Wednesday, June 3, 2015

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 inquiring as to whether they can quit their job and get unemployment benefits.  These folks are typically in a great deal of emotional pain, because they have devoted themselves to their job only to be subjected to unfair treatment.

Common Exit Strategy
In my experience, the most common reason that people want to quit their job is, by far, a belief 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

Like all employment law situations, issues relating to workplace bullying must be viewed through the prism of the employment at-will rule.  Generally, this rule is that employees who are  mistreated at work, up to and including being fired for no good reason, are without legal recourse unless the mistreatment is motivated by unlawful discriminatory motives (i.e. dislike of a person because of his/her age, sex, race, national origin, religious beliefs or disability).

Sad to say, but, absent underlying discrimination, it is not illegal for a company to permit bullying by co-workers, supervisors and managers.

Under What Circumstances Does Workplace Bullying Equate to Unlawful Discrimination?

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.

Workplace Bullying Illegal Only if Based Upon Dislike of Victim
Because of His/Her Age, Sex, Race, Disability, etc.
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 (that is, of course, unless "everyone" means all women, all minorities, all older workers, etc.)

If the Boss Makes Everyone's Life Miserable,
it is Hard to Prove You are Being "Singled Out" for Mistreatment
Because of Your Age, Sex, Race, etc. 
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 (with a different sort of "fun and games," of course).

*  No one likes a tattle tale.
As True for Adults at Work as it is for Children on the Playground
*  Bosses and co-workers get very angry when a complaint is made about them by a subordinate/peer, and angry people often retaliate against those that they feel have done them harm.

*  People in general do not like doing "extra work."  This applies to HR representatives, who are responsible for investigating "hostile work environment."

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

*  Due to the foregoing concepts, complaining employees often find themselves feeling alienated from co-workers, supervisors and HR.

For these reasons, I have found, people who complain about co-workers are usually viewed with disdain by the people about whom they complained, by management in general and by the HR representatives who must investigate the complaints.  Moreover, those offended by the complaint often engage in overt and/or subtle retaliatory tactics designed to punish the complaining employee, and sometimes to even make the complainer quit.

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 or manager.  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.

All Signs Point to Retaliation Against the Complaining Employee
However, it is not illegal for management to retaliate against an employee who complains about general workplace bullying.  That is because, in general, workplace bullying is not in and of itself illegal.

What is Illegal Workplace Retaliation?

Mistreating an employee because of animosity grounded in 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. Therefore, making a complaint specifically alleging such illegal workplace behavior gives rise to protection from retaliation under state and federal anti-discrimination laws.
EEOC Investigates Claims of Hostility at Work
Because of Employee's Age, Sex, Race, etc.
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 attorney who represents employees, 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 to some degree.  They do not bully because they do not like the color of someone's skin, their gender or their age, 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 specific illegal workplace behavior, i.e. harassing conduct based upon dislike of the victim's age, sex, race, religion, etc.  

Bosses who Are Mean Jerks are Common,
but Their Cruelty is Rarely Unlawful
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 to prove the existence of 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."

It is Very Difficult to Qualify for Unemployment in Pennsylvania
if the Claimant Quit His/Her Job Due to Workplace Bullying
There are ways to accomplish successfully quitting a job and qualifying for unemployment benefits due to a toxic work environment, but doing so without legal guidance is extremely difficult. Pennsylvanian courts have 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. There are specific strategies that must be employed before an employee can have any realistic chance of getting unemployment after quitting a job due to a poisonous work environment.

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

Yes.  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.
Who Says You Can't?
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.

Helping Pennsylvania Employees Since 1991
Philadelphia Are Employment Attorney Representing Employees

John A. Gallagher is an employment lawyer who represents employees in Pennsylvania. 

John typically represents employees who need an employment lawyer in Philadelphia County, Chester County, Delaware County, Bucks County, Berks County, Lancaster County and Montgomery County.

Pennsylvania Employment Attorney Provides Free Telephone Consultations

If you are looking for an employment lawyer, and live in Malvern, Wayne, King of Prussia, Downingtown, Glenside, Doylestown, Radnor, Newtown Square, Exton, Philadelphia, West Chester, Skippack, Langhorne, Haverford, Nether Providence, Broomall, Drexel Hill, Reading or any of their surrounding towns, feel free to send me an e-mail or give me a call.  I am always glad to spend some time with people via a free telephone consultation.

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Click Here if you have questions about any aspect of employment law, from wrongful termination, to wage and overtime claims, non-compete and severance packages, to discrimination and retaliation laws, to Family and Medical Leave

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