“I’m the President of a small nonprofit in my county and was just asked to resign by a couple of my board members. I’ve been doing a great job. Something smells about this. Pete, what do you think is going on?”
That was the start of a phone call I received from Flo (no, that’s not her name) last week. She was shellshocked and had no idea what had happened. I didn’t know Flo, but when you’re the author of The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees, and Cultures, you get some fascinating calls.
As we talked, I asked her about her time in the organization, trying to get a sense of what might have spurred this move by her Board. If, in fact, it was really was her Board doing the asking. She listed off exceptional revenue growth, a solid performance review, and some areas of performance where she had taken the organization from flops to fantastic.
So I asked her how she thought I could help her. She said, ‘Well……, there are some things I haven’t told you.”.
I knew that was coming.
And here’s where my expertise in office politics–especially having been around the sordid, unethical kind–came in handy.
Having found myself in the depths of professional hell previously, I help those who may not be able to clearly think through a tough situation or have no one to talk with.
She went on to describe the lengthy battle regarding ethics that she had faced with a few members of her board of directors and staff. The problem was that some people on her board and staff had no ethics. She had uncovered some sleazy, self-profiting, and self-indulgent activities and had urged that the organization clean up its act.
The rest of her board, according to Flo, was supportive of the general push for better behavior, as they knew they had some bad actors. But remember that in most organizations, a few loud voices trump a majority’s silence or indifference.
So fast forward into the middle of #Covid19 shelter at home orders, and Flo is asked to come into her office for a brief meeting with a few board members, including two of the ethically-challenged. They blindsided her with a short speech that said:
- There had been discussion on the board about Flo and her performance.
- They were concerned about the organization’s finances because of #Covid19 and thought that now was the right time to make this move.
- They wanted her to resign to make things easier on her.
- It was nothing personal (Of course….it never is.)
Flo was heartbroken, and, as you might expect in cases where a person’s career is flashing in front of their eyes, inward-facing. She thought, ‘What did I do wrong?’ It was only later after some additional consideration did she ask the questions of ‘What’s really happening?’ and ‘What do I do now?’
I’ll break my advice into two different checklists. This first list, shown immediately below, applies to all situations:
- Professionalism is essential, as always. Don’t do anything that could, on its own, be a firing offense under normal circumstances. As hurt as you might be, resist the impulse to lash out or say what you really think.
- If you’re ever in doubt, consider talking to an employment attorney to understand the terrain.
- Learn as much as you can about why you’re being asked to resign. It’s OK to say you aren’t prepared to talk about the matter and that you need time. But when you are ready to talk, ask about whether the resignation relates to your job performance or company conditions. Or is it something else?
- Do your due diligence about why resignation is the path your employer wants you to take. It may be very innocent, and they want to protect you and your resume from having to say you were fired. And, if that’s the case, resignation MAY be (not always the case) the best option. Or, as you’ll see in the toxic environment list to follow, maybe they have other reasons for asking for your resignation.
- Know what the company policy is around calls from future employers who want to check on you. Find out what they communicate to inquiring employers–is it merely information detailing when you worked there? Or will they reveal information with a damaging spin that hurts you for years to come?
Then the second list. Not all resignation requests are created equal. Let’s look at what to do when being asked to resign from a toxic organization–especially one with significant infighting–where something just doesn’t feel right. If this resignation is more of a power play or an attack on you, here’s your list:
- I’ll restate that professionalism is key. Even when you’re in battle and others aren’t playing by the rules, maintain your integrity.
- Make the decision before you go any further about whether this is a job you still want. Maybe this act of aggression has made things clear–you don’t want to work here anymore. If that’s the case, then your choice just became simple because you can switch to negotiation mode. If you choose to fight, know that you’re about to play a high-risk game of chess that you need to understand before you play it.
- Find out who is asking you to resign. Find out whether this is an organizational decision or if someone (or a group) has gone rogue. Don’t assume they know what they’re doing or that they’re the majority. If it is a legitimate, done by the books, process, the odds are against you, and your path is clear. If it’s a desperate ploy by a few people trying to trick you into going away silently and disarming your ability to speak, you may still be in trouble, but you need to think through your next moves very carefully.
- Why are you being asked to resign? The resignation request may be innocent–that they sincerely want to protect your future and let things end quietly. Or not–which often means they want to trick someone into giving up unemployment benefits or other options or someone is hoping to shield their dirty work by making it look like your departure was your idea.
If you believe foul play is involved in the request for you to resign, slow the process down, and walk through things slowly.
- Do not resign immediately, as there is no requirement to do so. Take a deep breath and think through what is happening before taking any action you can’t take back.
- If you contact other people who should know about your situation and they are out of the loop, slow the process down even more. Don’t gossip, but learn what you can. If smart, plugged-in people don’t know what just happened to you, it may be a sign that you’re possibly being targeted in an unethical manner. And find out if your HR department is involved. If they are, there is likely some tacit approval from others in the organization to push you out. If they’re not, this may be a rogue operation. This doesn’t mean your safe by any means if a small mob are your only enemies, but it does provide good intelligence that you’ll need.
- Assess your chances for survival. Will anyone speak up and go to bat for you even in this unholy action? Go to the people who should be your biggest champions what they know, and ask if they’ll fight for you. You’ll find out information, but you’ll also get a sense of your ability to win. And know that in most cases of office politics, people don’t want to get involved. Why? It’s rare when anyone wants to step in to help someone else’s professional problems. They’re messy and can backfire. Do other people care about you? Probably yes, but only to the point of when it starts to hurt their situation in the organization. If you think these toxic people are tough to deal with as coworkers/managers/leadership/board members, you can’t imagine what they might try and do to you if they get a call from a potential employer of yours asking about your time at the company! Be very realistic. Game of Thrones-style tactics that bring leaders back to power is excellent on TV, but usually are high risk, low odds propositions that can blow up in real-life settings. But it’s up to you to decide what you’re going to do.
- Plan your exit and terms for negotiation. If you’re going to lose the battle to stay, leave on your own terms. Those should include the step of understanding what is possible in a severance package–insurance (COBRA), how many weeks or months or pay you will receive, letters of recommendation, career services are just a few of the things to consider
- Control the narrative. If you’re going to resign, it should be a letter that helps you in the future. It should include all of the following:
- State what you were told was the reason for your resignation. You don’t want a case of ‘He said/she said’ taking place in the future. Put it on paper.
- Say why you are resigning from your perspective. This isn’t a time to score some scoreboard points and insult your employer, but it is a great time to clarify and control your message. If the resignation request defies reality, talk about your performance. Do not go down the rabbit hole of discussing internal politics, but you want to
- Specify your last day of work.
- State what you’re owed in terms of pay (unless you’re negotiating a package)
- Work out the best possible deal financially. Be realistic. Don’t overplay your hand, but know that some at the negotiating table may see financial value in the drama ending quickly. Use that to your advantage.
And when do you fight the push for resignation and risk being terminated? Some will disagree, but I say you consider a battle like that in the way most countries look at fighting wars. That is, if you really think you can win, it’s an option. But it’s a high-risk one and often a battle that is stacked against you.
If your chances to lose are strong, then negotiate, move on, and live to fight another day. This is one more way to fireproof yourself from the Arsonists who burn down careers, companies, and cultures.
Have you run into circumstances like these? Do you have a story? Would love to know what you think or what you’d add to the list of things to consider.
Pete Havel is President of The Cloture Group, LLC. He is a keynote speaker, trainer, consultant on workplace and organizational culture issues and author of The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees, and Cultures. He helps organizations deal with serious people and cultural problems that land companies in messy headlines and lawsuits, while assisting individuals with problems that can land them in court and unemployment lines.