I have some questions about being fired from a job after many years of working for the same company," a distressed reader writes from Kansas City. "Engineers, managers, research people are dismissed with only a day or so notice. I know they are able to negotiate some terms. What should they try to get?"
"If sales and business do not improve," he adds, "I will need this information soon."
I salute this reader. He is so far ahead of the game that his company ought to think twice before letting him go. Not many employes--especially, as he is, middle-aged--are strong enough to contemplate their own dimissal, let alone plan a strategy for it. White-collar workers and executives usually shut their eyes to any signs that their jobs are shaky. When the ax falls, they are far too stunned to ask for a sweeter severance deal.
If you are taken by surprise, you should ask the boss why you are being terminated, says Robert Coulson, author of the "Termination Handbook" (Free Press: $15.95). "Don't accept it. Request some time to respond, don't let your boss nail down the terms. Make a date for later in the day or the following day. The Big Discharge Poker Game is about to begin."
You should enter the termination meeting, Coulson says, with a list of things you would like to get. Don't shout, weep or make threats: Those actions harden the boss against you. Don't argue over the dismissal, or make accusations against your boss, co-workers or the company. At a termination meeting, a little hypocrisy will take you far. You're there to plan the future, not argue about the past.
Try to stay calm, negotiate in a businesslike manner, and give your former boss good reason for accepting your request. He probably feels guilty about firing you: By setting the right tone, you may encourage him to bend the company rules to help you out. If there's a lot of anger between you and your ex-boss, consider negotiating with the personnel department instead.
There are three things you want from this poker game, Coulson says: time, money and a good story for the future.
* Ask to stay on the payroll for three or four months, while you look for a job. Grace periods are often granted to people who have been with the company for many years. Some companies also will provide office space while you look for a job, and continued use of a company car.
* Try for extra severance pay. Some companies have strict severance rules; others give the boss some discretion. Three to six months' pay is common for longtime workers. Don't hestitate to bring up any heavy financial obligations that you're facing, to try to get an extra month of pay. Also ask about any money you're due for unused vacation time, sick days, overtime and pay in lieu of notice. Your boss may not know all these details, so check with the personnel department. Also check the employe handbook, if there is one, for benefits due.
* Work out a plausible termination story. Rather than being fired, you might prefer to resign because of a reorganization, change of philosophy in your department, or reduced emphasis on your particular area of expertise. The resignation story should cover the actual facts, but show the departure to be mutually agreed on. Show your ex-boss the resume you plan to use in your job search and ask him to verify the facts, so you'll both be telling the same story. Ask him for good references for your next job.
If you resign rather than being fired, you may lose your right to unemployment insurance. You might also lose some employe benefits, like severance pay and employer contributions to a voluntary savings plan that you started some time ago. Check the implications of resignation vs. firing with the personnel department. If you're fired, ask the company not to contest your application for unemployment compensation.
* Ask to have your group health and life insurance extended for as long as you're on the payroll, or for the period covered by severance pay. If that's not possible, consider switching group coverage to an individual policy until you get your next job. If your spouse works, you may be covered under his or her medical plan.
* Get an accounting from the personnel department on the money due from your pension, profit-sharing or thrift plan. Some companies will pay some or all of your pension in a lump sum at termination; others won't start paying until you reach retirement age. If the money won't be paid until you're 65, be sure that your beneficiary knows about it. If you die before 65, he or she will be entitled to receive any contributions you made to the plan; your spouse will also be entitled to a pension if you were old enough to have opted for a survivor annuity before you left.
A fired employe often has more bargaining cards than he realizes, because the company usually wants to be thought of as reasonable and fair. "But if the employee is not assertive," Coulson says, "he may not get anything."