Like every other state in the U.S. other than Montana, New Jersey is an “employment-at-will” state. In most cases, a private employer can fire a worker with or without cause, for any legal reason or no reason whatsoever. Unless an employer has made promises to engage in progressive discipline or another performance improvement system, workers have no right to any due process, disciplinary action, or advance notice before being fired. Most workers are not entitled to severance or any other compensation other than what they have already earned.
Just as employers have no obligation to give a worker notice of termination, at-will employees can quit at any time, with or without notice. They can fail to show up for work at the appointed time or spectacularly “rage quit” in front of customers and coworkers. For workers enduring poor treatment, abuse, wage theft, retaliation, harassment, and other harsh working conditions, it can be tempting to quit on their own terms rather than waiting to be fired. Exercising this option, however, can be costly. You should consider a few things before you voluntarily end your employment relationship.
Retaliatory Discharge and Wrongful Termination
Employers may not fire or take adverse employment actions against at-will employees for illegal reasons. Some characteristics are protected under federal non-discrimination laws and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), including race, gender, religion, national origin, marital status, age, pregnancy, perceived or actual sexual orientation, disability, military status, and veteran status. Employers who discriminate, retaliate, or otherwise encourage hostility towards workers based on their protected characteristics violate state and federal law. It’s also illegal to fire or retaliate against workers who blow the whistle on or refuse to participate in illegal workplace activities. Victimized workers may be entitled to compensation for these wrongful actions.
However, it can be challenging to prove whether an employer’s actions are based on legitimate business decisions or motivated by discriminatory purposes. Sometimes, it can even be difficult to show that an employer took adverse action against an aggrieved employee. For example, transferring a worker to another jobsite or different schedule may not be obviously negative, and a claimant may need to bring additional evidence to prove it was a demotion or punishment.
On the other hand, being fired is generally accepted as a negative or adverse employment action. If you suspect your employer intends to terminate you based on a protected characteristic or because you have blown the whistle on wrongdoing, it may be better for your case to let them fire you rather than turning in your notice. Sometimes, employers even tip their hand, explicitly revealing that they are letting you go for prohibited and discriminatory reasons. Employers may explain that they are terminating you “to help relieve your physical stress because of your recent health issues” or because “our customers don’t like being helped by a foreigner.” Persevering until you receive black-and-white proof of discrimination in your termination letter can help you recover compensation much more quickly and easily for their wrongdoing. This can be far more valuable than the momentary satisfaction of leaving a bad boss in the lurch or walking off a job.
When Quitting May Constitute Constructive Discharge
Many employees feel pressured to quit because of harassment or hostility they experience in the workplace because of a protected characteristic, like sexual harassment or hostility based on race, religion, and national origin. This kind of behavior can lead to allegations of a hostile work environment. Employees who are subjected to such an environment may turn in their notice or quit outright rather than continue to withstand the abuse.
If the conditions are sufficiently and objectively bad, an employee who quits in such a situation may be able to prove they were “constructively discharged.” If they are successful, the law characterizes their resignation as an “involuntary termination.” This allows them to apply for various benefits only available to employees who have been terminated through no fault of their own (such as unemployment and other insurance benefits, continued access to programs or employer-provided benefits, eligibility for re-hire, etc.).
To prove a constructive discharge claim in New Jersey, an employee must show that
(1) Their employer intentionally created or knowingly permitted intolerable conditions of employment that would make a reasonable person resign, and
(2) Those conditions directly caused them to resign.
The New Jersey Supreme Court explained that a plaintiff should provide evidence of “conduct that is so intolerable that a reasonable person would be forced to resign rather than continue to endure it. More precisely, the standard envisions a ‘sense of outrageous, coercive and unconscionable requirements.’” Because this standard is so high, it is best to consult with an experienced employment attorney before you take any action.
Are You Experiencing Workplace Harassment or Abuse?
If you believe you have been the victim of discrimination or a wrongful adverse employment action, or if you are being harassed in your workplace, consult with an experienced employment attorney. You may have options to improve your current work situation, including engaging in mediation, pursuing a claim with the EEOC, or filing a lawsuit. You don’t have to quit to get the respect and compensation you deserve, but you should take action now. Call a lawyer and learn about how you can improve your present situation and take control of your future.
 Shepherd v. Hunterdon Developmental Center, 174 N.J. 1 (N.J. 2002) 803 A.2d 611