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Hellmuth & Johnson

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Don’t Quit: Tips for Beleaguered Employees

Beleaguered employees who quit their jobs often find that they are giving up significant legal rights, or at least leverage, that might help them achieve a more graceful exit from the workplace. This is particularly true of Minnesota where the standards for achieving success for an employee who voluntarily quits or resigns, are slim. The reasons that employees quit are understandable:

  • Many feel that they are being maltreated or facing a hostile work environment, which is often accompanied by harassment based on a gender, disability, age, or other illicit consideration.

  • They often lack strong support mechanisms, externally or internally, to stabilize or fortify their positions.

  • In many cases, they have tried to alleviate, or remedy the situation, usually going through established mechanisms without success. 

  • Some feel that by quitting they will enhance whatever legal position they might have for adverse treatment. 

But these premises are often flawed, and unbeknownst to many quitting employees have the opposite effect of strengthening their legal rights. To the contrary, by quitting, employees usually forfeit significant opportunities and rights. 

One adage recognized by knowledgeable attorneys is that “quitting is like slashing your wrists and going into the emergency room.” Another variant is “quitting is like jumping off a bridge into a river and asking someone to throw you a life jacket.”

These metaphors reflect that quitting is negating to the best interests of an employee. One reason is that Minnesota law makes it very difficult for employees to pursue legal rights if they have quit, whether for good reason or not. By quitting, they generally cannot sue for wrongful termination or violation of their rights. Instead, they must claim “co-constructive” discharge, a legal doctrine, which has high standards. To prevail on a “constructive discharge” claim, a quitting employee in Minnesota must show that the circumstances in the workplace were so intolerable that a reasonable person could not endure them. This necessitates proving much more than the normal degree of animosity or adversity in the workplace. Additionally, the employee must establish that the management created a hostile work condition for the express purpose of forcing the employee to quit, a criterion that is extremely difficult to prove. By quitting an employee is significantly impaired in seeking unemployment compensation benefits. An employee who voluntarily resigns must show that there was “good cause” attributable to the employer to quit in order to obtain unemployment benefits, a standard that is very high and usually beyond achievement. Further, claims for discrimination, violation of the whistleblower statute, or other unlawful behavior are impaired by quitting. 

In summation, employees are well advised not to quit, even if they find themselves in an unacceptable work environment. This does not leave a beleaguered employee without recourse.  There are a number of options available to an employee in these troubled circumstances. They include the following:

  • Employees who feel they are being treated adversely may wish to document the maltreatment and communicate it to management, usually through a human resources department or personnel department at workplaces that have such units. Documenting the maltreatment may lead to resolution or provide an appropriate “paper trail” for assertion of later claims.  

  • In many cases, an employee can take a leave of absence, if medically documented, for stress or other medical-based reasons. An employee can use sick leave, or if available Paid Time Off (PTO), to get a “time out” from work. This allows the employee to avoid further adverse treatment, and may place the employee in a position where a workplace severance can be obtained.

  • For employees who work for large companies (50 or more employees), the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) may provide an alternative if they work for more than a year on a full time basis. It allows employees up to 12 weeks of leave of absence, usually unpaid, but subject to receiving compensation under disability insurance policies for stress-related reasons. The employee must provide proof of disability through a certified medical provider in order to use this vehicle. 

  • An FMLA leave, usually running up to 12 weeks, can be extended under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires employers to provide a “reasonable accommodation” for employees with an affliction that impairs their ability to work.

  • Utilizing these devices can give an employee an opportunity to avert further adverse treatment, and provide an opportunity for an employee to negotiate a workplace severance. While there is no assurance that severance will be available, an employee on a leave of absence for medical reasons is in a much better position to do so, than one who quits. Further, unemployment compensation benefits may be available to an employee who takes a leave of absence and even then resigns, if the employee establishes a health-related reason for the departure from the workplace.

  • As a final result, employees may pursue legal action, and even prevail. Most employees, who work on an at-will-basis, have minimal legal rights. However, if there is discrimination, violation of statutory rights like the whistleblower one, or other wrongdoing they may be able to assert legal claims that could lead to achieving a reasonable severance or other settlement. Quitting undermines their ability to accomplish these objectives.

The old saying “quitters aren’t winners” applies with full force to employees who voluntarily quit their position, even those who do so because of a hostile workplace. There are a number of alternatives available to them that can enhance their legal position that avoid forfeiting or minimizing their rights.