“In negotiating my severance, can I use as leverage the fact that I know how much different employees are paid?”

Question: Hi. I was terminated last Friday. The reason I was given was that I did not get along with my manager. The reason we don’t get along is that I complained to my manager’s boss (not in writing) that my manager and his buddies were constantly engaging in inappropriate language. I have seven days to decide whether to accept a severance package including one month’s salary and three months’ health insurance.

Because I worked in finance, I had access to files that contained the salary levels of all employees. Can I use that as leverage? I’d like to tell HR that I won’t reveal what I know if I am given more health coverage, a good letter of recommendation, and outplacement assistance. Is that blackmail?

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Answer: Georgette, I’m glad you wrote in: what you are contemplating is illegal, and a serious crime, at that.

If you were to threaten to reveal what you know that would constitute the crime of extortion, which is generally defined as “to obtain something of value by threat or intimidation.” It is a serious crime. “Blackmail” is a common synonym for “extortion.”

Even if your employer did not report you to local law enforcement authorities, at the very least, I would not be surprised if your severance offer was entirely withdrawn in response.

From what you’ve said, I think your best leverage to gain better terms of severance would be that you were fired in “retaliation” for registering a complaint about inappropriate language. Most companies have strong policies against such retaliation.

Though it would have been better for you to have complained in an email, so there would have been proof, even though you complained “with your voice, not your fingers,” you can still raise the issue, and say, “If this is not resolved at this level, I would like to raise my concern about retaliation with senior management, the CEO, or the Board of Directors.” That is not extortion, because it is “threatening” to bring information to people who (a) you have every right to share it with, and (b) are appropriate under the circumstances. I suspect it will work better than the extortion you are considering.

I hope that helps. At a minimum, it should keep you out of jail.

Deadlines are important; don’t let your severance deadline expire. To help you ask for more time, we offer our Model Request for More Time to Review/Sign Your Severance Agreement. It shows you “What to Say and How to Say It.”™ To obtain a copy, just [click here.] Delivered by Email – Instantly!

My Best,
Al Sklover

P.S.: You might be interested in our Master 94-Point Severance Negotiation Checklist, to give you the peace of mind and freedom from worry that you forgot to raise or entertain certain points of discussion and negotiation. To obtain copy, just [click here.] Delivered by Email – Instantly!

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