So…it happened. You’ve gotten the bad news that you’re fired, or laid off. It may feel like the world is ending—or you may just feel shock. Whatever you’re feeling, the fact remains the same: you’re leaving your job, and not by your own choice. While you do need to embrace that reality, you don’t necessarily have to take the severance package that was initially offered to you.
When the worst happens, take these considerations into account to see if you can improve your severance.
Talk to a lawyer.
An employment attorney can help you navigate the waters after you’ve been terminated, particularly if you feel like you weren’t fired for proper cause or you were marched out of the office quickly without the chance to take stock of the situation. This doesn’t mean “sue the bastards,” but it does mean you should get a professional’s advice on whether you do have grounds for a potential suit. An attorney can also help you figure out if you have any wiggle room for negotiation.
Even if you do have an attorney, it’s usually the best course to do the negotiating yourself (unless you are likely to file a lawsuit—then it’s best to have your attorney either present or speaking on your behalf). Having someone negotiate for you can escalate the tension, so be careful to keep the tone civil if you’re hoping to get a better deal.
Ask for more.
At this point, you have little to lose, so you should request a higher severance payment. You should definitely be realistic—the payment is unlikely to double or triple from an initial offer, but you may be able to negotiate a lump sum payment vs. continued salary or an increase in the total payment.
Nail down insurance information.
One of the trickiest parts of unemployment can be insurance coverage, especially if you’re used to having solid coverage through your job. The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1995 (a.k.a. COBRA) means you can likely continue your insurance coverage for up to 18 months, but at your own expense. If coverage is a concern, this is a point to raise with the company. You may be able to get the company to keep paying for your insurance for a period of time after you leave.
Ask about unused benefits.
Some companies may offer a check in exchange for unused vacation or personal time, so be sure to see what’s on the table and fully understand what your company’s policies are on that front.
Be clear on what’s in the severance agreement.
Always, always, always read the fine print. Some severance agreements contain “non-compete” language, which limits your ability to go work for a competitive company. Others contain a non-disparagement clause, which means you may have to forfeit your total severance package if you’re busted saying anything negative about the company after you leave (even if it’s true). Make sure you understand what the conditions are if you accept the severance package.
Once you get the bad news, the important thing is…don’t panic. Or if you do panic, try to get it out of your system and then settle in for the next phase of talking through the logistics of your leaving. Just like negotiating a salary, you may have the chance to improve your package—if you ask for it.