Wednesday, March 4, 2009

You can cry - but take notes

It's an awful moment on both sides of the desk. There are questions with no answers, emotions with no reconciliation.

But there are things you should - and shouldn't - do the moment you're getting laid off.

We asked employment counselor Martha Finney, author of "Rebound: A Proven Plan For Starting Over After Job Loss," how employees should handle such meetings. Finney, from Santa Fe, recommends composure - to a degree. Anger will get you nowhere. Neither will negotiating. What will?

Says Martha:

Do keep your mouth shut. You might be tempted to vent your anger at the stupid decision to lay you off, all the while keeping that do-nothing coworker two cubicles over. Or you might want to rage at how irresponsible, greedy, selfish, stupid management was in its greedy, selfish, stupid (and irresponsible) business decisions. And you might be right. But don’t.

You’re just prolonging the agony of the conversation, alienating people who might be in a position to help you in the immediate future. Your behavior might also give them grounds to actually fire you for inappropriate behavior. A closed mouth is your best tactic at this point.

Take notes. First of all, it will give you something to do and focus on while your head is swimming from the shock of the news. But most important, it’s entirely possible that the team who is laying you off could say something that you could use to leverage a more advantageous severance package.

The people laying you off are probably working with a meticulously crafted script, to make sure they don’t say anything that could put the company at risk. By asking them very calm questions about how they came to deciding that you should be among the people to be laid off, you could get them off-script. Someone might say something like “your husband works, doesn’t he?” or “you were going to retire soon anyway” that will interest your attorney.

You certainly don’t want to entrap these people, but if you take very careful notes, what they say could be to your advantage very soon.

Sign nothing right then and there. Chances are you’re not the only one being laid off. Employers have a lot of severance packages and uncomfortable conversations to process through. So some might feel that the sooner they get you to put ink to the paper, the faster they can get on with the next one. And, they reason, wouldn’t you want to get on with your life as well?

Not so fast with the pen. Thanks to the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act, if you’re 40 or older, you have 21 days to think over a severance agreement, and then 7 days from the time of signature to change your mind. According to New York-based employment attorney Alan Sklover, companies tend to extend that right to all employees because they don’t want to find themselves on the wrong end of an age discrimination suit.

They just might not tell you, because they want to get this over with. In fact the layoff team might imply in very strong terms that if you don’t sign now you won’t get anything - including the chance to go back to your cube and get your stuff. Don’t take the bait. Ask for a copy of the severance agreement so you can take it home and discuss it with your spouse and/or attorney. Stand your ground nicely.

The delay tactic won’t get you your job back. But perhaps the chance to review the document with a cooler head (and/or an expert attorney) could reveal ways that you can custom-create a severance package that more directly suits your needs. That might include an extra month’s health insurance premium or guarantee that your last month’s expense report will be honored.

Don’t beg for your job back. They’ve already made their decision. It took them much time, expense and deliberation to get to this point. So they won’t be able to reverse their decision now, no matter how much you try to negotiate or plead for a reconsideration. It will just prolong the agony, make everyone uncomfortable and then very glad to see you go.

Remember that your relationship with the company carries forward even after this sad, sorry day. If you’re in a close-knit business community or a tight industry, you’re going to see these people throughout your career. So you don’t want to look back on this day and cringe at the memory.

Likewise, you could find yourself working for this company again – even within a few weeks. Your employer could possibly bring you on as an independent contractor to do the very same job you were doing before. Or they might actually call you and offer you a different job inside the organization. They’ll be more likely to reach out to you in the future if you handle yourself with dignity now.

Don’t be ashamed of the tears. We’re all human and sometimes we can’t control our emotions – especially under such trying times. No one is going to think worse of you for breaking down – assuming, of course, you don’t give into expressing anger. If the lay-off team is quiet while you weep, don’t assume they’re unfeeling or uncaring. This is a terribly grueling, trying time for them too. And they’re sharing in the shock of every single individual they have to break the bad news to.

Feel sorry for the people who had to lay you off. You only have to go through this process once. They have to go through it multiple times, day after day after day. And even after that they may not be completely finished. They could be laid off as well. It is very common for an HR manager or supervisor to think, “Oh! Finally I’m done.” Only to be told, “Not quite. You have one more severance package to put together.”


Anonymous said...

My spouse, along with a small team of other people, was put in the terrible position of having to decide who to lay off at their company (around 20 people all total). My spouse didn't sleep for weeks, lost 10 pounds and practically had a mental breakdown. My spouse also could not show any anger, anxiety or emotion at work so it all came home with them. In addition, my spouse wasn't sure if some team higher up was in the process of putting his/her name on a layoff list. The entire process was awful. Tears? - believe me, they went both ways. The worst is over for now and we're just thankful my spouse still has a job even with their salary slashed. Just day by day....

Anonymous said...

It would also be a good time to ask for a letter of reference. Make sure you can use them as an asset while you are looking for a new better job!!!

Kristian said...

We didn't get laid off but we don't have a job? My company does contract work and their contract was up December 31st. my boss told me we will have work in 2 weeks. 2 weeks goes by and then he says next Monday. Then another Monday and here it is March and his answer is now Thursday. They canceled my benefits, no severance package and no work. The fact that they are not Man and Woman enough to call and update me on the status of my employment is bothersome. I call and keep getting the next week story again and again. What to do and does any of this sound illegal to do? Should I get an Attorney?

Anonymous said...

It's not illegal. If you don't have a contract they can tell you anything. Also, NC is an "at will" employment state, and you can be fired for any reason...let me repeat...any reason as long as it is not related to one of the "protected categories." Even if they lied to you about the job. I went through an extensive legal case related to this. Got lied to by a firm, who then turned around and lied under oath.

chupacabra said...

A few years ago I got laid off. They got me right when I got to work from the dentist office. You want to be cool in that situation and maybe it helps if you can't actually feel your face.

Odd thing though a couple of weeks later I had a question about references and called the number on the little business card the person who did the sacking gave me.

no answer - not even voice mail

It turned out that right after the sweep through the company they laid off the person who did the layoffs.

is there no honor among theives

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Peter. This is good information.