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. However, a hostile work environment for legal purposes doesn't actually occur all that often. You may find yourself subject to treatment that you don't like or that makes you unhappy or uncomfortable, but if you voluntarily leave your job, you won’t be able to collect unemployment unless you can prove your work environment was hostile under the law. You must have quit based upon your treatment as a protected class – in other words, the abuse aimed at you is based on your gender, sexual orientation, age, race, nationality, religion or disability, or because you blew the whistle on your employer's practices.
What You Must Prove for Constructive Discharge
You must meet a few burdens of proof if you’re going to make a successful claim to the unemployment office if you quit due to hostile work environment:
- 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
If your employer does dispute your unemployment, 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. If your former employer challenges your unemployment claim, you'll have a paper trail to support your position.
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.
Still Need Help? Contact the EEOC
If your former employer challenges your claim for unemployment benefits and you lose, you can contact the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to file a charge. 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.
If you do file a charge with the EEOC, take note that you cannot privately sue your former employer until the EEOC has completed its investigation and issued you a Right to Sue letter. If you think you have a reason to file suit, contact an employment law attorney in your area and keep him up to date on your EEOC progress.
You generally can't collect unemployment if you voluntarily quit, but if you can prove that you quit because you were subject to a hostile work environment due to your status as a member of a protected class or because you reported your employer to an authority or agency, you may be entitled to unemployment as a constructive discharge.
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.