If your employer doesn't want you around any longer, she can force you to resign or terminate you if you don't agree to resign. And, in most instances, she probably wouldn't be violating any labor or employment laws. Naturally, you can't be forced to sign a letter of resignation if you absolutely refuse to put your signature on a letter you didn't write nor wanted to write. But regardless of the formality, your employment can end whenever your employer chooses -- signed resignation or not.
Unless you've previously discussed resignation versus termination, your manager or the human resources department leader presenting you with a resignation letter will come as a shock. And if you have discussed your employment status and prefer to weigh your options, request a copy of the proposed resignation letter, ask when you have to make your decision and how much of the letter is negotiable. This gives you time to talk it over with a friend or significant other. If your working relationship has been rocky, you might even want to contact a lawyer to discuss your options.
Unless you're covered by an employment agreement or a labor union contract, it's likely that your employment is at will. Employment-at-will is a doctrine that means the company can sever the working relationship at any time, for any reason or for no reason, with or without advance notice. Consequently, you could be terminated for not signing the resignation letter, as long as your employer's reason for demanding your resignation isn't discriminatory. For example, an employer who tries to force employees to resign because of their national origin is engaging in unfair employment practices.
If you're at the stage where ending your current employment is imminent, ask how resignation versus termination will affect your work record. When you begin your job search, prospective employers will ask why you left your last employer or if you left on good terms. Resigning in lieu of termination might be easier to explain on an employment application, because you can simply write, "Resigned." In exchange for your agreement to sign the resignation letter, negotiate a neutral reference for employers who call to verify your work history.
Proving that you're eligible for unemployment benefits definitely will be a challenge if you resign from your job. State laws don't favor granting unemployment benefits to workers who appear to have chosen unemployment over working. Therefore, if there's a silver lining to this situation, you might be entitled to unemployment benefits if you refuse to resign and your employer fires you instead. This is another point to raise during your termination meeting or the meeting during which your employer intends for you to sign a resignation letter. Disclose your plans to file for unemployment benefits, and the company might be willing to negotiate a plan to not file an opposition to your unemployment benefits claim.
Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.