In today’s world, regardless of the organisation and position you work at, one simple fact is that you are replaceable, and very easily so. Sometimes, a single slip-up is all it takes for your manager to write you off and you to be shown the door. Of course, being terminated due to under-performance is a blot on one’s career, but, often reasons like budget cuts, insufficient business demand, elimination of position, change of business model, and restructuring, among others are at play, which end in the same result.
Getting the pink slip is unarguably a nightmarish experience, both personally, and professionally, but many a times, employers ask, directly or indirectly, for employees to resign. ‘Constructive Dismissal (or Discharge)’ is when an employee is forced to quit their job against their will because of their employer's direction or conduct. A Constructive Dismissal can be direct, wherein you may be called in and directly told to quit, or else wait to be fired eventually, or they can be indirect, wherein complex and difficult situations of mistreatment (like harassment, impossible deadlines, giving menial tasks, professional exclusion etc) are created by the employer, so that the employee quits themselves, out of irritation or frustration.
While some may consider it an opportunity extended by the employer to save face, and avoid the messy termination, by giving you a chance to, at least, portray that you left ‘willingly’ and on ‘your own terms’, the concept has its origin in rather sinister intentions. Constructive Discharge can be traced back to 1930’s, during the early days of labour union movement in US, when employers discouraged unions and forced union employees (sometimes using physical violence) to resign from their positions. The employers not only threatened and abused the union members, but created unbearable working conditions to force employees to quit. However, these employees were allowed by the Supreme Court to sue their employers, under the National Labour Relations Act. The concept was eventually extended to non-union employees as well, and has seen heavily charged discourses over the decades. In what is considered a watershed moment, on June 14, 2004, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision setting new standards for the law of ‘Constructive Discharge’ in the Federal Title VII Employment Discrimination cases. The law was made more stringent, and employees were given increased space to prove discrimination, wrongful termination, violation of employment contract, retaliation, and prove that their ‘voluntary’ resignation was actually a constructive discharge wherein they were fired without a good cause, and hence, they could hold their employers accountable for the same. Nonetheless, even today, employees may prefer to take the options presented to them, instead of putting up a legal fight, which is often difficult and expensive, as proving mistreatment, or breach of contract in court is not easy. Furthermore, organisations in the US prefer to quietly let their employee resign, to avoid paying the part of ‘Unemployment Benefit’, which they are liable to, if they fire the same employee.
The ‘Constructive Discharge’ discussion in India isn’t nearly as advanced, politically or industrially, neither do our labour laws extend the same privileges to our employees, and even if they do, how many aggrieved parties take their recourse is debatable. In such a climate, how you react when put in such a situation largely determines the outcome of the process. On the face of it, you don’t have any choice; either you resign right away, or wait around to be fired eventually. However, before you take any decision or sign over your resignation, it is critical to know and confirm the following:
Know that you can take time
Very importantly, you need to understand that you need not make a decision in the very moment you are asked to resign. Chances are you have been given communication before – official and unofficial – about the impending decision, but if the entire episode has caught you off-guard, you can ask for a day or two to weigh your options. This will save you from signing any document without carefully vetting it, and help you reach a decision that will benefit your career better.
Make an enquiry
Ask for reasons that led to such a situation. Was your performance the only reason, or were factors outside of your hand at play? Also try to understand why your company is asking you to resign instead of directly firing you. Are they merely extending you a courtesy (hardly ever the case), or do they benefit from the move as well, by avoiding evoking internal policies? Understanding why you are being forced to resign gives you some negotiation power.
Discuss the terms of exit
The knowledge obtained in the previous step must be used to maximum benefit. While employees who ‘resign’ usually are not paid severance packages (which usually included a few months’ pay and benefits), but if you are being compelled to do so, it is reasonable to at least make a request for it. The official reasons and documentations must be decided with the HR or your manager, and you can ask for some time to thoroughly read the same before signing them.
Tie the loose end
What will the organisation say when your next employer calls for reference? What will be the official record in the company be maintained as the reason for your exit? Will your letter of release contain the words ‘resignation’ or ‘resignation in lieu of termination’ (you want the former)? What will be the official communication to the team: were you resigned, or were you laid off? Do you get to choose the official date of your exit? Make sure all these questions are satisfactorily answered by your manager. You can, and ideally should, approach the HR, to discuss all these questions.
Be prepared for the next battle
With not much choice at hand, it is best to pick up the pieces, and leave with your dignity intact, with cordial and professional relationships undamaged. Ask your seniors and colleagues to refer you their friends in other organisations, and gear up for a few months of intensive job-hunting. Try to leverage whatever resources you have at your disposal in the best way, to turn the tide in your favour again.
You may try to convince your employer to let you stay – with increased scrutiny, being put on probation or addressing any other-work related issue – but such exercises are usually futile, for the employer has usually made up their mind to let you go, and they are likely to do it one way or another. On the bright side, resigning could be looked as a better alternative to being fired, the most important advantage being that the next employer sees that you left your job willingly, and were not shown the door owing to underperformance or being a misfit in the company – either of which are not a great start to a prospective interview. However, an extended gap of a few months between a ‘voluntary’ resigning and a new job will not fool the HR or recruiter, and might look even worse, if you try to cover it up, giving them reasons to dig deeper. To conclude, the best way to proceed is to understand what is best for you, and your career, and ensure minimal damage is done. Making hasty or rushed decisions or reactions at this junction might do more harm than you anticipate.