In 2017, things were going well for Lauren Wu* in their job at a gaming company. Their team had just finished a few exciting projects, and Wu was feeling positive about their job.
Then, one day, their manager came by their team's desks and asked them to follow him to a boardroom. “Once we get [there], our manager told us that we were being laid off as a team,” Wu said.
“I don't remember if I cried during this meeting or when we broke out into our individual meetings with HR, but I bawled and I felt super embarrassed by it." The truth is: Wu was unprepared for this layoff. And so are most people. And while there was one consolation for Wu's team — they got severance packages, which included several months’ pay equal to their salaries, as well as health-insurance coverage — not all companies offer this benefit.
“They were very process-oriented about the whole thing,” Wu said. “They gave us the documents, asked us if we had any questions, and then escorted us off the campus.” And while there was no negotiation, Wu’s severance package lasted until they found their next opportunity. “I was lucky to have had [it].”
In the face of so-called “restructuring” across industries, it’s more important than ever that workers familiarize themselves with their rights in case of a layoff, as well as with their company's severance procedures.
To gain some insight, we consulted with Jaime Klein, founder and president of Inspire HR, who has worked in human resources for over 20 years. She broke down what every employee should know in order to be prepared for a layoff.
1. Find out what your company’s severance policies are.
Klein says that one good way to find out how your company handles severance is to seek out a former employee. Comb through your network and try to find someone who has previously been let go from the company. Even if they left for a different reason than a layoff, they may give you valuable insight into how the company deals with severance.
Another option, if it’s available to you, is to check in with a trusted manager or longtime colleague. If that’s not possible, you may be able to find something out on Glassdoor or elsewhere online, suggests Klein.
If reorganization seems imminent, Klein recommends asking HR what the standard severance is. “One employee I know who was facing an eventual re-org waited for a good severance based on her many years of service,” Klein says. However, when the layoff did happen, the employee was given a minimal severance package, though the company described it as “standard.”
2. Keep in mind you may be able to negotiate.
There are two instances that could potentially provide an opportunity to discuss, or even negotiate, severance: Getting hired and getting laid off or terminated.
While you're going through the hiring process, severance can be a delicate subject, says Klein. However, these days it’s usually okay to ask once an offer has been extended.
When it comes to negotiating after a layoff, some companies are open to it, depending on the circumstances. Klein recommends being polite throughout the process and developing a rationale for your negotiation request.
3. Know your rights and the laws in your state.
Generally, companies aren’t required to provide severance packages. Some states, such as California, have more protections in place. On the other hand, in states like New York, where employees and employers are “at-will,” either side can end a working relationship for any reason.
Similarly, Klein says there may be stipulations for severance in your contract, and situations may vary depending on the reason for which you are being let go — for instance, whether you're being fired or laid off.
No matter what, it’s a good idea to research and familiarize yourself with your state’s laws, even if you aren't anticipating any restructuring. This way, you can have a grasp on what laws and protections might apply to you, so if something does happen out of the blue, you're prepared.
4. Be aware you could be asked to sign an NDA.
Many companies will require former employees to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) before gaining access to benefits such as severance and COBRA healthcare. However, Klein recommends making sure the NDA does not restrict your ability to become immediately employed elsewhere.
Klein also notes that some severance agreements will cease benefits if you become employed during a specific time period. “These are rarely enforced, but [it's] something to keep in mind,” she adds.
5. Set your sights on your next step.
Layoffs can be scary, sad, infuriating, and can sometimes feel like a betrayal. But once one happens, it’s time to find a new way forward. Klein recommends trying to stay relaxed and being courteous to everyone in the process. “Getting reorganized, laid off, restructured happens to nearly everyone,” Klein says, insisting that these events are rarely personal. “Unfortunately, companies have very little loyalty to employees anymore.”
Klein also suggests asking whether or not outplacement is offered. Outplacement firms can be great resources to help create an exit statement explaining why you left and a positioning statement describing what you want to do next, while also helping you revamp your résumé, target new companies, and get your references in order.
Once these logistical steps are taken, Klein recommends taking a couple of weeks to regroup — if you can. According to her, your new job after a layoff is to find a job, and it may require some effort.
Klein recommends setting tangible goals, such as weekly targets, for yourself that will keep you on track. These could include working a minimum of 40 hours a week, sending at least 100 emails, having ten face-to-face meetings and two interviews a week, and making sure you hit at least 500 connections on LinkedIn.
Beyond this, Klein encourages recently terminated workers to focus on highlighting what they can do for a new manager, employer, client, or connection — not what they did previously or how a past situation didn’t turn out as planned.
Despite the slew of negative emotions a termination can bring on, staying focused on the positive is the only way through. This could also mean ignoring (or blocking) people who say things like "just learn to code."
“Your energy will be felt whether over the phone, email, or in person,” Klein says, noting that your attitude could make all the difference in how your job search goes. “You will find [another] job, and it will likely be a far better situation than the one you've left.”
*Name has been changed.