Walking away (from a job that’s going away) on your terms


Have you just gotten a disciplinary notice after years of stellar performance? If you have and you’ve read Paul Michael’s You're Fired! 20 signs that a pink-slip is coming … (#14) you sense that you're in trouble. Rather than let the progressive disciplinary madness continue, take action.

Here’s what a friend of mine did, after we talked and I agreed with him that a reprimand delivered by human resources most likely portended termination.

First I want to tell you about his accomplishments; he had (for the employer who was looking to fire him):

  • brought current industry practices to a good-ole-boy company
  • introduced new services, processes, and programs that reaped immediate and ongoing benefits to his area’s performance
  • modified internal systems to improve his staff’s analytical tools
  • trained and developed a high-performing staff
  • turned around the attitude and performance of a particularly ornery employee
  • re-focused certain aspects of customer relationships to gain compliance with procedures
  • educated internal managers on the significance of his area to the company’s profitability
  • completed company-sponsored executive training through a prestigious, industry-recognized program

When he was asked to issue a disciplinary action on the turned-around, ornery employee that he felt was bogus, suspicions were aroused. When he received a written reprimand for a mistake that he had already admitted making and had put processes in place to correct, suspicions were confirmed. Putting pieces of the disciplinary puzzle together, he realized that his company needed to cut headcount; the HR department, rather than advocating for him, sided with his bosses.

Coincidentally, my friend had sold his home just weeks earlier, realizing that the housing market was still strong and aching for a new challenge that might present itself in a different city.

What did he do with his suspicions? He approached his boss (with whom, oddly, he had a great relationship), explained that he knew what was going on, and negotiated a severance package. He agreed to leave the company but faced the inevitable (displacement) on his terms, which included a consulting stint while he looked for another job.

I’d like to say that he found a new job prior to the end of the severance period and consulting assignment. He didn’t. Instead, he moved back home and took care of his mom when she suffered and then recuperated (with his help) from a major health crisis. After a few months, however, he landed a new job and is now happily employed. Having a termination on his record is something that he avoided.

Here’s a plan if you get an out-of-the-blue disciplinary notice just after getting a great performance review, especially after you’ve been told there are to be layoffs and/or you are asked to issue disciplinary notices that are unwarranted:

  • Recognize the handwriting on the wall
  • Accept your fate
  • Don't get angry
  • Approach your boss
  • Negotiate a package
  • Get recommendations testifying to your stellar performance
  • Walk away

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Guest's picture

My husband just went through this, and he pretty much did everything you mentioned, though he didn't have a great rapport with his current boss. His two previous supervisors had seen the writing on the wall and had left a few months before, and they gave my husband great recommendations, though, and my husband landed on his feet.

Another important thing is an emergency fund. If you have a good emergency fund, your options are a lot better than if you don't. If your emergency fund is big enough, you can take your time finding a job that is worth taking. If you don't have a good emergency fund, you're up against the clock when it comes to finding a new job. This is especially true if you can't negotiate a great severance package.

Guest's picture

Excellent remarks. Similiar thing happened tp me when the company I worked for which was part of a large corporation was sold to the GM. He was under-capitalized and it became apparent early on I wouldn't be in future plans. I walked ... he failed and life continues. Most important advise recognize what's going on AND don't get angry...this is an opportunity.

Guest's picture

In my case, I watched a job I had volunteered to do – the position I was recruited for never materialized which was an early warning sign in and of itself – was increasingly marginalized through failure to act on recommendations and advice and by subtle erosion of my responsibilities and authority. It was clear that I was not able to make a contribution commensurate with my compensation.

To compound matters, there was increasing talk about cost containment, burn rate, and other "headcount cuts are imminent" talk bouncing around. It was clear that the situation was likely to go from bad to worse.

So I sat down with the CEO of the company, explained my concerns and asked for a separation package. I explained that I felt this was best both for the company and me and that it was purely business... nothing personal.

I walked away with an equitable agreement and severance package. A month later, the company laid off 25% of its staff including a couple of senior managers. Unlike them, I made my plans for future work at the same time I was conducting my separation and so had a smooth transition from full-time employment to consulting and freelance writing.

I'm now making more money and have a much greater degree of control over my own existence.

My advice? Keep your eyes open and your radar tuned. If thinks feel "bad" they may actually be. Trust your instincts and make sure you are prepared for circumstances beyond your control as well as you can be.

Guest's picture

Am I the only one who grows tired of job advice that's only directed at the extreme over-achievers? 90% of the working stiffs out there AREN'T reforming the company, driving up profits 300%, and introducing the boss to Vikram Yoga. Most of us go to work, do our job, and go home. And despite the blogosphere's rampant idealism regarding the ability to achieve your best if you just put your mind to it, the vast majority of people are not in positions that even ALLOW them to create such amazing results.

Howabout not focusing on people who could walk away from any job, regardless of how they left, and still be considered an extremely valuable recruit? Howabout a few articles for the rest of us that are simply average -- we're the ones, after all, who need the advice the most, but profit from this type of non-real-life situation article the least.

Guest's picture

Besides agreeing with Jordan, I would also point out that we ordinary workers see the signs that you mention but place our faith in management to do the "right thing" and look out for our interests in continued employment. All too typically they only want to look after themselves. So like Jordan I also ask, what if you can't just walk into a CEO office and ask for a term package. What advice for the ordinary worker can you offer, the guys and girls who live paycheck to paycheck?

Greg Go's picture
Greg Go

I think Julie's post applies to all employees, not just the superstars. Not all of us may be able to talk to the CEO, but we all have bosses we can talk to. I think the point of the article was to say that it's better to take action than hope you're not the one getting canned.

By approaching your boss BEFORE they initiate the laying off of people, you're making their jobs easier. It's one less uncomfortable "it's not you, it's us" talk they have to give. They will appreciate this. Perhaps not to the tune of a sweet severance package, but maybe a better reference letter than your no-action coworkers.

A couple of years ago, a friend was working as an HR person at a major theme park. They wanted to reduce headcount and offered everyone a chance to quit on their own and take a severance package OR risk getting laid off with no severance package. The writing was clearly on the wall, but my friend was surprised at how few people took the severance package. Sure enough, when the time came, not enough had people left on their own and many were laid off with no severance pay.

If your company is going through a tough time and are about to layoff people, leave on your own terms and you'll be better off than the people who stick their head in the sand and hope they're not on the chopping block.

Guest's picture

Jordan, I think it is a great idea to write about regular people, esp. because I am one -- graduated from college when unemployment was 10% and worked for 3 companies in a span of 9 years: 2 were acquired and 1 was to be acquired and I decided to leave it because the company was such as lousy employer. Severance packages didn't even exist then (80s) and I never even had an exit interview with HR. I decided to work on my own writing resumes and met this young man (now older) when he was still learning to speak fluent English. One thing I didn't clarify that may be of interest is that by not reprimanding his employee, he put his own job on the line. He's definitely a risk-taker and an overachiever but there is a message that you can pay attention to what's going on and take action.

Give me a bit and I will try to think of ways to help the average hardworker who's not a workaholic.

Guest's picture

Everybody (including the regular guy) hates not having control of their lives. Unfortunately, life isn't always fair and most people also don't like making short term sacrifices to achieve long term goals.
Part of what I'm reading out of this story is that you want to anticipate as much as possible and then to find moves that improve or at least change your situation. What the regular guy needs to understand is that all the bad things are in some ways the same. Your company's (maybe as yet hidden) downsizing plans will certainly affect your income and livelihood. But your regular performance will also limit your ability to get promotions and move to another company. Living paycheck to paycheck also limits your options and maneuverability. These bad things all limit you. You don't have leverage to talk to your boss about options. You can't afford to take a lesser paying consulting gig while trying to transition to something else. You won't be able quit work for a few months to take care of an ailing relative.
The answer to this is both simple and very hard. If you're living paycheck to paycheck, start doing little things to cut back so you can build up a 6 month salary cushion for tough times. If you're just a regular performer, see if there are courses you can take or little things you can volunteer for at work to expand your responsibilities or leverage your other skills. Understand the life choices you've make and recognize the inherent compromises you've made for what they are. It's fun to spend credit card money, but credit card debt and money constraints may force you to stay in a stable, but unsatisfying job. Once you've recognized the constraints in your life, then look for fun, little ways to break those constraints. Revisit those childhood passions. Be honest about your other strengths and look for fun ways to use them, enhance them, and incorporate them into your work and personal life. There's no quick answer and anyone who says there is one is trying to sell you a self-help book.
Good luck!

Guest's picture

Here's a question that I'd really be interested in having answered. I'm in the situation that I worked for, studied for a particular job over the course of practically 30 years. After I got out of school, I got the job I have now and have held for 10 years. But I'm discovering that despite desperately wanting to follow this career path, I have minimal ability for it. I've found ways to have value to my employer without actually being terrifically good at what I'm supposed to be doing. Now that seems to be catching up, as work is drying up and one of our biggest clients -- who I've been consigned to -- seems to be leaving us.

So the question is -- having single-mindedly pursued this course for most of my life -- where can I go to find out if I have any other skills or options that I can use? Frankly, I'm pretty worried about where I go from here.

Guest's picture
John Johnson

Now that it's over, and newly retired (13 days), all I could think was, how to get even with the company, I was still allowing the company to do this to me, your right get over it move on.

Yes I to had to try to get a severance package, and yes I got one, I was allowed to retire as my former job title, with better benefits, the job the company had placed me in before all of this went down.

I walked away with the severance package, and health care insurance for myself and my domestic partner. I fought hard for that.
I to was like others mention on this Blog, high performer, a real show pony for the company,trotted out at all the company functions when this went down all I could think was why me, why not the other loser's in my department.

Well lets see, now that I had trained,other's that made less salary then me, on " Diversity Issues " the company was ready to get rid of me, I had won National Diversity Awards, Company Awards, Community Awards,evaluations were excellent for the last 5 years, so where do I go from here with the company, "out the door". Guess what? It's ok, I fill great now, my back doesn't hurt anymore, my diabetic's is under control, no more sleeping pill's at bed time, and when I get up next day, I go for a walk a long walk,3 miles every day, I work out at the gym in the afternoon, and come hell or high water I'm moving in Feb.2008 to Hawaii, where I'll find a job, work another 10 or 15 years and retire when I want to. So my advice to everyone who thinks your stuck between a rock and a hard place, your not, your still alive,you don't have to put up with HR, and co-workers you didn't really like any way. GOOD LUCK, GO WITH HEALTH,AND LIVE LIFE TO IT'S FULLEST! Oh by the way I'm 49 years old, do't ever be afraid to start over.

Guest's picture

While I agree that people at higher positions have a better chance negotiating severance packages, it is the lower level guys who would not be at an advantageous position negotiating.

Whatever the situation is as long as people do not fight for the recognition and rewards they deserve it is going to be easy for companies to keep them tied down.

Guest's picture

In Australasia your boss would be committing industrial suicide if he negotiated with on that basis. It would be tantamount to constructive dismissal - something the courts here have been quite critical of.

Julie Rains's picture

I had never heard of constructive dismissal before so I looked it up in wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constructive_dismissal. It sounds like employers in Australasia and the U.K. have much stricter policies on conduct. I would guess that a significant percentage of (North) Americans would feel justified in resigning their positions based on these actions by the employer:

  • Putting managers into excessively difficult work situations without supporting their decisions.
  • Harassment or humiliation, particularly in front of less senior staff.
  • Sabotage of employee's work product either directly or indirectly with repeated interruption, confusing or inaccurate direction, or uncommunicated deadline changes.


Many U.S. states operate on the "employment at will" principle, meaning that either the employer or employee can end employment at will, unless governed by a written contract, which would be unusual except for a union member or key executive.

Guest's picture

I just did this recently after 7 years of working at the same place. I just felt it was time to leave. I'm glad I did it.

Guest's picture

I’m looking for some advice from some more seasoned workers who have the experience to know. I am 25 years old with a trade certificate in Information Technology from a vocational high school in 2003 and havn’t used it since. I worked a few automotive jobs as an uncertified mechanic and parts counter sales for little pay but I loved what I was doing. When I was 20 I fell into a job as a Drop Forge Operator in a factory forging steel which I have been at for 5 years. It’s a union job, 1’st shift, making $17.41/hr plus overtime, health/dental/life insurance, 2 weeks vacation, matching 401k & a pension. Plus it’s a relatively low stress job and I love my boss. My dilema is my job does have a lot to offer but there are not many factories in my area with Drop Forge Machinery and I don’t have any other skills. I fear that if my company eventually closes or outsources that I will find myself older and unskilled making it very difficult to find a good job. Especially as I get older as I know age discrimination is all over the place. Should I get into a new line of work while I’m young enough and most likely take a hit in pay and benefits so I can have a more secure career or should I just take the $$$ now, build up my pension, and worry about it when it happens? I have considered night classes, however if I stay at my current job for too many years my training will be outdated (like my IT cert) so there is no point if I stay at my job. What would you do?
If you are interested in helping me with advice, please e-mail me at my1990cavalier@hotmail.com. Please put in the subject line " should I look for a new job?" so I know it's not spam. Thank you

Julie Rains's picture

It's great to always look ahead and not just at what's happening right now. To grow professionally, see if you can take additional training at your current employer or consider online studies in addition to the night school. It's hard to predict what jobs will be in demand in the future (there should be a demand for technology but it's true as you mentioned that the field is constantly changing, making it difficult to prepare) -- but if you have money saved and can survive a period of unemployment (or underemployment), then you'll be ready to reposition yourself for a new career when you're ready.

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