Question: A few weeks ago I was given a severance agreement to sign, and was given 21 days to consider signing it. I wrote my employer a letter suggesting a better severance package, and asked for a response. No response has arrived, I’m only three days before my deadline for signing it, and I’m very nervous. What should I do?
Dave, Glendale CA
Answer: Your predicament – and anxiety – are very common and very understandable for those who are in your circumstances: you don’t want to accept unfair severance, but you don’t want to lose what you’ve been offered, either. Employers know this, and for their purposes often emphasize your deadline to get you to sign it, as is. This is what I usually counsel my clients (although you cannot consider this legal advice, as I am not your attorney, and do not know your facts or circumstances):
A. Write an email to the Head of HR, explaining that your boss (or the CEO, or the President) is in receipt of your severance-offer response, and you expect he/she is in the process of responding to you. Suggest a ten-day week extension of any deadlines to allow your boss (or the CEO, or the President) to work with you to resolve differences. Importantly, attach a copy of your “non-acceptance letter.” Ask for an immediate response to this request. You might suggest that is would enable you to avoid contacting an attorney. Your letter could also go to the Board Chair of the company/organization.
B. Bear this in mind: in over 25 years of doing this kind of work, I have seen severance offers withdrawn after the deadline only twice. There’s good reason for this: first, if the employer really wanted to take the offer off the table, it never would have put in on the table in the first place. Second, if the employer takes the offer off the table, you will have no alternative but to hire an attorney and threaten to sue: this is precisely what your employer is trying to avoid. There is an Italian Proverb that says, “Beware of the man with nothing to lose.” Don’t forget one thing: in many ways HR is more afraid of you than you are of them: they still have a job to lose, and may do so if your matter is not settled, or proves embarrassing to upper management. The most important thing about negotiating is this: what is the other person thinking, feeling, fearing? That’s key.
C. Finally, I don’t know what you’ve been offered (that is, what is at stake) and what you have asked for (that is, what you may be given). That is, I don’t know the “risk-reward” equation here, or your potential leverage. Depending on all of these, and how badly you feel the anxiety, you may decide to simply accept the offer, laying your anxiety to rest, and devoting your time, thoughts and energies to the future, that is, your job search.
What to do, or not do, in these circumstances is a tough decision, one that only you can make, and only you will experience the consequences of making. It’s a tough decision, but one you will make, one way or the other. Don’t let fears drive you, but rational thought and best judgment.
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