Firing Lines

If your employer gives you the boot, don't just slink off with your tail between your legs. Here's what to say — and do — to make the most out of a bad situation.

WHEN HOWARD FREEDMAN LOST HIS JOB as an analyst at a software consulting firm last October, it shook him up. Nonetheless, the Richmond, Va., man calmly put together what he calls an "events calendar." On it, he detailed such key dates as when his equipment, such as his laptop, had to be returned and when his voice mail would be turned off. He also compiled a list of requests. Among other things, he wanted to review exactly what the company would say about him during reference checks, and he asked to get his email and voice mail forwarded to him. "It was like a project," says Freedman, who has since been hired by a Boston health-services company. "This time it was my project to protect my interests."

If Freedman seems, well, methodical about the whole process, it's because he's been through it before. Over his 25-year career, he has been laid off more times than he can count. (He thinks it's six.) One thing's for sure: It was traumatic each and every time. "It was like an execution," he says. "I got dry mouth. For a couple of minutes, I couldn't move my tongue." Still, he always managed to keep his wits about him and ask for things that would make the transition easier.

The first time he lost a job, for instance, he outlined the following requests in writing: outplacement counseling until he found work; references from top management; deferment of some severance pay, so he wouldn't take a huge tax hit; and reimbursement for two classes he planned to take. Oh, and one more thing: He wanted to attend a four-day conference to network on the company's dime.

Guess what? He got everything he wanted. The company even threw a going away party for him. "I'm not sure if that was my idea or theirs," he says.

You don't have to be a layoff veteran like Freedman to make the best out of a bad situation. Faye Kimerling Woocher, a Tarrytown, N.Y., career counselor, had one client who, after he got canned, asked for a title change from scientist to senior scientist because he knew that would help him get a job elsewhere (the company obliged); another client asked for assistance from an outside financial planner (and got it).

"Everything is negotiable, even if employers say it's 'company policy,'" says Don Sessions, an employee-rights attorney in Mission Viejo, Calif. "People don't realize that, and because they're frequently caught by surprise, they tend to take what the company offers them without question."

Just because you've been fired doesn't mean you have no leverage. Companies, after all, are mindful of the fact that wrongful-termination suits are on the rise. Employees filed more than 24,000 such suits in federal court in 1997, up 77% from 1993. (Include suits filed in state court and the count roughly doubles.) Companies are fearful, too, of sending the wrong message to other employees. "Letting a person go who has been with a company a number of years has a huge impact on morale," says Jack W. Burtch Jr., an employment attorney with Richmond, Va.-based McSweeney, Burtch & Crump. "The company wants that person to go away happy and be smiling as he's walking out the door."

If your employer lowers the boom on you, the first thing you should do is stay calm. "Don't make it personal, and don't make any direct threats," Sessions says. That's easier said than done. Just ask Freedman. "You want to say something you shouldn't," he says. "Your emotions really get to you."

Never agree to terms on the spot, employment attorneys caution. "Sign a severance agreement and you throw away your right and power to get more," Sessions says. First, consider whether you have a potential claim against the company, such as gender, race or age discrimination. Many lawyers will take a wrongful-termination case on a contingency basis, and if you have a legitimate claim, companies will often settle rather than face litigation. According to Jury Verdict Research, the median jury award for wrongful termination was $162,500 in 1997.

You may have other claims, too, such as overtime that you never got paid for. "You may not know what claims you have against them until you talk it out with an attorney," adds Sessions, who charges $60 for an initial consultation. "One important rule of thumb: If they're having you sign a release, that's the tip-off that you should see an attorney."

Once you've let your emotions subside, look at the terms rationally. "Figure out what you want — whether it's a certain amount of money, a good reference, better benefits, and then give the employer a reason to give you that," Sessions says. "Without getting overly emotional, reassess your position, point out your length of service, and show how you've been a loyal employee. If you set reasonable goals and don't change them midstream, you look credible."

Not surprisingly, senior employees tend to have the most bargaining power when they're fired, says Lewis Kravitz, an organizational consultant in Atlanta. As an employer, "you never know when these people are going to reappear on your radar screen, either as a customer or supplier," he explains. One of the most difficult situations for negotiating is a mass layoff, as companies tend to fall back on standard terms. "They don't want people talking and comparing deals," Burtch says.