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Forced to resign: What are your options?

(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,
My employer asked me to resign. I had no early warnings nor complaints about my work performance. They won't tell me the reason. Should I sign the termination letter on the spot? Can I ask them if I can review it first? What questions should I ask?

The first rule of signatures is you never, ever - not in a million years - sign something you don't understand. If someone shoves a resignation letter under your nose and tells you to sign it, do not sign until you not only understand it, but are willing to accept the consequences of signing it.

Now, what will happen if you refuse to sign? They'll fire you, of course. And what happens if you do sign? You'll be out of a job. So, you see, they don't have a lot to hold over your head in order to get you to sign.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both scenarios. If you resign you don't have to explain why you were fired in future interviews. If you are fired you are most likely eligible for unemployment. But before you make your decision, here are some questions to ask:

Can I just clean out my desk and leave?
Why I quit my job without a new one lined up

1. How much severance will you give me in exchange for my resignation? Yeah, I know, it seems like you don't have a lot of negotiating power here. But the truth is, for some reason only known to them, they want you to resign. They don't want to fire you. There is a good chance some severance can be forthcoming. How much? That's entirely dependent upon the industry, company size, your length of service, and why they want you to resign.

2. If I resign, will you oppose unemployment? Unemployment is a state decision, but when a person applies for it, the company is given the opportunity to object. What a company would do in this situation is produce your letter of resignation and say, "Look! He resigned!" (Other objections are that you were fired for cause. Then they'll produce evidence of stealing, extreme bad behavior, violence, etc.) If a company files no objection, more often then not the state approves.

3. Why do you want me to resign? If they haven't already told you, they probably won't now, either. But, you should ask. Do they want to replace you with someone else? Eliminate your position? Are you a mediocre performer? Do you have a history of workplace complaints that make you a high risk for suing should you be fired?

4. What will you say when you are called for a reference? This question needs to be asked of both HR and your direct manager. HR will probably just confirm dates and perhaps salary and reason for leaving. Your manager is generally not as good at sticking to the script. Now is the time to talk about this. You cannot just agree not to give out your boss's name as a reference because good reference checkers will find out anyway.

5. I will take this and have it reviewed by my attorney before signing. Note that this is not a question. This is a statement and if they object that's a pretty good sign that this is not in your best interest.

6. I need this in writing. Whatever they agree to needs to be in written form, signed by you and the company in order to be legally enforceable. While verbal promises are sometimes enforceable, proving that there was actual agreement is much more difficult and expensive.

7. What will be my official "reason for termination" be in your HR system as well as my paper file? This matters for both references and unemployment.

Whatever you do, don't feel like you have no options or no negotiating power. There's always room for negotiations when a termination is taking place. Generally, in this type of situation, their biggest goal is to get you to go away quietly. In order to do that, they may be willing to give you a few things. Don't pass up this opportunity.

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to

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