September 9th, 2013 | Donna Ballman
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.