When It’s Time To Go – Leaving Your Current Workplace
“I wouldn’t want to know a man who hasn’t been fired!” I forget who said that but I laughed whenever I heard it because I had never been fired. But in the corporate world “the boot” can come unexpectedly, thrust us into having to jump into running our own freelancing business, and place us in the unsteady position of needing to learn the small business ropes quickly. Being prepared before getting fired can help you negotiate a severance package that will help you land solidly on your feet, even if the worst happens.
There was one time I gave two weeks notice and they fired me the next day. They actually told me to go and not to train my replacement, which is a sound business decision because who knew if I would steal client information, or poison my replacement. It’s a good business principle to just pay someone the two weeks of salary and get the lame duck out and away from the company.
In this case, however, since they technically fired me, I was eligible for unemployment. Six long months of it, baby! I didn’t care. I was happy.
Since then there were two more similar incidents. One involved a payoff for leaving quietly with a resignation to keep my mouth shut about…something. The other was what they call an “at-will-firing” (you sign a document when you are hired, agreeing you can be fired without notice or reason and will not take legal recourse – standard in America these days). Unfortunately, my former employer gave a reason. They didn’t have to. They shouldn’t have.
It would have been better for all involved if they had just said, “we’re sorry but business is bad and we need to cut our overhead. We’ll consider bringing you back if business gets better.” Sounds better — friendly and professional. I would have been happy. Instead, after several rounds of layoffs and the strain of buyouts, retirements and severance, someone must have had the brilliant idea to change the rules on year-end-reviews.
You don’t achieve, then get out!
The company does poorly, then you do poorly and many people got “did not achieve” on their reviews. This opened the door to another new rule; “you don’t achieve, you go.”
It was an interesting process because there had been a lot of discourse when the new rules were announced. How do designers fall into responsibility for the decisions of upper management? The answer to those who asked was, “get out!”
I was able to argue against every point brought up by the employee relations person. She had a blank look on her face.
I believe I had also brought it up but my work had been stellar. Every review was positive and glowing. Sales records of my products were “above excellent.” I won the department Employee of the Month more than anyone else and my self-initiated projects became multi-million dollar products. So why was I let go? I was male, over forty and was paid too much. That seemed to be the case with the other four men in my department who met the same fate.
The mistake management made, in a bid to humiliate those who were about to fall under the corporate axe, was to trump up charges without thinking of the arguments against those charges. As I knew the basic corporate rule of saving every e-mail, memo, card, note or scribble. I was able to argue against every point brought up by the employee relations person. She had a blank look on her face. Every tangent she started, I would bring her right back.
It ended with her giving me a speech about not going to work with the competition, which I explained I would do immediately (never fire someone you don’t want working for the competition – who has now made or will make millions on my initiatives). Then she explained I could not sue the company. That wasn’t true. The long, legal talking between lawyers goes on.
Everyone gets fired, eventually
I’ve seen people fired on their first day. Come to think of it, I fired people on their first day. The sadist fires someone who has been a loyal part of the company for twenty or thirty years, letting them go with no notice or even idea it was coming. Clearing twenty years of accumulation out of an office isn’t like the movies where the worker sniffles as they pack a solitary box to carry to their car. It took me all day to pack an office of mine and a panel truck to move it. These were all personal items; kept at the place I made my home, in which I spent ten to twelve hours each day for two decades.
There are times, more often than not in the creative field, where your work is so stellar you make enemies of those around you. As a friend said to me, “your light of creativity illuminates the mediocrity around you.”
It was the mediocre, however, who held the positions of power and they couldn’t have anyone telling them what a great job a subordinate had done. In any business book or manual, it is common knowledge that one should be an “empowering leader” and reap the kudos of upper management for having a department that exceeds expectations. Some leaders bask in that glow and other resent not having done it themselves.
It harkens back to the often-mentioned “Peter Principle.” Someone who does a fine job at one level is eventually promoted to a level they can’t handle with competency. There is also the practice of hiring and promoting only those who are less competent than yourself so they are no threat to your position. Within the Peter Principle, those people who have reached the level of incompetence cannot or are frightened to seek the next level. A smarter person will only try to take their power, which is the common fear among incompetents. There isn’t much you can do. Playing dumb and incompetent is hard for those who are not in that natural state.
When it’s time to go
The rule to remember: You negotiated your way in and you can negotiate your way out!
So, the time comes when you are informed you are being fired. You are no doubt in shock as you have done great work and your coworkers heap praise on you every day. Well, that’s yet another factor as your superior(s) were jealous THEY didn’t receive that praise (indirectly they did, as your manager, but keep in mind they can’t fire their brain synapses fast enough to get the overall point).
You sit in front of a human resources person or the company owner and they are giving you the exit speech. Stay calm and collected. The rule to remember: You negotiated your way in and you can negotiate your way out!
Negotiating your way out
There you sit, facing an HR representative or the owner of your small firm. You know what’s coming. Stay calm. I have known people who go into hysterics. They cry, they curse, they threaten. Sometimes that works for an extra weeks salary but more often than not, it just makes fellow coworkers have doubts about your sanity and affects your network down the road. They will see you as unstable and future connections to other jobs won’t be offered so easily.
The fact is, just as you negotiated salary and other perks at your hiring, you can negotiate pay and other settlements on the way out. Putting the question to some experts, they imparted some sage advice.
A Career Coach and Consultant from Canada, advises:
Some thoughts from someone who had to terminate employees and build separation packages. First, part of an answer might come from the labor laws and practices of the part of the world you work in. The other part comes from answering this question – what does “higher severance” mean for you? Strictly more money, or changing how the employer spends their money when they terminate you? The employer pretty much holds all the cards, assuming they are operating within the law in terms of notice, etc.
What would be in it for the employer if they sweetened the severance package, i.e. spent more on you in cash or benefits? That’s a tough argument to make. And with individual terminations I’ve never seen the company’s reputation be much of a negotiating point with a severance package. However, if you can negotiate restructuring the severance package so that it works better for you, e.g. more or less working notice, training paid for instead of taking cash, perhaps you have succeeded in getting that “higher severance,” at least effectively.
A Performance Consultant somewhat agreed:
Most of the time the employee is not surprised to be fired. Preparation is advised. Mentally/Emotionally prepare yourself for the event. This avoids embarrassing displays.
A simple preparation: Be ready to ask, “What is your proposed package?” And think fast so you have a comeback for whatever the response is. (An employer once summoned me while he was firing another employee. The boss had never heard such a question and wanted me to advise him. He wasn’t prepared … and he was the one who should have been ready. That was awkward.)
Financially prepare a variety of possible severance packages/payouts. Be ready to suggest alternatives, which may help you. (Also, pay down your personal debt as quickly as possible if you do “see the writing on the wall” and know a change is pending. Credit card debt is a killer for the unemployed.)
Lastly, “negotiating” your severance is usually more delicate than the hiring negotiation. Do your best to keep your emotions under control (or you may just get the boot without negotiated “extras”).
A Writer and Editor from Colorado gave this advice:
The first rule is DON’T SIGN ANYTHING!
Even if you saw it coming, it was a mass layoff, whatever, don’t sign anything. It’s just so natural to say, “I must discuss this with my lawyer” and gather up the documents to be signed. That alone may give you some leverage.
Typically, the employer can offer a severance package, and will demand your compliance as a condition for the package.
What you have to offer is non-compete and non-disclosure agreements, as well as release from future liability for wrongful discharge, discrimination, etc. Non-disclosure may include not talking to the media – the subjects could be all over the map. I know of a “Harper Valley PTA” situation that the employer is deathly afraid of having exposed – wouldn’t that be a juicy bargaining chip?
Actually your position is quite strong. If you stonewall, what can they do, fire you?
An Author from California adds:
Wow! Now there is a thought. It would seem that you wouldn’t have much to stand on since they hold most of the cards and trying blackmail could so backfire in your face and make things worse.
I like the “lawyer” idea, but you may end up with loss of money and time and gain of headache.
I am of the opinion to take what they give you and move on. If you know that they know, that you know stuff that they don’t want others to know, then make a request. But for Pete’s sake don’t verbalize the leverage!
You will get some textbook answers from those closest to the problem/solution. As J.M. stated, there are those who advise you to roll over and die. Certainly advice to fight the dismissal will make their job harder and might lead to…their own firing. That would be such a shame.
A System Designer for small business based in North Carolina imparted:
On one occasion a very long time ago, I “negotiated” an exit package that was much better than I would have expected simply, if I recall correctly, by being “nice” and accommodating, rather than shocked and upset. I got way more time to leave than I expected, plus the use of the company car.
On the other hand, I have also had occasion to resent facile advice to “negotiate a better package” in the face of a mass layoff of several thousand people. In those cases, managers of individual performers have little latitude at all, and the workers generally face an “accept it or lose a lot more” letter they are expected to sign.
I have heard anecdotal stories of employees becoming so hysterical that someone else was laid off in their place, but it’s hard to give too much credence to the stories, and it’s simply not a tactic I’d be willing to try.
A sound thought comes from a Principle at a firm specializing in “employment branding and employee engagement” based in Arizona:
The best time to negotiate your exit is during your entry. When you are in the “honeymoon” period you are both more cordial and less likely to be emotionally invested.
My advice is when you find yourself in “exit mode” be realistic and objective. Unless you have really burned your bridges most employers don’t want to litigate or be perceived as unfair. Focus on the contributions you made to the organization and keep it neutral and objective. If possible negotiate with your immediate manager, not legal or HR.
HR and legal get very caught up in “consistency” or precedent. You want to key in on relationship and contribution.
Don’t go negative or threaten unless you want to abandon the industry. Don’t badmouth the organization or your boss. Be professional. Former employers can be sources of future job opportunities, references, etc.
At the end of the day most people are inclined to be “fair.” Reminding people in a normal economy the rule of thumb is one month for every $10K of salary is a typical job search and this is not typical is reasonable and objective. Conducting yourself as a professional during your exit leaves a lasting impression…. do the work up to the very last day.
Many opinions – choose what is right for you
There are many opinions out there. As with my experience, it never hurts to ask in a professional manner. One might negotiate several good options, which will allow a comfortable cushion or a positive resume “tick” that won’t be seen as negative to the interview process for the next abusive employer:
- To be listed as an “active employee” until a new job is attained. It’s easier to find a job while you still have a job.
- Officially being listed as a resignation but still receiving termination benefits such as unemployment.
- A bit more money for severance, job training or relocation if you had to move for the job.
- Keeping your mouth shut about company “indiscretions” you have witnessed and documented (blackmail but it can work in severe cases).
- Not going to work for the competitor (non-compete clauses are very hard to enforce but many companies don’t want you running to the competitor mid-project and giving them the secrets). A standard non-compete is one year but no court will enforce someone not being able to work for a year unless compensated.
- Have a lawyer write a letter asking for a larger settlement. Chances are good that the investment of a couple hundred dollars in legal help can net you at least twice the original offer.
Catch me if you can
When layoffs started in my last company, I joked that I would run out of the HR office and lead security on a chase through the company, ending in the cafeteria, where I would throw pies and run across tables until caught and with a security guard holding each limb, I would scream, “THE CHICKEN STRIPS ARE PEOPLE! THEY’RE PEEEEOPLLLE!”
They got rid of me after the cafeteria was closed. I did run around the corner while we waited for the elevator, yelling, “CATCH ME IF YOU CAN!” I strolled back and we had a great laugh as the HR person walked me to the door.
Did I negotiate my exit? Yes. Three years later, my attorney is still taking his sweet time but mediation has replaced court action. As days go on, more witnesses are released from the company and my case gets stronger. Had HR just taken my first offer, so much corporate time and legal fees wouldn’t have been spent on this. Foolishness while I count the company’s closest competitor as a good client.
A coworker, who was a great friend and supporter, and still suffers working in the “factory of death and despair” told me he wasn’t sure he could talk to me. I replied that to date there had been no threats or accusations. I was in the same negotiations as I was on my way into the company but this was just on my way out. He understood and calmed down. It will be nice if the company and I end up in calm understanding. First we have to do the dance before the music ends and we bow politely.
We all have our unique path into freelancing, and a sure fire way to sour your desire to stay in the corporate world is to get fired. If you’re still slugging it away at a 9-5′er that you aren’t excited about, then it may be time to prepare for running your own freelance business, before the axe comes down unexpectedly.