Negotiate Your Severance Package Up Front

Negotiate Your Severance Package Up Front

The average college graduate can expect to have between eight and 12 jobs over the course of his career. That's vastly different from the men and women in my father's generation who usually stayed with one company. Even in my own generation, we might have held three or four different jobs over the last 20 years. With constant mergers, acquisitions, layoffs and restructuring, you just can't guarantee your job today will still be there a year from now, let alone that you will be in it.

It will do you very little good to negotiate a great salary, lots of perks, a bonus and maybe even stock options if the company can terminate you and offer a minimal severance package. Your severance package should cover the severance amount, as well as benefit continuation, prorated bonus and vesting of a portion of any stock options. It should also spell out the circumstances under which you will be entitled to receive severance.

When you're being recruited, all sorts of representations may be made about how you will never have to worry about losing your job as long as you do good work. However, unless you get those promises in writing, the person making them is likely to conveniently forget he ever said anything of the sort or, just as likely, will no longer be with the company when the issue arises. Even though such oral promises may be enforceable if you can prove they were actually made, you generally want to avoid suing former employers. Therefore, it is important to negotiate a fair severance package and get it in writing before accepting an offer.

Bringing up severance is extremely delicate, a bit like an engaged couple discussing a prenuptial agreement. Neither you nor your prospective employer is thinking the partnership will fail. Yet if you must part ways -- because of a takeover, you get a new boss or it just isn't a good fit -- you'll wish you had worked out a fair severance ahead of time.

Depersonalize the Issue

So how do you approach the topic? Depersonalize the issue. Talk about the need to deal with the unlikely event that your employment doesn't work out because of things like a takeover, a new boss or a sudden downturn in the company's business. Emphasize that you're not trying to prevent the company from firing you for cause but merely trying to ensure that if something happens, your spouse and children are protected. If you're not married, you can talk about your aged mother or your siblings. You can also talk about taking care of yourself until you can find something else. Either way, focusing on someone else tends to depersonalize the situation.

Once you get agreement on a severance package, be sure to get it in writing. That doesn't mean you have to have a 30-page contract. A simple confirmation letter from you reiterating the terms you have agreed upon "in order to avoid any misunderstanding" will suffice. You might also ask the employer to confirm your understanding by signing and returning a copy of the letter to you. It's important to depersonalize that request as well, to avoid causing the person you're dealing with to think you don't trust him. You can do that by saying something like, "If I could be sure you were going to be around, I wouldn't need this, but you realistically might leave the company someday during my tenure. Therefore, I think it makes sense to put what we have agreed to in writing so there are no problems in the event you aren't around."

Working out your severance before you are hired will save both you and your employer a tremendous amount of aggravation if things don't work out. You will almost always be able to negotiate a better deal when an employer is seeking to hire you rather than fire you.