First, it is important to understand that Massachusetts, courts consider employment to be “at will.” This means that employment is presumed to be voluntary and indefinite for both employers and employees in the absence of contracts that specify otherwise.
Consequently, unless you work under a collective bargaining agreement or another employment contract that specifies otherwise, generally, your employer may “legally” change your job description, (job duties, title, or position,) at any time, just as you may quit your job at any time.Your employer generally may also change other aspects of your job at any time, such as your work location, shift, number of work hours, and pay.
Your employer may not, however, violate a law when changing your job description, job duties, pay, or other terms or conditions of your employment. Under an employment, labor, or whistleblower law, an employer may not adversely change the job description of an employee as retaliatory “punishment” because the employee reasonably exercised his or her rights under the law. Some of the laws have full retaliation protection covering any aspect of employment, but others have only limited protection, such as for wrongful termination alone.
If an employee quits shortly after his employer so-intolerably changed his job duties that it would have compelled any reasonable employee to soon resign, then the employee might have a case for constructive discharge, a form of wrongful termination. Constructive discharge is a legal concept developed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB,) a government agency that protects workers’ union rights, and it renders the doctrine of employment at will inapplicable. The NLRB developed the concept to right the wrong when employers coerced employees to resign because the employees were legitimately involved in union activities.
Constructive discharge generally means an employee resignation that was caused solely by an employer implementing or allowing an extraordinary change that made working conditions so intolerable that they would have compelled any reasonable employee to resign. Constructive discharge is effectively a form of wrongful termination, even though the employee quit. In other words, if an employer implements or allows such an intolerable change that it compels a reasonable employee to resign, then, under the constructive discharge doctrine, it might be akin to the employer illegally firing the employee.
If an employee quits because of something that has always annoyed him or her, that is not likely to constitute constructive discharge. Quitting because of a petty change or one that most reasonable employees would tolerate is also not likely to constitute it. The same goes if an employer made a change for a justifiable business reason and an employee quit simply because he or she didn't like it.
If your employer has adversely changed your job description, contrarily to the terms or conditions specified in the employment contract under which you work, then you might have a case for breach of contract. Consult a lawyer to discover whether or not you might have a legal case if your employer has adversely changed your job description, job duties, pay, or any of the other terms or conditions of your employment. If you’re working under a collective bargaining agreement, then it might be a good idea to also consult your union representative.
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