“Can my boss make me sign a letter saying I left voluntarily in return for a letter of recommendation?”

Question: Alan: I have to resign from my job due to a foreclosure, and because after my husband lost his job, he has a new one in another state, and so we are relocating.

I have asked my employer for a letter of recommendation. In response he wrote up a letter that he wants me to sign stating that I have freely left my position at work. He wants me to sign it, or he won’t give me a letter of recommendation.

Is that legal, and do I have to give him that letter legally? He has known about my situation for over a year and knew this was coming. I’ve worked here for 7 years. Thank you for your assistance.

San Francisco, California

Answer: Maryann: Your question is interesting, because to me it illustrates the essence of severance, even though you are resigning and you are not receiving any “severance.” Allow me to explain.

1. There is no legal requirement that an employer has to give an employee a letter of recommendation; it’s usually a courtesy. From what you’ve written, it would seem your employer is willing to give you a letter of recommendation. That’s good: not every boss is willing to do that. However, it also seems he is asking a “price” for doing so: a letter saying you “freely” left work. Thus, it seems that he does not want to do a “good deed,” but instead wants to do a “good deal.” Instead of being “courteous,” it seems he is being “clever.” When I think of it, your departure is “involuntary” when considering your foreclosure and husband’s circumstances, but pretty “voluntary” with regard to your employer. At least that is the way it seems from what you’ve written.

2. The letter your employer is asking for seems like a kind of “Letter of Recommendation” from an employee to an employer. The requested letter seems intended to lower your employer’s risks that you (or perhaps an attorney on your behalf) may later claim either that you resigned “involuntarily” due to abuse, harassment, hostility, discrimination or other evil. Or, your employer might have a policy of paying severance (or other benefits) to those who are laid off that he is concerned you may make a claim for. It’s the word “voluntary” that leads me to those thoughts. Frankly, I’ve never before heard of an employer requesting what your employer is requesting, but then again, we all hear of new things every day, and new does not necessarily mean “bad.”

3. Is the “price” – that is, the letter your employer is requesting – going to cost you anything? If the “trade” of letters is not going to “cost” you anything, why not do it? One concern I have for you is that, if you apply for unemployment benefits, your reason for leaving your job – that is, to join your husband – might well make you eligible, but the letter your employer is requesting might, instead, make you ineligible. You did not mention any such concern in your note to me, but it sure did pop into my mind pretty quickly. Consider other things, too, that you might be due if your departure was “involuntary.” Union benefits? Layoff notice? Continuation of health insurance? Give a good thought to those things, and others like them.

4. You might consider a compromise of sorts: an “exchange of letters,” but perhaps ask for one more thing: a written assurance from your employer that it won’t contest any application you make for unemployment benefits. Your potential loss of unemployment benefits is the one “risk” I can see coming from your granting the requested letter. If you want to eliminate that risk, or at least reduce it considerably, a written assurance from your employer that it won’t contest any unemployment application you might make, would be a way to address it. If there is something else you think you may need, ask for it as part of the “deal,” and see if it is granted.

This is what you seem to need: our Model Letter to Former Managers and Colleagues Requesting Positive Reference Letters, with Three Sample Reference Letters. “What to Say, and How to Say It.”™ To obtain your copy, just [click here.] Delivered by Email – Instantly! 

5. Though this is not a “severance situation,” it closely resembles one. The essence of severance is this: at the time of an employee’s “departure,” (a) the employer gives the employee some “transition assistance” and, in return, (b) the employee gives the employer a signed document that eliminates or reduces the employer’s potential risks. The employee’s “transition assistance” might include a letter of recommendation, an agreement not to contest unemployment, and other things, while the “risk reduction” the employer gets is usually a release of claims from the employee. Sounds familiar, no?

Bottom line, Maryann, there is nothing “legal” or “illegal” about your employer not being willing to give a good letter of recommendation unless he receives a “letter” in return. My suggestion to you is to do the best you can, hopefully without cost, damage or peril to you and your family, to move forward in a strong, positive way. If that requires a little “deal-making” where it does not usually take place, like the “deal” your employer seems to want, then “so be it.”

I wish you and your family nothing but success in your move and in your new surroundings. I am sorry for your foreclosure and other misfortunes. If you have your health, your marriage and (a bit of) your sanity, you are in the most important ways “wealthier” than most.

My very, very best to you. Thanks for writing in.

Al Sklover

P.S.: When leaving employment – for any reason – ALWAYS ask to be paid for Accrued But Unused Vacation. Use our “Model Letter Requesting Payment for Accrued but Unused Vacation – with 12 Great Reasons.” It shows you “What to Say and How to Say It.”™ To get your copy, just [click here.] Delivered by Email – Instantly!


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