How to negotiate severance after being let go from my job.
February 11, 2014 11:31 AM   Subscribe

I was unexpectedly let go from my job yesterday. I’ve only been there 4 months, and it was quite a surprise. I’d like to try and negotiate severance as I haven’t signed anything yet, and was told HR would be contacting me in the next couple days. I’m not sure how to do this as this is the first time I’ve been fired.

I need advice on negotiating severance. I’ve never had the need to so never really thought about it. I think I was unfairly (but no, not illegally) let go. I realize an employer isn’t required to pay out severance, but I also think I should make the case based on the circumstances around the dismissal.

I’d only been with the company for four and a half months. I had no idea this was coming, but I also had a sense things weren’t going well. I thought that sense was limited to how I felt about the company. (I had no idea the feeling was mutual) From my perspective, they were disorganized, and didn’t want to make the changes they hired me to implement. But I had also successfully completed a fairly major project that was thrown at me on day one, in addition to smaller projects tasked of me. I wanted to stick it out a few more months and see if it was just new job jitters, but I wasn’t happy with the way things were going.
Well it turns out the company also thought things weren’t going well, because they let me go yesterday. They wouldn’t tell me why, but said we could talk at a later date about it. I don’t know of any instance where I did anything that could be considered a reason for just cause termination. However, I did have trouble communicating with one of the bosses - my coworkers had told me he needed to be ‘handled’ a certain way, something I had not been able to grasp.

At the core of it, I feel a bit betrayed, as I left a job to go work there (going back isn’t an option) and that this company didn’t really give me any recourse to correct whatever they perceived as wrong. It wasn’t a secret I wasn’t meeting the some of goals they had set out for me at hire, but I also was very successful in other unexpected tasks I was given, including a large, enterprise level software implementation. I struggled with some of the initial goals we planned because their was a culture that was very resistant to change (in spite of wanting results that would require some drastic changes). So I don’t disagree it wasn’t a good fit, but I also think severance of some sort while I find something new is the least they can do.

To complicate matters, one of the managing owners was pretty mercurial. Everything was kind of rushed when this happened, and I don’t know if that played a part in this.

I realize there is no law requiring they give severance, so I’m seeking the best strategy for negotiating for it anyway. I have signed zero documents, nor was I asked to sign any. The termination was fairly hastily handled, I was told I wasn't working out and that I would be paid through the 31st, which I am assuming was a mistake; either they meant the 21st or they meant the end of the month. I mention these things just to show how chaotic it was. I was not given any sort of exit interview, just told to collect my stuff and go.
I don’t believe I have done anything that would be a fireable offense. I was very thoroughly vetted and didn’t misrepresent myself in any way. So thoroughly vetted that I had 6 interviews, lunches and dinners, because they said when they hire someone, they want to make sure they not only are a good fit, but will be someone they will want to work with for a long time. I was led to believe that they were overly loyal to their employees, and that was the reason for the extensive vetting process. I wasn’t given any indication before my termination that they were going to do anything of the sort.

Another possible complication is that my wife has health issues and there were times I needed to be available to take her to doctors. I was very clear about this at the start of the hiring negotiation, and they informed me that it would not be a problem. I don't know if it ever WAS a problem, but this goes into the part where I feel if they did have an issue they both should have spoken to me and and is another area that if it is the case, they really misled me, hence my belief that at least morally, the company should pay severance.

Of course none of this helps if the company is dead set against severance, but I’d like to at least make a case for severance based on hiring me away from a long term job and the various promises and subsequent excuses I was given.

The company is smallish- around 50 employees. They’ve been in business for 20 years and are in the it sector. I left a similar position with a much larger company where I worked for close to 10 years.
posted by quin to Work & Money (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If you have the money, talk to an employment lawyer regarding rights in your state/province.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:33 AM on February 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

You should be elegible for unemployment, as they have to prove you were fired for cause, which would be pretty tough without any documentation.
posted by Oktober at 11:40 AM on February 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was told I wasn't working out and that I would be paid through the 31st, which I am assuming was a mistake; either they meant the 21st or they meant the end of the month.

Definitely clarify this. My hunch is that they're paying you through the end of the month, which would mean on a practical level that you're getting a week's severance pay.

On the matter of severance entirely: again, it's worth looking into -- especially considering they hired you away from a company where you'd worked for ten years! -- but from my experience I wouldn't expect too much. When my organization (much larger than yours) let a number of people go last year, the severance packages amounted to about 1 week of pay for every year worked.

I'm so sorry you're going through this. Sending you internet hugs.
posted by scody at 11:49 AM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

See if an employment lawyer will give you a free or very inexpensive consultation. Ask whether you are entitled to unemployment, severance, both, or neither. Ask whether the circumstances strengthen your legal entitlement to unemployment, severance, both, or neither.

Even if you have no intention of suing the company, it strengthens your negotiating position if you can sue, and doubly strengthens if you know you can. But I don't know if you can or not. If it turns out you can't sue, at least you will know you didn't leave money on the table.

If both you and the lawyer are able to cut to the chase when you talk, it should be a brief and therefore cheap conversation.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 11:53 AM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

All of the following assumes you don't want to go to a lawyer. A lawyer will really quickly tell you if you have a case, because they'll either agree to take the case on contingency (which means they think they can win something) or will require hourly payment (which means they think you aren't going to win enough to make the contingency worth it) or will not represent you (in which case you should take the hint). I am generally of the opinion that suing your employer is never worth doing. However, that doesn't mean going to a lawyer is a bad idea, because then you know what the law does (or doesn't) require, which is useful in negotiations like these.

I don’t know of any instance where I did anything that could be considered a reason for just cause termination.
that this company didn’t really give me any recourse to correct whatever they perceived as wrong.
I don’t believe I have done anything that would be a fireable offense.

Fix these misconceptions before you embarrass yourself in front of your employer. All terminations that do not involve a protected category or a violation of employment law are legal in Wisconsin, since the state deems employment "at will." Your employer does not need a reason to fire you. Further, your employer does not need to give you a chance to retain your employment.

I was told I wasn't working out and that I would be paid through the 31st

Sounds like you have been given severance pay - you're being paid not to work.

Another possible complication is that my wife has health issues and there were times I needed to be available to take her to doctors.

In case you want more severance, this is the closest thing I can see to justify further payment. Everything in your question preceding this statement is irrelevant. You do have some legal protections under the Family and Medical Leave Act in the USA, but they only become applicable when you have worked more than 1250 hours (there are further minimum number of employees that may also be relevant here). However, your employer may or may not know that off hand, and they may not want to make an issue even if they are legally in the right.

You can make the case that in exchange for $xxxx, you will waive any rights you have under the FMLA and leave without any grievance against the company. This is a business decision on their part, so you should make your sell quick (be able to summarize it in five sentences) and without any emotion (ie, don't include anything you put in any of your first six paragraphs). Companies like to get rid of employees quickly and without complaint - so offer them exactly that. That's your leverage here.
posted by saeculorum at 11:56 AM on February 11, 2014 [6 favorites]

Also, you should not worry too much about unemployment. You should apply regardless of what else you do, because denial doesn't cost you anything. Further, in general, you are only ineligible for unemployment for misconduct, which usually requires deliberately failing at your job. Simply "not working out" is not misconduct, because there's nothing deliberate on your part. Your employer does not determine your eligibility for unemployment, the State of Wisconsin does. They tend to be biased in favor of the (ex-)employee, which helps you out a lot.
posted by saeculorum at 12:04 PM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

You should immediately apply for unemployment. In my state, it can be done entirely online. From your description, there's no reason you shouldn't be eligible for it, and there's certainly no need for a lawyer to apply for unemployment. IANAL, but I've been told severance is essentially a gift from the employer, and it that it doesn't affect when you can start receiving unemployment.
posted by ShooBoo at 12:05 PM on February 11, 2014

It sounds to me like they are giving you two weeks severance. If you stopped working on the 10th and they are paying you through the end of the month, they are paying. The only question is for how long.

I would call them soon, tomorrow (?), and say you are calling to follow up on your being let go Monday. Ask them to clarify what they meant by being paid through the 31st. When they tell you through the end of the month, that is when you say something along the lines of you ere expecting a little more than two weeks, more along the lines of through March 15th. See what they say.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:31 PM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Lawyer up. If they have given you a written severance agreement, you as a civilian IT professional are not qualified to judge whether the agreement is complete or legally accurate - they may have made an error that will put you in a better negotiating position. Even if they have not given you a written agreement, an employment lawyer will certainly give you a no-cost consultation to discuss your options. If you have friends who are or know lawyers, ask them for recommendations; you may have more luck getting the attention of a small firm or sole practitioner, who will not just look at you as "is this worth litigating?" but may work as a more effective negotiator.

Good luck; I'm so sorry.
posted by deliriouscool at 12:36 PM on February 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Maybe paying you to the 31st is in fact your severance rather than a mistake.

As for lawyering up, if it's a state where you can be terminated without cause, then this would seem hardly worth contesting since severance is probably not required by law, and even if it were provided, it would only be a small amount due to your short period of employment there. Plus, new employers do background checks and if you have a litigious background it's possible they might rule you out as a candidate.

As much as this sucks, I would spend your time and energy looking for a new position. My wife went thru something similar recently where she had worked a bunch of extra time on weekends and was going to be comp'd for it with days off after the deadlines passed but then when she was terminated she didn't get paid for that extra time she put in. Welcome to capitalism.
posted by Dansaman at 12:37 PM on February 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Maybe paying you to the 31st is in fact your severance rather than a mistake.

OP's point is that paying someone through the 31st of February is challenging even on leap years.

Honestly, I would be stunned if you got any severance beyond a few weeks pay (which I'd assume is what they really mean, and they just weren't paying attention to what month it is) given your short tenure there. Even that is generous on average.

The only additional reason you might get any is if you have something they want - thus far untransferred intellectual property, promises not to discuss certain matters, etc. Presumably this will come up in the exit process, though if they're that disorganized and you know of things they ought to be doing to cover their own asses you might make sure they know by presenting it as an offer in exchange for severance.

There's no harm in asking (unless this place is so mercurial that they would decide to retract their offer of payment through month's end) but I wouldn't get my hopes up.
posted by phearlez at 12:56 PM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Apply for unemployment, start looking for a new job, and ask for additional severance but you have no leverage here at all so don't get your hopes up.
posted by BobbyDigital at 1:07 PM on February 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yes, do clarify, and if they are paying you through the end of February, that is rather generous severance. This sucks, but hardly qualifies, in my mind, for lawyering up over a job you had for four months. Sorry you have to deal with it, but maybe try and wrap you mind around moving forward?
posted by thinkpiece at 1:20 PM on February 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Unless it was specifically spelled out in your contract, severance is not a requirement, but an optional nicety that the employer may choose to add. It's typically in the neighborhood of about a week's pay for every year worked, sometimes less. Given that, their presumed offer is very generous.

Another consideration on lawyering up: Depending on how small your community is, is it really worth suing the employer and poisoning that well of networking? And how will that affect your future prospects?
posted by xedrik at 1:24 PM on February 11, 2014

You need your termination letter to file for unemployment and they should have provided that at the meeting when they told you that you were being let go.

INSIST upon that.

Standard severance is 2 weeks per year. If they're paying you through the end of the month, that's pretty good.

Get all your info re: Cobra, although it may be cheaper to buy insurance on your own.

As for the rest of it, it's one of those things. You jumped into a shitty situation and you were treated shittily.

The faster you get your resume out there and get a new job, the better off you'll be.

I'm not sure what an employement lawyer could do for you, and frankly, I'd rather just put this shit behind me and start looking for a new job, rather than wallowing in the injustice of it.

That's me though.

Sign up for Unemployment the second you get that termination letter though. That's KEY!

Hang in there, you'll be fine!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:09 PM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you've never signed anything with them at all - no noncompete, no non-disparagement, etc. - there is just a slim possibility that they will want you to sign something now. If they do, this is your leverage for asking for a bigger package. If you were fairly senior they might want something you'd be willing to give them (non-disparagement, not poaching their employees for some period, etc.) but it shouldn't be free to them. OTOH given what you've said they may not even think that way. I'd let them do the talking, though - if they don't want anything from you, they won't ask, and you don't have any leverage, so be thankful you got the more-or-less two weeks' pay.
posted by mr vino at 3:11 PM on February 11, 2014

I am mystified at the suggestions you lawyer up. There is nothing here that suggests that a lawyer could help you, presuming you work in the U.S. where employment-at-will is the norm. That means that your notions of a "fireable offense" are completely irrelevant. They can fire you for any reason or no reason at all. They can't fire you for being in a protected class, but nothing here suggests that that's what they're up to. If you are an average worker bee and not in the upper stratospheres of compensation, I can't imagine it that lawyering up would be worth it unless you can consult with a lawyer for free. Getting fired is a perfectly normal event for companies and a perfectly normal event for workers. As for negotiating severance, you likely have no leverage at all. Go ahead and ask, but after four months of employment, I think your chances are slim. Good luck! (Bonafides: I'm not a lawyer. I have been through a few layoffs. As a layperson I am continually astonished at people's assumptions that they must surely have recourse when disciplined, fired, or laid off. Repeat after me: employment-at-will.)
posted by Wordwoman at 3:56 PM on February 11, 2014 [10 favorites]

I'm with Wordwoman on this. It sucks and it's not a fun position to be in, but you don't really have a leg to stand on (assumption: you're in the United States). You can ask, but you have nothing they want, and if you get too pushy they might rescind the promised payment for the next week or two. From their perspective, they consider you the problem and are disappointed that they now how to go through a lengthy interview process to fill the position again, and likely consider their existing offer to be generous (I've had friends let go from longer positions with nothing).

Blow off some steam, but spend your time and money on getting the next job rather than dwelling on this.
posted by Candleman at 4:47 PM on February 11, 2014

Quin's wife here. We know he doesn't have a legal leg to stand on in regards to severance, at least we don't think they were violating laws and have no proof of such. They haven't told him why he was terminated yet but it wasn't a lay off. Er, we don't but even wasn't made clear - that's how strange the whole situation was. He was hoping, as was I, there might be some strategy to take to well, basically make them feel guilty (as they should) about this and give him a reasonable severance to find something. More on that in a moment.

As his wife, I wasn't there to see what happened every day, and of course I'm biased, but the whole thing stinks. My entire professional experience and that of colleagues has been that it takes at 6 months to get things rolling from both the new employee and the employer perspective. I think quin is really doubting himself here, but he had tackled a number of big projects, and those goals he did not reach were extremely, and I'd argue unrealistically aggressive in a few short months time. (But again, I'm the wife, I hear about this workplace though his viewpoint.)

So what he's asking is for the improbable if not impossible, how do you negotiate when you have no (or very little) leverage?

The company claimed they like to hire people for life; I've met with them as well, as they encourage people to get families involved and so wanted to meet Mrs. quin. Which is a stark contrast from the kiss off that he got. Even if they decided he wasn't the right fit, I would have expected him to be managed out - that's what civilized companies do.

FWIW, I'm possibly more angry about this than quin; he's just in a state of shock and self-doubt. He's very loyal to employers and thought he had found a great company that shared his values, making this even more of a kick in the jimmies. I worked in a field where people only stay in the same place 2-3 years, and even then it's sort of expected things be handled a certain way and very rarely is someone fired, even if they aren't a good fit. Firing's are reserved for people who are fired because they Fucked Up something major, and rack his brain as he might, he can't think of anything.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 10:27 PM on February 11, 2014

There is one thing I worry about, that would be quite illegal but there is likely no way we'd ever know. I have health issues, preventing me from working, which started about two and a half years ago. If you search my history, you can see a string of me desperate for answers about my health. Anyway, my concern is that the real reason is that I was just too expensive on their insurance.

I don't know, it is just as likely paranoia, but there were some things that made me start to think this may be the case. They switched insurance plans right before the end of the year, and it was a big last minute mess. There could be plenty of other reasons, but it also worries me as this isn't unheard of. My care isn't as expensive as many conditions but much of their work force is young men who are either in relative good health, many unmarried or recently married.

This could be my own fears turned outwards, and or it could be one piece of a much bigger puzzle. Even if it did play a factor, there is no way we'd ever know. They knew upfront I was sick and he was the only one supporting us, but maybe they didn't consider the actual cost. I just started physical therapy, which wasn't cheap even with the copay, I can't imagine it was cheap without.

Like quin, I'm grasping for straws to understand it. He was our only income so I'm not sure what we're going to do.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 10:44 PM on February 11, 2014

As you are over 40 (according to your profile) you are a member of a protected group which helps with negotiation. When they offer the amount you can say it's not enough, and that this whole thing looks like age discrimination with no visible paper trail to prove otherwise. At that point they should in theory offer you more weeks of severance.
posted by w0mbat at 12:16 AM on February 12, 2014

Clever Name, I think the important thing to know about hiring a lawyer is it's not about a lawsuit; it's about negotiating from the strongest position possible. You and quin are both emotional, and rightfully so - even as an at-will employee, that doesn't make the situation less messy or more fair for you.

They may say "no more severance - two weeks is what you're getting" but the documentation they gave quin about his firing may include mistakes or other loopholes that allow an attorney to go to them and not only argue for severance because he was the only income (or another reason), but because the company has left themselves open to litigation in another way. Hiring a lawyer isn't just about hauling people into court, it's about showing that you're serious about protecting your interests.

Whether you hire a lawyer or not, I wish you both the very best of luck - I hope quin finds something he likes much better, even if the process of getting there feels rough.
posted by deliriouscool at 7:33 AM on February 12, 2014

Hiring a lawyer isn't just about hauling people into court, it's about showing that you're serious about protecting your interests.

... it also shows you are a potentially litigious employee, which doesn't help your future job prospects. Hiring a lawyer isn't a protected class, and future employers don't like employees that might sue them.

Do a cost benefit analysis. I can't imagine a lawyer getting you any more than, say, two (additional) weeks of severance. The lawyer will directly cost you money (at an hourly rate) and indirectly cost you future employment. You may value your future employment very little, but in all the analyses I can see, the best answer here is to accept your situation and work on getting your next job.
posted by saeculorum at 8:25 AM on February 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

and give him a reasonable severance to find something

I'm in HR and I gotta tell you 2 weeks of pay is a pretty reasonable severance for someone who only worked there for 4.5 months. Especially for a smaller company.

My advice is to apply for unemployment immediately and begin looking for a new job. I know it is a huge kick in the ego and self-esteem to be fired but it sounds like this really just wasn't a good fit for either you or the company so look at it that way.

I agree with saeculorum that the amount of additional severance that a lawyer could possibly get you isn't going to be worth it because you will spend at LEAST that long trying to get it.

I would call and clarify your last day of pay and when your insurance terminates. You can request some sort of reason or letter but don't be surprised if they can't point to a specific moment or incident that was a fireable offense. In fact, not being given a reason would probably help with your unemployment claim.
posted by magnetsphere at 8:59 AM on February 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Like quin, I'm grasping for straws to understand it.

They are disorganized bozos without a good idea what they want or what will make them happy.

Nothing about the description of this place conveys an image of a coherent organization. When you have a small business that is failing to cope with its growth (and they may well have been failing to cope with their growth for a decade; a lot of small places never manage to figure out how to thrive when the boss can't be a part of everything) you get a lot of chaos, mixed-messages, poor management, bad staffing...

These things happen at larger orgs too, but their screw-ups are grander and less awful on an individual basis. There you get these sorts of things on a big scale, like re-orgs and waves of layoffs.

Which brings us to: They haven't told him why he was terminated yet but it wasn't a lay off.

The distinction between a layoff and a termination is pretty much just marketing unless you're a line worker in a factory where waves of people are sent home because there's no work and then recalled months or years later (and might have to do with how their seniority is computed). In the employment-at-will world its just people describing big mass firings as compared to individual ones, or trying to make it sound better. As several people upstream have mentioned it's often irrelevant for unemployment insurance purposes.

Honestly, it's irrelevant and you should just let go of it for your own sanity. Feel free to describe it as having been "laid-off" on the resume but nobody gives a damn, particularly when it comes to a 4 month tenure somewhere. That's a blip. If I was hiring someone and asked and they said it just wasn't a good fit - and everything else on their resume was fine - I'd not care past that point.

This is only tertiary to the original question, but the disorganization factor has one bit of relevance: this may be one of the few circumstances where you CAN guilt/shame/harass them into some severance. Unfortunately this is so specific to their particular flavor of dysfunction that nobody is gong to be able to advise you on how to handle it. Will firm disappointment work better than sobbing breakdown? Only you know. That's not so much negotiation, mind you, since that implies you have some leverage and/or something they want. There's no sign that's the case.

I'm with everyone else on the lawyer thing, though this is fucking creepy: The company claimed they like to hire people for life; I've met with them as well, as they encourage people to get families involved and so wanted to meet Mrs. quin.

That's really inappropriate from a legal standpoint; careful orgs don't even ask you marital status. Do you want to use that as a basis exploring litigation (like maybe they found out XYZ subsequently?), however? I'd personally be disinclined; there's so little real protection about what your employer can decide they care about in your private life that making a case is hard.
posted by phearlez at 11:33 AM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

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