If your company goes out of business, don't be surprised if there is no severance pay. Going out of business and running out of cash are practically synonymous. Once in a while a failing business closes down with some money left in the bank - but those funds are usually returned to the investors who provided them.
Severance pay, after all, is as much a signal to the employees who remain behind as it is a gesture of goodwill to those being let go. If the company disappears, it doesn't need to preserve goodwill with its former staff.
Yet established companies that intend to remain in business after the layoffs have relationships to preserve with former (and possibly future) employees, with those left behind, with investors, and with the public at large. According to Drake Beam Morin, an outplacement firm, companies that do provide severance pay provide between one and two weeks of pay for each year of service on average.
What's in it? Your package may contain some or all of the following components. "When you get the papers, take them home to read and analyze. Never sign a severance agreement immediately," said Erisa Ojimba, a compensation consultant for Salary.com.
Things to consider when reviewing a severance package
Severance, commission, bonus, and deferred compensation plan payouts due.
Accrued vacation and sick time payouts due.
Rights under pension, profit sharing, and 401(k) plan.
Stock options statement and exercise schedule.
Loans you may have received from your employer.
Unreimbursed business expenses, especially if they're on your credit card.
Health, dental, and life insurance, accidental death and dismemberment, as well as long- and short-term disability insurance.
Ask for a summary plan description if anything has changed since the last period of open enrollment.
By law, an employer must offer you the chance to continue health and dental coverage under COBRA. Normally you can remain on COBRA for 18 to 36 months.
Company property: intellectual and tangible
Company car, credit cards, keys, laptop, fax, beeper, PDA, and cellular phone.
Customer lists, expensive reports, proprietary information. (Never take these with you, no matter how tempting it may be. Preserving your reputation always is worth more.)
Letters or statements of recommendation.
Use of your company voicemail for a defined period.
Length and extent of outplacement services. About 80 percent of U.S. companies offer it, said Drake Beam Morin.
Review your obligations under any noncompete, nondisparagement, nondisclosure, or confidentiality agreements you may have signed when you began working there. Be prepared to take these seriously during the emotional time that follows losing your job.
Have your attorney review any additional agreements you may be contemplating signing.
Can you negotiate?
The cardinal rule for negotiation: if you don't ask, you may not get.
Prepare by distinguishing yourself from others who were offered the same package. If you've served longer, contributed more, or made a specific contribution point that out - persistently, repeatedly, and politely. And remember that items you want may be things an employer wouldn't even think about, said attorney Gatley. "If it's important to you to be carried on the employer benefits plan another month, ask if your official termination date can be changed," she said.
Treat other important milestones the same way. If you are near a vesting milestone for stock options, find out whether your termination date can be extended. Request that an incentive payout be prorated.
What if nothing works? Be the squeaky wheel, said Ojimba. Appeal to your supervisor, human resources representatives, and senior executives of the company. Sign the agreement only when you are clear about the terms and agree to them. If you are over 40, you have 45 days to reflect on and rescind the agreement.
Depending on your company's circumstances and financial position, there may be little you can do. But as one long-term outplacement counselor said, "This stuff matters. Get out there and stand up for yourself!"