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Whether or not you're expecting it, getting news that you've been laid off can be jarring. You might be worried about everything from paying the mortgage to saving what's left of your career.
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Your mind starts racing: How will I get my next job? Will I receive severance pay? Whom can I ask for references? You feel angry, hurt or even in a state of shock. But making a graceful, educated and professional exit is critical. Keep these things in mind when you are being let go.
1. Carefully review a severance agreement.
There's no law that requires an employer to give you severance pay, although some companies have a formal severance policy. The point of a severance agreement is usually to keep you from suing for wrongful termination down the road.
Donna Ballman, author of Stand Up for Yourself Without Getting Fired: Resolve Workplace Crises Before You Quit, Get Axed, or Sue the Bastards, says you shouldn't feel pressured to immediately sign anything put in front of you. Your soon-to-be former employer can't make you sign an agreement.
"You don't work there anymore," Ballman says. "What are they going to do? Fire you again? You can say no to anything you want now."
A severance agreement could also contain a noncompete clause that prevents you from working for the competition. This is obviously a huge stumbling block for landing a new job. Be clear on the restrictions you're agreeing to in exchange for a severance payout. Be certain you aren't giving up vested benefits. The agreement should clearly state the status and amounts of your 401(k), stock options or pensions.
Your best move is to tell the human resources contact or your boss that you want some time to evaluate any severance agreement. If you're over 40, your employer has to give you at least 21 days to review the agreement or the company may not be able to get a release of your age discrimination claims, Ballman says. If you sign a release, that means you're giving up your right to sue your employer, so make sure what it's offering you is worth what you're forfeiting.
2. Get copies of anything you sign.
Your employer may ask you to sign your final disciplinary document. Here's Ballman's advice: "Ask for a copy and tell them you want to review it. If they won't give a copy, take good notes about what it says (or snap a photo with your camera before they have time to snatch it away).
If you sign, get a copy. It may tell why they say you were fired. This could be evidence for a potential lawsuit against them, and you might need it for unemployment or other assistance benefits." Also, if you sign, Ballman suggests signing "As to receipt only" so that your former employer can't say you agreed to the document.
3. Be wary of signing a resignation letter.
Unless the firm is giving you a generous payout to leave, never sign a resignation letter if you've actually been fired. You may be giving up unemployment benefits, and the letter can be used against you if you claim you were fired due to discrimination or whistle-blowing or in breach of your contract, Ballman explains.