5 Essential Things To Know About Severance Agreements
1. Every Severance Agreement Must be Negotiated
A severance agreement is NOT an agreement until you sign on the dotted line. Until then, it is a severance OFFER. And as with all offers, it can be negotiated. If you are presented with a severance offer at work, either at the start of or upon separating from your employment, it is crucial that you have an employment attorney weigh in. The language in the agreement is just as, if not more, important than the severance dollar amount being offered to you. But both the dollar amount and covenants therein can be and should be reviewed and negotiated so that the agreement is as optimal as possible for you. Because Connecticut is an “at will” employment state, employers can terminate you for any reason or for no reason (as long as it is not an unlawful reason) and they are under no obligation to provide you with any severance (unless they have an express written severance policy or agreement with you already in place). Knowing this, if an employer first presents you with a severance offer at the time of your departure, it usually means they want something significant in return from you, such as a full general release or a non-compete. That is where the leverage for you to negotiate certain elements of the agreement, including, but not limited to the amount of severance money on the table comes into play.
Bottom line: Severance agreements are not take it or leave it offers, but can be and should be negotiated in order to best protect you and compensate you for your loss of job.
2. Resist Signing the Severance Agreement and Speak To An Employment Attorney
A severance agreement can be a springboard to a settlement agreement with your former employer. Although when first presented to you, a severance agreement is designed in theory to essentially compensate you for any gap in income between your prior job and your next job, it can also serve as a settlement agreement to compensate you for claims that you might have related to an unlawful or improper termination. Although Connecticut is an “at will” employment state and your employer can terminate you without cause, the employer is NOT permitted to terminate you for an unlawful cause such as discrimination or retaliation, or for a breach of an employment contract that provides a certain duration of employment or that spells out certain circumstances under which you may or may not be terminated from your employment. If you believe that your termination was in some way improper or unlawful, then it is important to immediately speak to an employment attorney. It is often the case that with a skilled employment attorney taking the reins, your severance offer can be negotiated into a settlement offer that will compensate you for your legal claims. In many instances, where there are valid legal claims underlying a wrongful termination. We are successful in reaching settlements for our clients during the severance review period, which translates into settlement dollars that exceed the measly severance offer first presented to you.
Bottom line: If you believe your termination was motivated by discrimination or retaliation, or other improper acts, do not rush into signing a severance agreement and seek out an employment lawyer to understand your options for pursuing a settlement or litigation to recover all damages available to you for your legal claims.
3. Know What You Are Getting (Golden Handcuffs) for The Severance Money
Whether you are about to enter into a settlement or a severance agreement, you must understand that this is a quid pro quo and that any monies being offered to you do not come freely. In return for a settlement or severance pay out, you will be asked to agree to certain covenants, referred to as restrictive covenants. The restrictive covenant to be most mindful (SCARED) of is a non-compete. If you accept the settlement or severance offer and execute the agreement with your former employer, you will be bound by all of the terms of the agreement and any breach of any term in the agreement is a breach of contract. As such, if there is a breach, you would be subject to damages which might consist of having to return the severance or settlement dollars or even to pay a pre-determined monetary penalty (known as liquidated damages). Therefore, it is crucial you understand what these covenants mean, how they restrict you and what you must do going forward in order to comply with the contract terms. Ideally, your agreement will not contain a non-compete and we take great efforts to remove those from our clients’ agreements or to narrow their scope and impact. But the first step is for you to be aware of and comprehend the relevant restrictive language. In essence, a non-compete will prohibit you from earning a living in the same field for a certain amount of time and usually within a certain geographic territory. This can be devastating and should be avoided at all costs. There are additional restrictive covenants such as non-solicitation, confidentiality and non-disparagement clauses, which too must be addressed and negotiated so that you are adequately protected from a potential breach down the line.
Bottom line: You must be very aware of what you are giving in return for the money you are getting and there are certain gives, such as a non-compete, that we negotiate and attempt to narrow or ideally remove from these agreements.
4. The Severance Agreement Must Contain Terms That Are Mutual to Both Parties
Confidentiality and disparagement are additional boiler plate clauses often added to these agreements and are almost always first presented as a unilateral restriction on the employee receiving the settlement or severance pay out. However, that does not need to be the case. We are extremely successful in getting these particular covenants to be mutual. In other words, if the agreement requires that you keep certain information concerning your separation from your employer quiet and confidential, including the existence and terms of the agreement itself, it only seems fair that your employer be bound by the same confidentiality requirements. Likewise, if you are being directed not to disparage your former employer, wouldn’t you want your employer to be held to the same standards and to be bound to not disparage you to others and to the public. We have also in many cases negotiated certain language into these agreements that specifically prohibits certain named employees at your former employment from disparaging you, for example your supervisor or manager with whom you might have had a less than amicable professional relationship with and because of whom you might have actually been terminated.
Bottom line: Certain clauses that are initially included as unilateral in a severance agreement can and should be made mutual so that you are just as protected as your former employer after you both have parted ways.
5. Severance Should Always Be Paid Out Up Front in a Lump Sum
Severance will often be offered to you as a payout over a period of time (usually in monthly increments and in coordination with your employer’s regular payroll schedule.) However, severance, like a settlement offer, can be and should be a lump sum. There is no rule that says employers must pay it out to you as they would with your regular paychecks, even though such payments are often considered income and taxed as such. Don’t forget you are no longer employed there, and you are no longer on their payroll. So, any argument they make to pay you as “payroll” is disingenuous and only serves their benefit. In that you will likely be signing a release of all future claims against your employer as well as possibly agreeing to other restrictive covenants described above, in return for the severance payment, you should have the upper hand in the arrangements regarding that payment. Not only is it optimal financially for you to have your severance money paid up front and in a lump sum, but it is optimal from an exposure standpoint. For one, you might not know how financially sound or healthy your employer is. After all, they are terminating employees, which could be a sign that business is bad. Therefore, it is prudent to get your severance dollars up front and in full if possible, in order to avoid any potential inability of them to pay out their remaining obligations. In addition, because any agreement will bind you to comply with the contract terms, where there is a payout arrangement, employers have more leverage to withhold payments to you under the notion that there has been some alleged breach of the contract terms. Lastly, where there is no express severance policy or agreement already in place, there are no hard and fast rules about how much severance you are entitled to. While many employers attempt to correlate your severance payment to how long you have worked there, or to have it reflect a certain number of weeks’ pay for each year you were employed, this is all arbitrary and as a result, usually negotiable.
Bottom line: Severance is not payroll and should be paid to you up front as a lump sum, taking into account not just how long you have been there, but all of the circumstances surrounding your departure, including whether you have potential legal claims and what they are asking you to agree to in return.
ULTIMATE BOTTOM LINE: If you have been presented with a severance agreement/severance policy either at the outset of your employment, during your employment, or at the time of your termination, please do not sign until you have consulted with an employment attorney. We are happy to help you in this situation and we can be retained on a limited hourly basis to guide you through this stressful process.