Question: I was laid off a few months ago in what they called a “position elimination.” While I disagreed that is why I was chosen, I did, with your blog help, get a better package. Thank you!!

Actually, it came at a good time in my life, as my husband was ill and it gave me an opportunity to take care of him. I signed a severance agreement in order to get my severance monies. Now that my husband is better, I am free to go back to work. I am now looking for a new job.

What can I say, and what can’t I say, about why I left?

Name Withheld
Cheyenne, Wyoming

Answer: Dear Blog Visitor: The first item you should carefully review to determine what you can say, and what you cannot say, is your severance agreement. That said, almost all severance agreement express – or imply – what you can and what you cannot say, about your experience on the job, and why you left. Here are ten things you CAN say, and CANNOT say, about leaving your last job:

1. You CAN share your title, tenure and compensation. Without any doubt, these three items are both (a) usually important to getting a new job, and (b) permissible to share. In fact, these are the three things almost all former employers will share with prospective employers who are engaged in confirming prior employment and “personal background checks.”

2. You CANNOT discuss the dispute. It is almost always set forth in severance agreements that you cannot discuss with anyone the facts of any dispute – including your “final dispute” – after you leave, including the negotiations that took place. Even if your severance agreement does not say that, it surely says that you cannot share anything negative about the company or any of its employees, and sharing the facts of a dispute would surely violate that. Anyway, on a “first date” – which is close to what an interview is – no one wants to hear you complain about your ex-spouse or former partner.

3. You CAN share the “official reason” you were given for your departure, if you wish to. In your case, if you wish to tell people “My position was eliminated” then surely you can do so. It is neutral, not personal, says nothing bad about you, and shouldn’t be held against you. Of course, if the official reason was “poor performance,” “misconduct” or other negative reason, and you disagree with it, you might not want to share that – and you do not have to do so, either.

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4. You CANNOT share with others the severance amount you received or other components of your severance package. It is almost always the case, with very few exceptions, that severance agreements say you cannot share with others what you received as part of your severance package. Even if yours does not say that, it would likely be considered “proprietary” or “confidential” information, and so would be very risky for you to share, other than with your spouse, tax advisor or attorney.

5. You CAN share with others the names and personal contact information of former colleagues who have previously agreed to “vouch” for you. It is almost a universal policy of employers that they do not provide “references” to former employees and, also, that they do not permit their employees to give out references. However, it is a fact of life that there is almost always an “informal vouching system” for job references, in which people call others to inquire “How is he to work with?” “Is she a team player?” “Would you work with this person if you had the chance to?” and questions like those. If – and only if – former colleagues have agreed to take such telephone calls, you can give out their personal – not business – contact information.

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6. You CANNOT say critical or negative things about your former employer, its business, its policies or its finances. Sometimes former employees are capable of avoiding saying negative things about what happened to them, but think it would not be as bad to say negative things about their former employer, the company’s policies, the company’s business model, the company’s finances, or the company’s future. Such disparagement is a violation of almost every severance agreement. It is to be avoided, at all costs, no matter what.

Suppose in your interview you are told something like “Your former employer says you were a lazy worker; what is your response? Your best response would be something like “I have great respect and admiration for my former employer.”

7. You CAN share facts and events of your own life, and how they may have contributed to your decision to leave, or take a prolonged period away from working. Taking care of a loved one who is ill is a great reason to leave and take time off. So is having a baby, And, too, so is going back to school to complete a degree or gain a new skill. Discussion of such facts, events and circumstances is entirely appropriate and acceptable.

8. You CANNOT use, share or divulge confidential or proprietary information belonging to the company. This should come as no surprise because, as the Spanish proverb says, “Secrecy is the soul of business.” What might be surprising is what some people consider “confidential” or “proprietary.” You would be wisest to consider those terms as expansively as possible, that is, including almost everything you know about the company that the general public does not. So, keep your lips tight about such things as (a) possible layoffs in the future, (b) a rumor that a senior executive may be leaving, (c) disappointing sales in the Asian market, (d) new compliance rules to be put into place, (e) clients that have recently arrived or departed the company.

Plan on looking for a New Job? We offer a 152-Point Master Checklist of Employment Negotiation Items to help you make sure you have not (a) forgotten to ask for anything, (b) failed to raise any issues, and (c) that your interests are protected in your offer letter and/or employment contract. To obtain a copy, just [click here.] Delivered by Email – Instantly!

9. You CANNOT provide the names of former colleagues who you think might be lured away. At your new job, in conversations with recruiters, Human Resources representatives, headhunters or even to colleagues do not share the name of former colleagues who you think might be lured away. This may very well violate provisions in a severance agreement that forbid (a) solicitation of employees, (b) interference with business relations, or (c) sharing of confidential information, and could thus come back to “haunt” you. This is perhaps one of the most common sources of problems employees have with former employers.

10. You CAN – and should always – say that your departure was friendly, cordial, amicable, and professional. In doing this, there is simply no downside. It is in everyone’s best interests and enhances the perception that you are a true professional.

Don’t forget: “Loose lips sink ships.” Hope this helps. Good luck on your re-entry!!

My Best,
Al Sklover 

P.S.: Want to get comfortable with interviewing? Consider viewing our Sklover On Demand Video entitled “Interviewing – Your Three Objectives.” Just sit back, relax, watch and listen. To do so, just [click here.]

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