As sometimes happens when you’ve been practicing as long as I have (hint – I may have had a pet with a name ending in -saurus), you find yourself chatting with an opposing counsel with whom you’ve had many encounters over the years. These conversations can sometimes lead to some frank exchanges. I had one of these conversations a few days ago.
The topic was what it means when an employee says they want to talk about a severance package. He insisted it meant the employee had resigned. I hear this all the time from management-side lawyers, and I understand where they’re coming from.
However, my clients never see it that way. I told this fellow attorney-saurus that I’ve never had a single client who meant they were quitting when they said to their boss or HR that they wanted to discuss severance. My colleague seemed shocked by this. “Then what did they mean?” he asked.
I had to explain that employees who say they want to discuss severance are usually making a cry for help. They’ve gone to the boss or HR with some dire problem. Maybe they’ve been sexually harassed or discriminated against. Maybe it’s a bullying situation. Sometimes they’ve blown the whistle and are suffering retaliation. They’ve reported it and gotten no relief. So they say, “Fine. Let’s talk severance.”
What they probably mean is, “If you won’t help me, you risk losing me as an employee.” They’re usually hoping that this final cry for help will result in some action being taken. They sometimes mean, “Rather than torture me into making me quit, let’s just part ways amicably now.” They’re still hoping the employer will come to their senses.
I’m not sure why there’s such a large communication disconnect between employer and employee on this, but my management-side colleague seemed genuinely surprised by my analysis. So I thought I’d share it.
Employers use any mention of a severance package to get rid of a complaining employee. They’ll claim you quit before you can finish your sentence. And guess what? If you quit, you usually don’t get severance. To an employer, severance goes to employees who have been laid off or fired with little or no cause. Quitters get squat.
So I’ll say this to employers: Listen more carefully. If you like this employee, you may be able to salvage things if you act quickly. Plus, if they’ve just reported sexual harassment, discrimination or blown the whistle on something illegal, you might have handed them a lawsuit by escorting them quickly to the door.
To employees everywhere, be warned: If you even mention a severance package, your employer will claim you quit. Wait for them to bring it up. Then you might actually get some money to tide you over while you’re looking for something else. If you were the victim of discrimination, illegal retaliation or sexual harassment, you might also have leverage to negotiate a better package if the employer fires you for reporting it.
I’m sure there are other things that employees and employers hear differently. Do you have any other examples where employees are from Pluto and employers are from Uranus? I’d love to hear them.
This article was originally printed on Screw You Guys, I’m Going Home on August 23, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Donna Ballman‘s new book, Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired: Resolve Workplace Crises Before You Quit, Get Axed or Sue the Bastards, was recently named the Winner of the Law Category of the 2012 USA Best Books Awards and is currently available for purchase. She is the award-winning author of The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom: Let’s Quill All the Lawyers, a book geared toward informing novelists and screenwriters about the ins and outs of the civil justice system. She’s been practicing employment law, including negotiating severance agreements and litigating discrimination, sexual harassment, noncompete agreements, and employment law issues in Florida since 1986. Her blog on employee-side employment law issues, Screw You Guys, I’m Going Home, was named one of the 2011 and 2012 ABA Blawg 100 best legal blogs and the 2011 Lexis/Nexis Top 25 Labor and Employment Law Blogs.
She has written for AOL Jobs and The Huffington Post on employment law issues, and has been an invited guest blogger for Monster.com and Ask A Manager. She has over 6000 followers on Twitter as @EmployeeAtty. She has taught continuing legal education classes for lawyers and accountants through organizations such as the National Employment Lawyers Association, Sterling Education Services, Lorman Education Services, Alison Seminars, the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, and community organizations. Ms. Ballman has published articles on employment law topics such as severance, non-compete agreements, discrimination, sexual harassment, and avoiding litigation. She’s been interviewed by MSNBC, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, Lifetime Television Network, the Daily Business Review, and many other media outlets on employment law issues. She was featured on the Forbes Channel’s “America’s Most Influential Women” program on the topic of severance negotiations and non-compete agreements.