how to ask to resign instead of being fired

A reader writes:

I’ve been put on a performance improvement plan after about eight months at my job. My manager says that she doesn’t think I have the skills to perform the job to her standards. After three months on the plan, my manager said she hasn’t seen the improvement she’s been looking for and so I assume I’m likely to be fired any day.

I’d like to resign so that I can avoid having to forever check the “Have you ever been fired from a job?” box on future applications. However, I’d also like to negotiate what my manager will say about me if she’s ever contacted to give a reference (obviously I wouldn’t list her as one, but we know that potential employers can reach out to whoever they want).

Would it be appropriate to approach my boss and say something like, “Obviously this isn’t working out for either one of us, so I’d like to be able to transition my work and leave here on good terms. Can we agree that my last day of employment will be [whenever] and that if you’re contacted in the future for a reference that you will only verify employment dates?”

It feels like there’s a slightly more graceful way to ask for that, but I’m drawing a blank. I love your advice, so anything you can provide here would be so appreciated.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 61 comments… read them below }

  1. Save One Day at a Time

    This is good to know! I didn’t realize you could negotiate what you say to references like this

    1. Venus

      I think the options are limited – they shouldn’t give a good reference. At a guess they might agree to confirm dates of employment (and not say something negative).

    1. LQ

      It depends on your state. In most states it’s much less likely to get unemployment from a quit than from a layoff or firing. And if you tell the truth to unemployment it’s not going to matter what the company says, the unemployment people will deny benefits based on your statement alone.

      If you want benefits asking for it to be classified as layoff is the way to go, but that can be hard.

    2. goducks

      In my state when the UI folks send the request for information to the employer, one of the options for reason for separation is Resign In Lieu of Termination. The state seems to understand that this face-saving resignation doesn’t change the underlying reason that the person is out of a job. In my state, at least, being bad at your job is not a disqualifying reason for UI.

    3. Aspiring Chicken Lady

      In my state, if it doesn’t work out during the probation period, or if the job duties get changed due to re-org or new management etc, often the “quit/fire” issue doesn’t even matter. It didn’t work out, and if the employer doesn’t contest it (or even if they do, often) then the claimant can get the UI.

    4. CatCat

      It depends on the state and the reasons for quitting. Where I live, under the circumstances here, where the employee is proactively quitting, unlikely.

      If the *employer* said, “Quit or we’re going to fire you,” then probably yes, eligible.

    5. Ask a Manager Post author

      If you literally just quit, totally on your own without prompting from your employer, generally no. But if you can truthfully explain that it was a “quit or we will fire you situation,” often you can.

      1. Little Tin Goddess

        Im in the Northeast UE and quit a very toxic job, filed for UI, was denied, fought it, had a hearing and won. Felt good to win. It was a horrible place to work. I was being blamed by our vendor for things that happened years before I started working there and my boss was letting them do that. They changed my job and pay structure on me when I was on vacation because of that. So it is possible to quit and get UI.

      1. Queen Anon

        I quit a job once and ended up collecting benefits for 6 months (2007 and I had a horrible time finding a job). Basically my supervisor, who never kept an assistant for more than a year or two (according to her, they all started out wonderfully then inevitably became unable to do the job after a year or so and she had to get rid of every one of them). When my turn came, our office manager knew exactly what was going on, said I should quit and work out the week, then arranged for me to get 2 weeks severance plus my 2 weeks vacation pay. My supervisor was noticeably angry when I came in the next day – she thought I’d been fired and she’d never have to see me again. If she knew I had six weeks’ pay on my final check, she’d have blown a gasket. When I filed for unemployment, I was initially denied but at my phone interview they decided it had been a constructive discharge and I got benefits. It was all very satisfying. (Fortunately, I knew this woman’s reputation going in so wasn’t blindsided when I suddenly ceased to be the golden girl. I took the job because it was a good company with great pay and benefits. I lasted nearly 2 years – not bad at all!)

      2. Quickbeam

        I was fired on my last day before permanent status was granted in a state job. Flat out, “here’s your hat, what’s your hurry”. The agency fiercely contested my unemployment benefits. Turned out the agency had to pay for a large % of the benefits and it affected their standing in the state. They thought I’d just go away. Fortunately I kept everything they gave me in writing and the unemployment process was 100% in my favor. The unemployment officer did remark how “oddly emotional the agency was about this”. I told her I was replaced by the director’s sister who had just moved to town.

    6. Wintermute

      In general, no, but there are a few important exceptions. The first of which is most relevant here, the paperwork in my state reads something like “were you fired or did you resign in lieu of termination?” and in Michigan if I recall there is an option for something similar.

      The other big exception is quitting “for good cause”. The most common good cause is if they stop paying your paycheck, in that case the law considers you to have been laid off. Unsafe work conditions has also been found to be a valid reason, though details on that can vary state-to-state. Also varying highly on a state-to-state basis is labor law violations (because the laws themselves vary so much). Quitting due to an EEOA or ADA violation will also usually not bar you from unemployment if the EEOC finds your complaint valid.

      The most complex and arguably least common is constructive discharge (they cut your pay more than a certain amount, radically changed the job duties, hours, etc. or made the working conditions intolerable), the details vary as to the exact amount of pay cut required, for instance, in some states 20% is enough, in others it isn’t, likewise with hours reductions. Intolerable working conditions is another one that is really complicated to figure out, but is a valid reason to quit. One problem among many is you have to prove it got that much WORSE, if your job has always sucked and continues to suck that can actually PREVENT a claim of constructive discharge!

      1. Mhoops

        I received unemployment after I quit because of good cause. They were discriminating against me for having a mental illness and trying to take 1 sick day to see my doctor. They fought the unemployment, but I still won. It felt great to get some level of validation for what they did to me. I ended up getting hired for my dream job, so it ended up really great.

  2. Celery Juice

    If OP is at a large company then unemployment benefits would never come to the manager. That would be through HR, and most large companies will contest if you are anything but Rif’ed.

    1. RC Rascal

      Disagree with this statement. Most large companies, especially manufacturers, are already paying the maximum rates into Unemployment Insurance. (Layoffs tend to be routine in a factory manufacturing environment; hence the maximum rates are paid. )They are the least likely to care and most likely to negotiate. Smaller businesses who rarely experience layoffs. are more likely to care because it affects their UI rates.

      1. Trout 'Waver

        100% disagree. Most large companies actively try to reduce the cost of unemployment insurance.

        1. hbc

          I think it really depends on the circumstances. Many won’t pursue because the chances of winning in that state are dismal for the employer, and it’s cheaper to let the 1/100 they could win go then fight all of those battles. Some consider unemployment insurance just a cost of doing business, like they might give severance even though it’s technically not required.

          And yeah, some will go to the mat every time.

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch

        It’s really not about the size of the companies involved, it depends on their standards of practices and policies in place and how their team at any given time interprets or enforces them.

        I would never assume that a company isn’t going to fight it because there are too many variables and hands that may touch that paperwork. I’ve had some reps that turn a blind eye and know the changes in rates are minimal and others who are hardasses who feel it’s their duty to save the company from any black mark/claim on it’s record.

  3. Mediamaven

    So, in my mind part of the benefit to the employer with a resignation is that you don’t receive unemployment – I’m not sure they would accept that part of it.

    1. KateThePurple

      I think that depends on where you’re located. In CA, if you choose to resign/quit instead of being fired, it’s not considered to be a voluntary quit so you can still receive unemployment benefits.

      1. Wintermute

        +1 for Illinois as well, and Michigan if I recall (and it hasn’t changed in a decade)

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch

      It depends on the company and management. Depending on your retention rates, a claim isn’t going to ding you that hard. It’s also the paperwork involved with termination vs quitting instead of termination. Coming to an agreement together saves the hoops later and the cost to you for having to spend the time fighting their unemployment that they’d have gotten if you just went ahead with firing.

    3. Lauren

      I think that could be a reason for the manager to push back. But in actuality if the employee was going to be fired anyway, they will likely qualify for unemployment.

  4. Elysian

    An agreement not to contest unemployment is pretty common in severance agreements, but as others have said whether you actually get the money ultimately comes down to a decision by the unemployment office. Even if the employer doesn’t contest the benefit, unemployment can still deny pay.

  5. Sled dog mama

    I wish I had had Alison’s advice when I was first out of school and in this exact situation. I was lucky that the company hired me back (in a different position) two months later and agreed to call it a transfer due to position elimination. After I left they decided not to fill my position and eliminate it, but I wish I had known to negotiate this at the time.

  6. Mockingjay

    agreement for what to say to future reference-checkers and how my departure is reflected in company records

    This is crucial for your future opportunities. While you won’t get a positive reference after being on a PIP, negotiating a neutral factual statement will allow both sides to move on. During discussions, keep in mind that being on a PIP doesn’t necessarily make you a bad employee (in terms of being a toxic worker); in this case, you didn’t have the right skills for the job. That’s a mismatch, not a failure.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch

      I cannot agree enough with the statement that this is not a failure.

      I have had to fire people before that would be good if not great employees elsewhere but for what I needed from them, for that position, they were not going to be able to handle it because it just required more than they were able to give. I see it happen mostly in terms of pace or variation of tasks, I have had to fire people who cannot type fast enough and do not have the accuracy rating that I need. Whereas another setup, with less data processing or speed they’d be just fine.

      So if they wanted a reference, I can say that they were enjoyable to work with but didn’t fit the pace we needed them to reach or that they require more supervision/guidance than our organization offers.

      Just because you don’t fit here doesn’t mean you don’t fit anywhere. Every position, even with similar tasks or seemingly similar tasks vary from company to company and even department to department.

      1. Lily Rowan

        Yeah, I’ve offered to give a reference — for different kinds of jobs! — for someone who resigned in the middle of an unsuccessful PIP. They were a good worker, just not for that position.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch

          Yep, yep. Case and point, someone was hired as an account rep but couldn’t keep up with all the demands, mainly data entry issues. If that person then went to get a job as a receptionist or somewhere more automated [not manually inputting orders like we did]. I would be thrilled to say “I would absolutely recommend her for a reception/front desk position, customers enjoyed their interactions! She’s punctual and really cares about the clients.”

    2. Djuna

      100% agree with the mismatch statement. I hope OP sees how many people here are in agreement that not being the right person for a specific job does not in any way translate to failure.

      Along similar lines, OP may want to make sure they’re not marked as “do not rehire” anywhere in the paperwork as part of their agreement. Just to be extra safe.

    3. Sapphire

      “Being on a PIP doesn’t necessarily make you a bad employee.”

      I wish someone had said this to me when I was on a PIP in my last job. My boss, grandboss, and the HR rep at the time treated me like I was a horrible person for not being fast enough under an incredibly huge workload.

      1. Annnnnonymous

        I figure if I am ever PIPped for not doing well enough in my job, I can at least point out that I have four executives – the main one of which is a 110% job!

      2. CJoanie

        I was approached by an organization to manage a federally-mandated and regulated function. During the interview process, it was clear that the company was out of compliance. The entire process was done manually which was stupid for a company that size. They acknowledged that they needed to acquire software and we discussed what the software should do; I had considerable experience with this function and a particular software product at a similar sized competitor. I accepted their offer with the understanding that I would review and recommend the software to install; I knew that the software should be able to track the process, issue reminders, and automatically produce correspondence. However, it turned out the dept. budget included only 20% of the cost of the level of software needed (and could not be increased) and my boss had promised our business to the vendor of the completely inadequate software which just happened to cost the amount budgeted. The software was nearly useless and created more work than it performed. I was swamped and had little practical support. Six weeks in, the VP called my work sh** in front of all of the department directors. My direct boss left (unrelated to me) and the grandboss director foisted me off to another director and manager. I was working as hard as I could while falling further behind, all the time noting that the proper software could turn things around. They put me on a PIP , I worked even harder and fell behind even more. When they fired me, I was relieved and that night I slept like a baby. My only regret is that I should have walked out when the VP trashed me.

  7. Bookworm

    Good to know. Was in a similar situation a couple of years ago, except it was a much smaller organization so there was no formal plan. I just quit and left it off my resume. I could afford to do this, though, because it was a part time job and I had another part time overlapping so it didn’t matter so much for me.

  8. Rikki Tikki Tarantula

    Somewhat different situation, but I resigned when it was clear I was going to get fired a month or so down the road. It was part of a pattern: ToxicJob would put employees they didn’t like into positions they weren’t suited for or say that they’d been “insubordinate” and put them on PIPs so they could then fire them (worth noting that many of these employees were women of a certain age). I’d seen this play out several times and knew what was up (plus I hated the job at that point), so I saved up as much PTO as I could to cash out and then, just before the PIP requirements were due, turned in my resignation. My manager seemed delighted as she got to avoid the awkward “you’re fired” conversation (and just six months later, she got axed, which caused me no small amount of schadenfreude).

    1. Trek

      In those situation I would be tempted to reach out to manager and gloat a bit about how maybe they or the company were the problem all along.

  9. Anon1

    Just want to really highlight your last line: That’s a mismatch, not a failure.

    So many times when people leave jobs because they weren’t the right fit they think they’re failures. It’s just a bad match. It only reflects poorly on you if you handle it poorly. But if you try to do your best and it still doesn’t work… then it’s just a mismatch.

    1. Zephy

      I got fired just shy of four weeks in to a new job once. I wasn’t too bummed about not working there anymore, because even after that little time I didn’t like it – toxic culture, no benefits – but the experience of being fired was still a gut-punch. That was the first job I had ever been fired from. It took me a while to really process those feelings – I didn’t ask for them, I couldn’t logick my way out of feeling them.

      1. Richard

        This is so true. A few months ago I was calling up a freelance gig to tell them that I wouldn’t be working with them anymore and they beat me to it saying that they wanted me to either up my hours and commitment or they’d let me go. Even though I went into the conversation ready to dump them, getting pre-dumped was surprisingly painful.

      2. RUKiddingMe

        Three days. It was my second ever job. I was like 15 or 16 and they knew going in that I had zero experience. The amount of training I guess…they just weren’t up for it after all. I took what I learned in those three days (remember I was only 15/16* at he time) and lied my way into another job saying I had a couple years’ experience at Place X in a whole other state too far away to call back in the day. I did that type of work off and on all the way through grad school. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

        * I was always able to pass for a couple/few years older.

      3. De Minimis

        I know what you mean, I had a position where it was obviously not a fit, that I didn’t like, and the economy was getting tough so it was obvious the writing was on the wall. I’d prepared for literally months to be let go, and was glad to get out of there, but the actual moment was still tough for me.

    2. Lillie Lane

      I really hate that many applications ask if you’ve been fired…as if it is a moral failing. And you can never get a “firing” erased from your record! Even if it was due to retaliation for reporting sexual harassment, whistle-blowing, etc. Considering many states have ban-the-box laws for criminal records, I wish they all would ban the box for firings!!!

      1. Sapphire

        It’s true that you can’t get a firing erased from your record, but in terms of things that make it hard to get a job, a felony is much worse than a firing. As long as you can talk about it in a neutral way, a firing shouldn’t count against you.

        Also usually employers will at least talk to you if you’ve disclosed a firing. You’re automatically disqualified if you disclose a conviction before they’ve even met you.

      2. nonegiven

        A lot of “firings” could be called layoffs. If it’s a thing like not making quota during the probationary period, first 90 days or whatever, I call that a layoff.

  10. AndersonDarling

    I wish I would have done this year ago when I was in a similar situation. It removes the fear of being fired at any moment, and it actually gives a bit of a confidence boost to help when job searching. When asked about why you left your last job, you can honestly say “We agreed that the position wasn’t a good match for my skills and we made a smooth transition. But I’m glad that I was there because I learned ___ and ___.”
    It’s so much better than slinking away from a job and fearing what the manager will say if contacted.

  11. Death by Meeting

    Could someone elaborate on what exactly the process looks like for “negotiating what to say to future reference-checkers”? I’ve seen this advice many times on AAM, it sounds great, but I have no idea how I’d actually pull that off in reality.

    Is it really okay to ask that they only verify employment dates? Won’t that come across as a red flag to future reference-checkers anyway? What incentive do they have to agree to that? Also, how would this be “enforced,” so to speak (or is it just based on good faith)?

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      Totally ok to ask if they’ll only verify employment dates, and in my experience, it’s not a red flag because there are so many employers who now adopt this approach because of mislaid fears about litigation (regardless of the candidate’s performance and reputation at Old Job).

      In theory, it’s enforced through contract law (which is why you should get it in writing). Their primary incentive is that the Old Employer doesn’t have to have a difficult conversation with Prospective Employers about why Old Employer put you on a PIP, and Old Employer gets to save face and their reputation by not actively misrepresenting a PIP’d employee’s performance during the reference check stage.

    2. JJ Bittenbinder

      Actually, many many places will only verify dates of employment—so many that it’s a myth that is frequently perpetuated on job boards that “it’s against the law for employers to say anything beyond your dates of employment.” In fact, there is no federal or state law anywhere in the U.S. that prohibits your previous employer from sharing details, but a lot of companies have made it their policy. It makes it very hard to get a good reference, in fact, which requires asking former coworkers or supervisors to step outside that policy.

      As for the incentive on companies for giving a neutral, dates-verifying reference only…they don’t want to be sued! That’s most of the rationale behind this policy. Companies are very afraid that a former employee will file a lawsuit if they say anything negative.

      1. goducks

        Yeah, even though the truth or honestly held opinions are absolute defenses against defamation, many companies don’t want to even deal with defending a lawsuit, which is very costly and time-consuming. As a result, references are not often a particularly valuable tool, nor equally available to everyone.

        1. JJ Bittenbinder

          I’ve worked for 2 companies now that don’t even check references. As you said, they don’t find them particularly valuable.

          Far better than my last company, which required FIVE.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch

      Echoing the comments that it’s common place for places to adopt the “verification” process only and so it’s not a red flag at all.

      There are a lot of myths about the legalities floating around. Recently I had someone say they heard that if you, Employer, gives a good reference and it leads to hiring Former Employee, only to have Former Employee fail miserably, the Former Employer who gave a reference could be sued for damages.

      1. JJ Bittenbinder

        People have a lot of weird ideas about suing others. Anytime something goes the least bit wrong. someone will jump in with “You should sue!” The idea that lawsuits are meant to make a plaintiff whole is just lost on some people.

  12. B. J. Salinger

    Confused as to why everyone is mentioning unemployment benefits when the OP didn’t mention that in his/her letter at all… did I miss something?

    1. Zephy

      Allison’s response mentions it. Depending on your local laws, you may or may not qualify for unemployment benefits depending on the circumstances of your being unemployed (fired, resigned, laid off, company folded).

    2. Me

      Most people aren’t independently wealthy and need the income while searching for a new job. It’s pretty much always relevant to at least mention.

  13. Yet Even Another Alison

    Take a step back and look at the situation from another angle. There are many situations where businesses hire the wrong person – for example, they do not represent the requirements of the position correctly and the person hires is in over their head. The PIP is not just the employees failing, if you will, it is also the employers (in many cases). If you go to your manager and position it like this, then it removes the failing out of the employees corner partially. It is hard to see things like this when you are the employee in the midst of this situation but it is a good way of putting things in perspective (if indeed this was the case here). Also, remember, if the employer promised your training of any kind in order to do your job and reneged on that promise, then again, the failing may not be on the employee completely. Think mitigating factors – and then when you speak to your employer about the last day, they take some responsibility – for example, they don’t fight unemployment, provide severance, etc…

    1. cncx

      yup, that happened to me once, the company thought they were hiring for position A but what they really needed was someone proficient at position B who could do some overlap with the most basic admin of position A. they were too disorganized to know what was going on until the position was filled and I was a bad fit. Everyone in the department could see this but the hiring manager who told me i wasn’t good at being alive instead of owning the fact that they hadn’t hired based on their real daily needs. my schadenfreude was at an all time high when the manager who told me i was just bad instead of a bad fit due to her disorganization got ESCORTED OUT OF THE BUILDING SACKED and it even made the newspapers.

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