Getting laid off can leave you reeling, even if you’ve seen it coming. But getting “divorced” from your job may turn out to be a rare opportunity. Many people find that a severance package can provide the financial cushion they need to fund an exciting new chapter of life—as an entrepreneur.
Just ask Bill Corbett, 54. After losing his $100,000-a-year job as an IT director in a mass layoff at his company in 2009, he received a severance package that awarded him one month’s pay for each of the 15 years he worked for the company. Corbett and his wife, Liz, 50, have six children between them, and he wanted to tap into his passion for raising kids. He’d taught parenting classes on the side for years.
So, instead of looking for another IT job, he invested some of his severance in starting a business in Enfield, Connecticut, that runs Creating Cooperative Kids, a public-access TV show on parenting that he hosts. He also began self-publishing parenting books and filled his schedule with speaking engagements. It didn’t hurt that he invested some of his severance in tuition for a new credential: A BS in psychology. He now brings in about $80,000 annually and expects to exceed his corporate salary next year.
“I felt I had sold my soul to the large corporations I worked for,” says Corbett. “Now, in my 50s, I love every day of my life.”
Corbett’s severance package was standardized, so there wasn’t room to negotiate. However, in many cases, it is possible to secure a better deal if you keep a cool head, know your rights, and ask in the right way. Even if companies don’t have a legal obligation to offer you severance because you’re an “at will” employee, they may want to—to persuade you to agree to waive your right to sue them later for wrongful termination or another reason.
Here are some tips on how to negotiate a package that will help you get on your feet as an entrepreneur.
Hold onto your negotiating power. The biggest mistake you can make, say experts, is rushing to sign a package as soon as it’s offered. Say, “I need to think about this, so we can have an informed discussion,” advises Caroline Ceniza-Levine, a former Fortune 500 recruiter who now runs the New York City executive coaching firm Six-Figure Start. Then, bring the package home, talk it over with your spouse if you’re married—and do some homework to find out what types of severance packages are common in your field for someone at your level of experience. Make sure you respond by seeking terms that are at least comparable.
Worried your boss will rescind the offer? Under federal law, if you are age 40 or older, you have 21 days to review a severance deal and seven days after that to revoke your signature, if the company has asked you to waive claims of age discrimination—which employers will typically do if you are in this age group. “It’s designed to give you time to get legal counsel,” says attorney Nicole Windsor, head of the employment law group at Bowie & Jensen LLC, a law firm in the Baltimore, Maryland area. “You should do that.”
If you feel you have been discriminated against because of your age or for another reason, seek legal advice about how to handle and document your complaint. “Then you’re in a much better position to negotiate severance that departs from formal policy,” says Windsor.
Maximize your benefits. Check out the company’s policy manual (often posted on an intranet) to find out the rules for paying out vacation days and personal days when employees leave, advises Ceniza-Levine. Some companies may be willing to pay you for vacation and personal days that you’ve accrued. By looking at the accrual schedule for paid time off—and asking for a slightly later “end date” that will entitle you to more paid time off, you may be able to add a few days’ pay to your severance package.
Some companies may not be willing to pay you for unused vacation but will still let you take any time that is owed to you before you leave. If that’s the case, do so—and use it to start setting up your business.
Also check into whether you are eligible for a pension and what the vesting date is. Postponing your “end date” so you qualify may have long-term financial rewards.
Prioritize health coverage. “Healthcare is very important for people over 50,” says Sam Dogen, author of the book How to Engineer Your Layoff: Make a Small Fortune by Saying Goodbye, who received a severance package himself a few years ago and is now self-employed. Persuading your employer to cover your healthcare for an extra three to six months can save you a lot of money, considering the high cost of buying it under COBRA and later, the even steeper price of insurance on the open market.
One way to delay buying healthcare under COBRA is to ask for your severance in monthly installments, like a paycheck, instead of a lump sum. “In many companies, as long as you’re on payroll, you’re on health benefits,” says Ceniza-Levine. If you take the lump sum, you may have to start paying for healthcare through COBRA immediately.
Also, find out how many days in a month you need to be employed to get health benefits for that month. Negotiating an “end date” of April 1, instead of March 31, can save you several thousand dollars on health benefits in some states. “Sometimes, you just need to be on payroll for one day that month to get benefits for the whole month,” says Ceniza-Levine.
Make sure you’re free to start your business. If you signed an employment contract when you got hired, review it to make sure it did not include any clauses, such as a non-compete agreement or nondisclosure agreement, that might limit your ability to start your own business, advises Washington, D.C., attorney Thomas J. Simeone. You may need to persuade your employer to waive them, perhaps by offering something your boss needs, like being willing to answer questions on your past projects for six months after you leave. “Those things are negotiable,” Simeone says.
Look for retraining benefits. Many companies are willing to pay for a college course to help laid off employees pick up a new skill, so it doesn’t hurt to ask for that to be added to your package. Some employers will also pay for outplacement coaching and support. If that’s the case, see if you can negotiate the freedom to pick the coach—and then find one who can offer you advice on your future business, advises Ceniza-Levine.
Consider how they’ll label your departure. Some employers may try to avoid paying a severance package by pressuring you to resign, arguing that doing so will look better to future employers. That’s worth considering if you think there’s a chance you will want to look for a traditional job later.
But a formal resignation will prevent you from collecting unemployment, which could leave you struggling financially while you start a business. Do some research to find out if there are other options in your state. In Maryland, for instance, you can ask for a “resignation in lieu of termination,” which will still allow you to collect unemployment, Windsor says.
If you do agree that you’re being laid off, make sure your employer agrees not to block your efforts to collect unemployment, advises Simeone.
And ask for a “nondisparagement” agreement, in which you negotiate language that your employer will use when someone, whether a prospective boss or client, calls for a reference, so you don’t have to worry later. “We negotiate this all the time,” says Simeone.
It can be hard to push for a better package—but it can put you and your family on much better footing in the long run.
Elaine Pofeldt is co-editor of the $200KFreelancer (http://200kfreelancer.com/), a site focused on helping independent professionals make a good living.