If you’re unhappy and you quit, have you been constructively dismissed? Most often the answer is ‘No’. Find out why.

Unhappy workers often ask me if they have been constructively dismissed if they quit their job.

Actually, I rarely come right out and tell them no. The most common answer is: "It depends on the circumstances".

To put it into plain English that an employee can understand, simply being unhappy in the workplace is insufficient grounds upon which to base a claim of constructive dismissal. It is not that the employee's feelings are downplayed or irrelevant, but that a dismissal of any sort is an action that is initiated by an employer, not an employee, and therefore it is the employer's actions not the employee's feelings that will give rise to a constructive dismissal.

'Constructive dismissal' is when an employer unilaterally makes such substantial changes to the employee’s agreement or conditions of employment so as to breach the terms of the agreement, amounting to an indirect termination. By unilaterally seeking to make substantial changes to the express or implied terms of the employment agreement, the employer is ceasing to meet its obligations and is therefore terminating the agreement.  The employee can then treat the agreement as resiled for breach and can leave.  In such circumstances, the employee is entitled to compensation in lieu of notice and, where appropriate, remedies.

One of the key words there is "unilaterally". This means that the employer has made a decision without input or consultation with the employee, that has resulted in a breach of the terms of the agreement.

While generally, an employee would be expected to consider the agreement repudiated and leave immediately in order to claim compensation, in some circumstances (like economic uncertainty), an employee may be considered to have acted reasonably to stay on to mitigate his or her losses while looking for another job if the atmosphere is not hostile or embarrassing.

Examples of constructive dismissal would include:
  •  demeaning actions by the employer, inlcuding diminishing responsibilities or changing core tasks of the job
  •  overt communication of wanting to get rid of the employee, or suggesting they should resign or look elsewhere for work
  •  a clear breach of any written terms and conditions of the employment that would affect wage or salary and enjoyment of the job or work/life balance
  •  a decrease in compensation or benefits, or demotion to a lower paid job

So, if you're in a position where you are unhappy in the workplace, the first port of call is to clearly identify why you are unhappy, and analyse whether it is because your employer has breached your agreement or simply because they have done something you don't like.

Generally speaking, if you're unhappy at work there is something wrong with the relationship, so it's a good idea to keep a diary of every incident that makes you feel bad and discuss these things with your employer so they have an opportunity to correct the problem. Failing to correct the problem is often what gives rise to the constructive dismissal.

And as always - don't resign until you've had some advice!