a claim for unemployment.
Voluntarily leaving your job usually prevents you from collecting unemployment benefits, but if you’re forced to quit due to a hostile work environment, this is a constructive discharge. It might have been your employer’s intention to drive you to quit, or maybe he knew you were being subjected to hostile treatment and did nothing about it, so you had no other option but to resign. A hostile work environment is the only grounds for a constructive discharge claim.
What You Must Prove
You must meet a few burdens of proof if you’re going to make a successful claim to the unemployment office:
- You must be able to establish a direct relationship between the way you were treated and the fact that you quit. Ideally, you resigned on the same date the most recent negative incident occurred. If you wait too long or if your tormentor has since been fired or left his job, you could lose your right to a claim.
- You must show that you didn’t suffer in silence. You made a verifiable complaint to your boss, supervisor or human resources department.
- You must establish that not only was your work environment offensive to you, but that any reasonable person would have been upset by it.
How to Prove Your Claim
Your state isn’t going to take your word for it that you were subjected to a hostile work environment, so you’ll need tangible evidence to back up your claim. If you complain to your boss or the human resources department, do it in writing or follow up in writing. Keep your own notes as well, but keep them at home, not in your desk drawer or on your work computer.
Go into as much detail as possible with each incident, beyond just the date, the time and a summary of what occurred. Consider getting signed statements from co-workers who have witnessed the treatment you were subjected to, or who might even have been treated badly themselves. This type of “me too” testimony isn’t always admissible in court, but you’re attempting to establish a claim with your unemployment office, not a judge or jury.
As a Last Resort
If your claim for unemployment benefits is unsuccessful, contact the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Explain what happened and give your documentation to an EEOC counselor. The EEOC will investigate to determine whether discrimination against you has taken place. If so, it will try to reach a settlement with your employer or, failing that, refer the matter to its legal staff.