Exit strategy – negotiating a severance agreement

The moment you find out you’re being laid off, when your boss tells you that your position is no longer needed, it’s nearly impossible to think clearly, especially if the layoff is a surprise.

Because your mind is racing and your emotions are rising, it’s one of the worst possible times to have to consider a legally binding contract-the severance package your employer may be eager for your to sign, says Martha Finney, author of Rebound: A Proven Plan for Starting Over After Job Loss.

That’s precisely why it’s so important for you to take the time to read and understand the severance package your employer is presenting, says Finney.

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In fact, you may be doing yourself a great disservice by blindly accepting whatever your employer offers. “Your being super-cooperative by signing that severance package right then and there could cost you many thousands of dollars,” writes Finney in Rebound.

You don’t have to be an executive to negotiate your severance. Though employers are under no legal obligation to offer severance packages, if you are presented with one, you owe it to yourself to review it carefully and to try to negotiate for more if you’re unsatisfied. Your employer can always say no, but, says Finney, there’s no harm in asking. You have nothing to lose and potentially a lot to gain, especially if you keep in mind the following three tips for handling the severance discussion.

1. Stay Calm. There is perhaps no more important time to maintain your cool than when management nudges that severance agreement and a pen in your direction. If you get angry or act snarky, you could completely blow your chances of getting any severance pay at all, writes Finney. In Rebound, she quotes an attorney who says employers can call a loud voice “workplace violence,” which then gives them cause to fire the employee on the spot and not give them a severance package.

2. Ask questions. Finney advises professionals to take notes on what management tells them when they get laid off. If you don’t understand what your boss or HR is telling you, or you miss something they say in your notes, ask them about it. Finney recommends asking questions during this meeting, such as “What’s your reasoning behind this” and “Why am I part of the group being laid off”.

“The HR person and the hiring manager are probably working against a script, and if you’re asking them questions, you’re forcing them to go off script,” says Finney. “That’s when they could say something that could serve your purposes later.”

3. Take your time. Many employees erroneously believe that they have to sign the severance agreement on the spot. They fear that if they don’t put pen to paper, they’ll be denied any severance pay to which they might have otherwise been entitled. Consequently, notes Finney, they spend less time going through the paperwork associated with their job loss than they do going through the paperwork associated with buying a car.

“You have a legal right not to sign right then and there no matter what the company says or what kind of pressure they put on you,” says Finney. “Don’t sign anything when your head is spinning.”

After all, the severance agreement is a legally binding document, and by signing it, you may be waiving your rights to make any future legal claims against the company. (Of course, in return for releasing your employer of legal claims, your employer may give you several weeks or months worth of pay.)

Finney suggests telling your employer that you’re going to take the severance agreement home so that you can review it more closely and/or talk about it with your spouse. Your employer shouldn’t have a problem with that, she says, adding that it’s completely within your rights and that your employer may want to give you a copy of the actual agreement to take home. Carefully reviewing the document gives you the chance to determine whether you have any leverage to negotiate, she adds.

“There are so many reasons to delay signing a document like this,” says Finney. For example, if you’re being laid off toward the end of the month and you’re able to delay your termination date by just a few days into the following month, you may be eligible for an extra month of health insurance, notes Finney.

Furthermore, she writes, if your layoff comes near the end of the year and you can delay your termination by a few days into the following year, your tenure at your company will be longer and will look better to prospective employers.

If you’re over 40, you have 21 days to review the severance agreement before you have to sign it, according to the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act, says Finney. And because companies don’t want to find themselves up against age discrimination claims, they sometimes make that timetable available to everyone inside the company, she adds.

“You haven’t signed anything in the throes of shock, confusion and upset in the past,” writes Finney. “Why do it now? Just because they told you to? What are they going to do if you don’t? Fire you?”

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