Not a Lexis+ subscriber? Try it out for free.

Labor and Employment Law

I Want to Quit My Job, Get a Severance and Be Eligible for Pennsylvania Unemployment Benefits

 I Am Being Bullied at Work by a Co-Worker and Neither HR or Management Have Effectively Addressed My Complaint

Every week, I am contacted by 2-3 people who want to know if they can quit their job and get unemployment benefits. The most common reason, by far, that people want to quit their job is the feeling that they are being bullied or targeted for abuse by a co-worker or supervisor. There are 3 critical principles to bear in mind in a workplace bullying situation.

Workplace Bullying is not Illegal Unless it is Rooted in Discrimination

With rare exception, it is not illegal for a company to permit bullying by co-workers, supervisors and managers. The most common exception to that principle is where the bullying is rooted in discriminatory animosity. If Jane Employee is being bullied by a co-worker who dislikes Jane because of her  age, race, sex, disability, religious beliefs or national origin, Jane is being subjected to an illegal hostile work environment. However, if Jane is being mistreated simply because her supervisor does not like her, or because her co-worker has a personality disorder, Jane is not the victim of an illegal hostile work environment.

The term "hostile work environment " gets tossed about quite a bit. But, while many work environments may be "hostile," an illegal hostile work environment exists only if the mistreatment is motivated by dislike of an employee because of his/her age, sex, race, religion, disability or national origin. So, if the offender bullies and mistreats everyone (which is very often the case), there is little chance that Jane  can prove that she is the victim of unlawful discriminatory treatment.

Employers Often Target People Who Complain

If you believe you are being targeted because you complained about a co-worker or supervisor, you are probably not imagining things. Here are some basic concepts of human nature, none of which will surprise you, that perhaps best explain this all too common phenomenon:

•  Workplaces are like playgrounds for grown-ups (without the games, of course). 

•  No one likes a tattle tale. 

•  People in general do not like doing "extra work." 

•  Investigating employee complaints is a time-consuming and often emotionally challenging task. 

For these reasons, I have found, people who complain about co-workers are usually viewed with disdain by HR and management. This feeling of disdain is frequently accompanied by retaliatory tactics designed to punish the complaining employee, and sometimes to even make the complainer quit. 

Think about it. Haven't we all been one side or the other of this equation during our lives?

Since Bullying is not Illegal, and People Who Complain are Disfavored, Retaliation Against the Complaining Employee is Common, and Usually Not Illegal

I get a lot of calls from people who tell me they suspect they are being retaliated against because they made a complaint against a co-worker. Given my views, as expressed above, you probably will not be surprised to hear that I usually have no problem believing that their suspicions are well-founded.

However, it is not illegal for management to retaliate against an employee who complains about workplace bullying. That is because workplace bullying itself is not illegal.

What is Illegal Workplace Retaliation?

Mistreating an employee because of animosity based upon dislike of the person because of his/her age, sex, race, national origin, disability or religious beliefs is illegal under Title VII, and related state and federal laws prohibiting discrimination. Making a complaint alleging such illegal workplace behavior gives rise to protection from retaliation under state and federal anti-discrimination laws.

So, if an employee is subjected to unwarranted mistreatment by management (i.e. demotion, failure to promote, suspension, termination, etc.), within months of making a complaint of an illegal hostile work environment, a claim for illegal retaliation will lie.

What is Legal Workplace Retaliation?

As an employee who represents employees, and consistently seeks to see that employee's rights to fair treatment at work are secured, it pains me to suggest, much less plainly say, that it is legal for companies to retaliate against an employee who complains about being treated cruelly or unfairly at work. However, the fact is, in most cases retaliation against a complaining employee is not illegal, and hence, it can be said, is legal

The reality is, many people who engage in bullying tactics at work, or elsewhere, do so simply because they have a personality disorder of some kind and degree. They do not bully because they do not like the color of someone's skin, or their gender, but simply because they are...mean people. And, the laws of the United States do not prohibit mean people from being mean at work.

Under the tapestry of state and federal anti-discrimination laws protecting American employees that currently exists, an employee is only protected from retaliation if the employee first complained about illegal workplace behavior, i.e. harassing conduct based upon dislike of the victim's age, sex, race, religion, etc. An employee is not protected from retaliation if the employee's initial complain was simply that his/her co-worker or boss was a mean, cruel, unfair tyrant.

Can I Quit My Job and Get Unemployment in Pennsylvania?

It is pretty hard to qualify for unemployment in Pennsylvania if you quit because of a "hostile work 
environment."  One needs a necessitous and compelling reason to quit a job in order to get unemployment. Toxic work environments are viewed as common, and employees who quit because they feel they are being treated badly are viewed as "overly sensitive." 

There are ways to accomplish successfully quitting a job and qualifying for unemployment benefits, but doing so without legal guidance is extremely difficult. Pennsylvania has long disfavored awarding people who quit their jobs with unemployment benefits. There are many, many cases that have narrowed an employee's ability to succeed in this setting.

There are ways of making such a claim more feasible, but doing so without the benefit of understanding how the law works in this regard is extremely challenging.

Are There Lawyers That Help People Quit Their Job, Get Severance and Qualify for Unemployment?

I am one such lawyer. Ultimately, I accomplish this outcome via opening up negotiations with counsel for the company at just the right time.

It is a process, but it can be done.

Think about it this way:

•  If you are unhappy with work, work is likely unhappy with you.

•  If you are thinking about suing your employer, your employer is likely concerned that it may be sued by you.

•  If you want to leave work, the company probably wants you to leave work.

•  Lawsuits are expensive, risky and disruptive.

•  Companies want to avoid lawsuits.

•  Paying an employee some severance, and allowing the employee to obtain unemployment, is often viewed as a fair price to pay for ending a relationship with an unhappy employee with a guarantee that the departing employee will not sue or bad mouth the company in the future.

It is for these reasons that, if one's attorney plays his/her cards right, you may be able to have your cake and eat it too.

  Read more articles about employment law issues at Philadelphia Area Employment Lawyer, a blog by John A. Gallagher.

For more information about LexisNexis products and solutions, please connect with us through our corporate site.