Go your own way

Stephen Pihlaja, The Open University


Earlier this year, my applications to distance PhD programs yielded an unexpected result: a full scholarship to study on campus at a UK university. After the initial excitement wore off, I was faced with the difficult task of terminating my contract at the Japanese university where I was teaching. The process taught me several things about terminating contracts early.

My 1-year contract stipulated a 5-month notice for termination. When I signed, this seemed like a long time, but it didn’t bother me as I wasn’t intending to leave. Given that I had a good relationship with my supervisor and it was still 3 and a half months before I planned on leaving, I felt it best to tell her immediately. During our first conversation, we both agreed that it wasn’t in the school’s interest for me to leave in 5 months as it would be in November, the middle of the fall term, and I left the meeting feeling like leaving in September wouldn’t be a problem.

The next week, however, things got noticeably colder and my supervisor sent me an email saying that the school expected me to leave my university-owned apartment several weeks earlier than I’d planned. I fired back, asserting my rights, and marched into her office the next day to reinforce what I’d written in my email.

This was a mistake. From the school’s standpoint, it seemed that whether or not the law was on my side was a moot point. I’d broken their trust and put my supervisor in the position of finding a teacher in the middle of the year. Although I apologized, things weren’t quite the same, and I realized that I needed to take a different posture.

I called the local Labor Standards Office for more information and learned that I needed to negotiate with the university. How much notice employees must give when quitting isn’t stated in the Labor Standards Law. Workers with an unlimited term contract or after the 2nd year of a renewed 1-year contract typically need to give only 2 weeks. However, in the 1st year of a 1-year contract you must usually follow the termination procedures laid out in the contract. When this isn’t possible, the employee and employer must negotiate a settlement. The Labor Standards Office will mediate if necessary.

At my next meeting with administration employees I took a different tone by apologizing for the trouble that I was causing and dropping any claims about employment law that I knew was on my side: namely that the school couldn’t dismiss me based solely on the conversation I had with my supervisor and knowing that I was asking to negotiate an end of the contract. This posture proved more productive and we negotiated an amicable settlement for me to leave at the end of August. By keeping a cool attitude, I not only helped myself in negotiations, but also helped create a better atmosphere for the teachers who will follow me.

As I was leaving, an administrator said to me kindly, “I know that you’re moving up in your career, but please remember as you go forward that you broke your promise.” Although I would have never called my contract a promise, I learned a valuable lesson: In a culture of promises rather than laws, legal issues may be best dealt with on the level of relationships.

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