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Being Downsized 101

Fourteen things to do immediately after losing your job, from Work It!: How to Get Ahead, Save Your Ass, and Land a Job in Any Economy, by Allison Hemming.

The worst-case scenario is happening to you: you’re losing your job. While you can’t change the fact that you’re about to be laid off, you can ask for what you are entitled to. As you head into joblessness, extra funds and benefits can give you the breathing room to land your next job.

Most employees who’ve been laid off do not treat the moment of their termination like a business meeting. As such, they can feel inadequate and unprepared. Remember that the person sitting across the table will seize upon any moment of weakness. So approach the ending of your employment the same way you would negotiate a new job. The only difference is that instead of haggling over salary and a bonus, you’re instead negotiating for a nest egg and benefits that can get you through your unemployment.

What’s the downside to asking for more than the current package? Nothing! You’re already being let go, right? After all your tough negotiating, you might still end up receiving exactly the same package as everyone else. But at least you went for it.

Of course, the best-case scenario could also happen to you: management might actually surrender on a point or two. You could end up receiving a much better severance package than you were anticipating, just because you had the courage to ask. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” never meant so much as at this moment.

“When it became clear that my time at the company might be running out, I started making a list of all the loose ends that might need to be tied up. In doing so, I left nothing to chance and assumed that nothing was too obvious. In my exit interview with my boss, the COO, I discussed these points with him verbally, and then before leaving the office, I handed him a letter that set out my explicit understandings and expectations as to the amount of salary I was owed, options in which I was vested, and vacation pay and expense reimbursement I felt I was entitled to, and a bonus amount that I felt I had earned. I attached a copy of my employment contract to the letter and made specific reference in the letter to my contract whenever possible. My boss was a bit taken aback by the letter and wondered if I didn’t trust him. I simply said I wanted to make sure everything was clear and explicit, to avoid any potential oversights or mistakes. The company agreed to everything in the letter, including, to my surprise, the bonus payment.”
–Edward, Product Manager

No Guts, No Glory
Let’s get one thing straight: this is a negotiation. A give and take is naturally implied. Don’t be rigid. It is imperative that you decide which points are most important to you before your meeting, as it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get a favorable reaction to all of them. Manage your expectations by prioritizing each negotiation point and staying focused. Be prepared for a bit of a runaround. The person who actually conducts your termination meeting may not have the authority to agree to any of your negotiation points. This means that items might still need to be run by a higher authority. Don’t get discouraged. This is the process.

If you’re successful at winning some of your negotiation points, get everything in writing. Immediately following the meeting, draft an addendum to the termination agreement. Turn the document around ASAP and get all interested parties to sign and date it before you sign your termination agreement and ideally before you leave the building for the last time. We’ve put together a list of “No-Brainer” negotiation points where you’ve got excellent leverage. In fact, many severance plans may already include some or all of these points, depending upon how good they are. You should focus your attention on the “No-Brainers” category, as working through these points represents your best chance at victory. We’ve also put together a list of “Hail Mary” negotiation points. Use these at your discretion, but know that winning them will be a long shot.

The No-Brainers

  • GET PAID FOR YOUR UNUSED VACATION AND PERSONAL DAYS. Many times companies will wait for the employee to mention that they are owed this. If you don’t, they may not address it, and it’ll be your loss.
  • GET REIMBURSABLE EXPENSES PAID BACK. Many people leave their firms thinking that they can’t get compensated for their reimbursable expenses. But you are entitled to them (as long as they were originally authorized) — just make sure you get it in writing.
  • HAVE YOUR BONUS AND OUTSTANDING COMMISSIONS PRO-RATED. Calculate how far into the year you are, then determine how much of the bonus you would be owed. If you’ve worked at the firm for more than a year, you can point to historical evidence on what bonus you had been previously paid to establish a track record. Or, if you put a target bonus into your employee contract, point to that as evidence.
  • ASK FOR A LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION. If the layoff has nothing to do with your performance, you should ask for a letter of recommendation from your direct manager and any senior management with whom you interacted on a regular basis. Make sure the letter is on their letterhead. Just remember that playing hardball on your severance terms could poison the waters on getting a favorable reference, at least until your former boss cools down. You need to decide what you need more: the money or the recommendation.
  • REQUEST AUTO-REPLY AND E-MAIL FORWARDING. If you’ve listened to our advice so far, you’ve already backed up your email address book before your termination meeting. But just in case, you may want to ask to have an auto-reply message set up that provides your personal e-mail information for a set period of time, or to have your e-mails forwarded to your personal address.
  • WEIGH YOUR OPTIONS. Many companies require you to surrender options or restricted stock upon termination. Take a good look at what you’re owed or have to exercise, and remember that there could be tax implications at the end of the year.

The Hail Marys

  • REQUEST MORE SEVERANCE PAY. Severance pay is often tied to how many years you worked at the company. That said, you might have some leverage if you joined the firm under special circumstances (e.g., you were heavily recruited from a competitor where you were on the fast track).
  • GET THE NON-COMPETE AGREEMENT WAIVED. They’re releasing you. Now is the time to ask them to waive restrictions on your ability to take a job with a competitor. This will give you a greater ability to find work when you’re ready. Management may not entirely waive the non-compete, but they may at least remove a few firms from the direct competitor list or shorten the duration of the non-compete restriction.
  • OFFER TO CONSULT. It is not uncommon for companies to cut head count too deeply. In some cases, management will ask employees to stay on in a consulting capacity. Swallow your pride and fatten your wallet, letting your employer know that you would like to be considered for this type of contract assignment if the opportunity arises. This can be highly lucrative: you get paid as a consultant on an hourly or daily rate on top of your negotiated severance package.
  • ASK FOR A HEALTH CARE EXTENSION. At termination, your medical coverage is normally converted to a COBRA plan. Ask to have your current health care plan extended for a set period of time in the future (say, three-to-six months). Offer to pay the employee contribution part (which you had been paying anyhow as an employee). This does two things: it keeps your current health care provider until you land a new job, and it delays the start date of COBRA, which is more expensive and has a set term of eighteen months.
  • REQUEST OUTPLACEMENT ASSISTANCE. Outplacement (off-site career counseling services) can be the fast track to keeping you focused on getting your next job. You might get access to an office with computers, fax, and Internet access as well as guidance on resume writing, career management, and financial planning. If your company doesn’t offer this, ask to receive a stipend for career coaching or tuition reimbursement.
  • NEGOTIATE USE OF YOUR OLD OFFICE. In some cases, your company may allow you to use the office computers and fax machines for a few days, after the layoff. This is especially true if the company is going belly-up. See if management will allow you to use their equipment for a set period of time before you have to trudge off to Kinko’s and start spending your own money.
  • ASK FOR ADDITIONAL TRAINING AND EDUCATION. Discuss your individual training needs with the termination team. You might be surprised to find them willing to subsidize a class or two to improve your ability to find another job.
  • COMPUTER EQUIPMENT. Most likely, your office computer’s value has already depreciated significantly. Its value to the company will be a mere fraction of its purchase price. To you, however, a computer for home use during a job search can be very valuable. Try to negotiate your trusty computer into your package. It costs the firm very little and can be a great asset to you.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Allison Hemming, author of Work It! How to Get Ahead, Save Your Ass, and Land a Job in Any Economy (Copyright © 2003 by Allison Hemming), is the founder of The Hired Guns, an interim workforce agency. She lives in New York City.

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