This post explores definitions and connotations of various terms associated with leaving one’s place of employment.
This term is used mostly in military contexts, generally with a qualifier such as honorary that denotes a bureaucratic category, to refer to the end of enlistment for any of various reasons. (Discharge stems from the Late Latin term discarricare, meaning “unload.”) Occasionally, it is used in reference to an end to employment in a civilian capacity as a euphemism when one is fired, or let go from employment, because of unsatisfactory performance or a violation of employment policies. Termination is also used, but it has an unpleasant connotation of impersonal indifference (and a wry association with the sense, for the term, of “death”).
Interestingly, fired has no noun equivalent; one does not write, for example, “He has initiated seven fires in his department since he was placed in charge.” (One would write “He has fired seven people in his department since he was placed in charge.”) It is also odd that no dominant formal equivalent exists. Synonyms for fired include the slang terms axed, canned, and pink-slipped (from the color of a paper form documenting the action) and the more restrained dismissed and released, as well as cashiered and “mustered out,” both previously common in military usage but rare in civilian contexts.
The term furlough, from the Dutch word verlof, meaning “for permission,” originally denoted a leave of absence granted to government or military personnel and applies also to a set time when a prisoner is allowed to temporarily leave a prison, but in general, it now refers to an involuntary unpaid leave of absence. The consolation for furloughed people, however, is that they remain employed with benefits and are likely to be reinstated as paid employees in the future.
Originally, layoff referred to temporary unemployment as a result of an employer’s financial straits; employment would be restored when economic conditions improved. This is still occasionally the case, but usually, a layoff is permanent — and even if it isn’t, many laid-off workers find employment elsewhere in the meantime and are thus not rehired. (Furlough has taken the place of the previous sense of a layoff as a temporary state.)
Many euphemisms for layoff have been coined, including downsizing and the egregious obfuscations rightsizing and smartsizing, as well as “excess reduction,” “workforce reduction,” and “workforce optimization,” plus absurd evasions like “force shaping,” “leveraging synergies,” redeployment, and simplification. The phrase “reduction in force” (abbreviated RIF), like the previous terms, has a bureaucratic taint.
Older employees are sometimes offered an early retirement incentive, in the form of severance pay or increased pension benefits, as an inducement to voluntary unemployment preliminary to layoffs. The advantages to employers of ERIs are that older employees are among the most highly paid and are more likely to be ready to stop working anyway, and reducing the number of involuntary layoffs mitigates the impact on workforce morale.
A resignation is an announcement, usually formally and in writing, of one’s intention to quit a job. This act is usually voluntary, but it is sometimes arranged as a way for employees to save face when they would otherwise be fired. (Resign is from the Latin verb resignare, meaning “cancel”; the root signare means “seal” or “sign.”)
A leave of absence, or a period of time off (traditionally every seventh year) granted to an employee, is sometimes called a sabbatical. Originally, it was generally limited to university faculty; later, physicians and scientists often took advantage of the opportunity, and over the past few decades, technology companies have offered sabbaticals to employees. In such cases, if the person on sabbatical engages in research or study, it is often paid; when rest and/or travel is involved, it is generally unpaid. The term derives from the Hebrew word shabbāth, meaning “rest.” In the Bible, the term applies when farmers are told to allow their fields to rest every seven years, and on the model in the story of creation in Genesis, which describes how God rested on the seventh day, Christianity adopted the idea of the Sabbath as a recurring day of rest, usually Sunday.