columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

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.

Green responds:

Yes, that's totally reasonable to say, and many managers will receive that kind of statement with relief. It's a rare manager who enjoys firing someone, and most employers would much rather work out a mutual separation if it's possible. In addition to firings just being tough emotionally, there are practical reasons for preferring a mutual separation -- primarily that the exiting employee is much less likely to leave with bad feelings, which means that they're less likely to badmouth the company (to other employees, vendors, clients, etc.) and much less likely to try to find something to sue over.

I'd say something very similar to what you suggested: "I'm hearing what you're saying and I want to be realistic about my chances for success here. I wonder if you'd be open to a plan for me to transition out of my role and leave on good terms. We could set my last day for (date -- probably 2-4 weeks out) to give me a little time to job search and you time to get a head start on hiring a replacement. In return, I'd ask that you not contest my unemployment benefits since it sounds like I was likely to be let go at the end of this process anyway, and that we come up with an agreement for what to say to future reference-checkers and how my departure is reflected in company records."

Most managers will hear this with relief and will agree -- and that's the smart thing for them to do. However, you'd need ot be prepared for the small chance that your manager could say, "You know, I was just getting ready to talk to you about this. I agree that it's not working out, but I'd actually like to set your last day for (some earlier date than he had proposed -- or even today)." If that happens, you can still try to negotiate the other pieces of this; I just want to make sure you're prepared for the possibility of push-back on the question of your last day.

Also: Be sure to get any agreement about unemployment benefits and references in writing, in case there are any questions later. (Plus, this manager may leave the company at some point, and you want to be sure that the agreement survives even after she's gone.)

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