This is just general information, not legal advice. If you need legal advice about your specific situation, we urge you to find a lawyer who can help you.
We’re going to tell you an important secret. Something that CEOs, HR people, and lawyers already know, but you probably don’t.
If you’ve been badly treated at your workplace to the point where you feel you need to quit your job, you may be able to get your employer to give you money by sending them what’s called a demand letter.
A demand letter is not guaranteed to get you money. Some employers will ignore it, or just tell you no. But it works often enough to make it worth trying.
How demand letters work
A demand letter is just an ordinary letter or email that you or your lawyer sends to your employer. It describes the bad treatment you experienced at work, and asks your employer to give you money in exchange for you agreeing to not sue them.
The premise of a demand letter is that you have been harassed to the point where it’s impossible for you to do your job, which means you need to quit, and the whole thing is your employer’s fault for not stopping the harassment.
You send a demand letter when you’re planning to quit—or, in some cases, after you’ve been fired. If you’re staying at work, you might send a demand letter if, for example, a co-worker has harassed you, causing a psychological injury. You could send a demand letter asking your employer to reimburse you for the money you’ve spent on counselling.
Here’s what usually happens:
- You’re badly treated at work, and your employer doesn’t fix the problem. Maybe you complain, and they punish you.
- You decide you need to quit. Or, you get fired.
- You send a demand letter to your employer.
- Your employer might ignore the letter, but usually they’ll reply. They may agree to give you everything you asked for, or some of it, or they reject your entire request.
- You accept what they’ve offered, or push for more. You might go back and forth for a while, negotiating.
- Eventually one of two things happens. Either you accept an offer, in which case you then sign a release letter, agreeing you will not take them to court. This is called a settlement. Or, you reject their offer (or there is no offer), in which case you need to decide whether to proceed with a lawsuit.
Why demand letters are great
Going to court is slow and expensive. Lots of people never even talk with a lawyer, because they know they can’t afford to pay for a legal dispute that might last years.
That’s where the demand letter comes in. A demand letter is essentially a threat. You are saying (or implying) that, if your demands aren’t met, you’ll take your employer to court.
But the important part is you don’t have to actually go to court. If you send a demand letter that gets ignored or rejected, you can stop right there and that’s the end of it.
This means that a demand letter is a pretty cheap, pretty easy way to see if you can get your employer to give you some money. If you can, that’s great. If you can’t, there’s no real harm done.
The one major cost of a demand letter is the lawyer who writes it for you. You can write a demand letter yourself, but if you can afford it, it’s better to have a lawyer do it. Lawyers know how to phrase things in a way that will make it as likely as possible that your employer will pay up.
Usually a lawyer will charge a flat fee to write the letter. Between $200 and $500 is common, but a lawyer might charge more if your matter is complicated.
We couldn’t find any Canadian statistics on how well demand letters work. But one U.S. survey found that almost 60% of people who sent a demand letter received a settlement, compared with only 36% of people who didn’t.
Why your employer might agree to give you money
In theory, your employer would only give you money if they thought you had a strong legal case. But in practice, there are lots of other reasons employers might do it:
- They want to avoid a long and expensive court fight.
- They would rather pay a smaller amount of money now, instead of what might be a bigger amount later (if you win a lawsuit).
- They don’t want to be embarrassed in public by whatever gets said in a court case.
- They don’t want their other employees to be mad at them for how they treated you.
- They don’t want potential new employees to hear they’re a bad employer.
- They don’t want you to be mad at them.
- They feel bad about what happened to you, and want to make it right.
Here are some things that might mean you’re more likely to win a settlement:
- Your employer thinks you’re good at your job.
- You’ve worked there longer than two years.
- Other employees, or customers/clients, like and respect you.
- There’s someone in management who knows you personally and likes you.
- You think your employer feels bad about how you’ve been treated.
- If what happened to you became public, people might be angry with your employer.
- You’re female, racialized, 2SLGBTQIA+, or disabled.
What a demand letter usually looks like
Here’s what a demand letter typically looks like. They are usually a maximum of four pages.
It’s important to direct the letter to the right person. Usually the more senior they are, the better—like the head of HR, the CEO, or maybe the general counsel.
Statement that you are leaving, why, and when
Explain a little about yourself, like what your job is at the company, when you started work, and how long you have worked there. If you have gotten good feedback on your work, you’ll want to say that too.
It’s important to be very clear that you are leaving your job. You should say when your last day of work will be. Usually that’s right away (“my resignation is effective immediately”), though sometimes it’s one or two weeks in the future.
Your lawyer can help you explain exactly why you’re leaving. Normally it’s because your employer has not resolved the harassment problem and so your workplace is unsafe. Sometimes it’s also because your employer has retaliated against you for complaining about being harassed. See Getting punished for complaining and how to protect yourself.
Factual statement of what happened and how it hurt you
Here the letter will describe the harassment you’ve experienced and your efforts to report it to your employer. Sometimes this part will be just a few sentences, and sometimes it’ll be several pages.
You’ll also describe how the harassment has hurt you: cost you money and/or caused you pain and suffering. You should write about any physical or mental health symptoms you’ve experienced, any medical diagnoses you’ve received (for example, anxiety or depression), any medications you’ve been prescribed, and any other harms you’ve suffered. If you feel you have been punished for complaining, you should describe that too.
Description of what you want
In this part of the letter, you’ll describe exactly what you want. This almost always includes money. Generally, you should ask for more money than you really expect to get. Some people say you should figure out the minimum amount you want, and ask for double.
You can also ask for things other than money, like a positive reference letter. Sometimes people ask to be allowed to describe their departure as a resignation rather than a dismissal. Sometimes they want to write the announcement that will go out saying they are leaving. You might ask to keep company property, like a laptop or cellphone. Usually it’s pretty easy to get your employer to agree to your non-money asks.
Any practical information about company property
Because you’re resigning, you need to tell your employer what company property you have, and how and when you plan to return it. It’s normal for your employer to expect you to return any company property, usually within a week or so of your last working day. Some employers will insist that you return their property, and in that case you definitely need to do it.
Date by which you would like a reply
It’s important to include a reply-by date, so that, if your employer plans to ignore your letter, you will know. Usually the date is about a week in the future, but sometimes it’s as short as a few days, or as long as two to three weeks.
More about demand letters
What is the right tone?
The letter should be factual and polite. It shouldn’t sound angry. It should be written in a more formal way if it’s signed by your lawyer, and it can be less formal if it’s signed by you. If your relationship with your employer is hostile, the letter should still be courteous. If your relationship has been mostly positive, the letter can be friendly.
Remember that sending a demand letter is not actually a hostile act. What you’re saying in the letter is that, even though you have a legal claim, you are willing to resolve it in a friendly fashion, rather than by going to court.
Usually it’s better to keep your options open rather than committing to a specific course of action. But sometimes (especially if your employer is hostile) it might save time to say exactly what you will do if your demands aren’t met. Your lawyer can help you figure this out.
What should my letter ask for?
Usually the letter should give a specific amount. This saves time, because your employer doesn’t have to guess what you want.
It’s also normal to ask for things like a positive reference letter. It’s normal to ask to keep company property. (Although employers sometimes say no.) You could also ask for an apology from your employer or from the harasser. You could ask that the harasser be required to attend sexual harassment training.
If I send a demand letter and I don’t get any money, does that mean I need to go to court?
No. Nothing about sending a demand letter commits you to actually going ahead with a lawsuit. But your letter is more likely to be successful if your employer believes you might go to court.
How should I deliver a demand letter?
You can send it by registered mail if you want to be able to prove it was received, but it’s not necessary. You could also hand deliver a copy.
It’s increasingly common to send a demand letter by email. If you do this, you should send it from your personal account, not your work account, and ask your employer to confirm they have received it. If they don’t confirm it, you will want to then deliver the letter in some other way.
If I send a demand letter and it’s ignored or rejected, what should I do?
You might decide to write a follow-up letter that restates what you want, and what you’ll do if you don’t get it. You might decide to start a legal case. Or you could decide to do nothing. It’s entirely up to you.
If I send a demand letter, what’s the worst thing that could happen?
Your employer might talk negatively about you to other people. They might refuse to give you a good reference. The worst-case outcome is probably that they are permanently angry with you, and you have burned a bridge and will never have a good relationship with them again.
Here are some examples of demand letters.
- Demand letter from a person harassed by a co-worker
- Demand letter from a bartender harassed by customers
- Demand letter from a person harassed by co-workers and their supervisor
- Demand letter from a lawyer on behalf of a person harassed by co-workers