Why I Always Followed up with People Who Didn’t Sign Severance Papers (General Releases)

Earlier this week, I was on the Hostile Work Environment Podcast, which is an awesome podcast that you should all listen to. It’s funny and informative, and they owe me $1000 or something. (Joking.)

We were officially discussing this post, My Co-Worker Gave Me a $1000 Present, but I also shared a story from my days when I was laying people off.

We laid off an executive. True layoff–he’d done nothing wrong–his position had been eliminated. He’d been with the company a long time and was highly paid (his salary was more than twice my full-time equivalent salary and I was well compensated), and he was entitled to at least a year’s worth of severance. (It could have been more–it’s been a while.) All he had to do was sign the general release and he’d get his severance. Easy-peasy.

Now, of course, the general release meant you couldn’t sue for most things so most of the time when people didn’t sign it was because they were suing. My job share partner and I  would follow up with anyone who didn’t sign. We followed up with him, and he still hadn’t signed, so we turned it over to our boss, the in-house attorney.

She followed up with him and came back to us and said that he wasn’t signing because he was so independently wealthy that this much severance would just be a tax headache.

Ahhh, the problems of the wealthy. (Incidentally, that wealth wasn’t from his job. I mean, he was well paid, but not THAT well paid.)

Reader Glenn asked me if I followed up with everyone who didn’t sign, and the answer was yes. I did. Which is saying something because I hate phone calls so so so much. But here’s why:

  1. My main goal was to help people move on with their lives. Honestly. Getting laid off really sucks and sometimes it puts you into a state of depression where you can’t do anything. I didn’t want anyone to miss a deadline and miss out on their severance, which could be financially devastating. Sometimes people just needed a reminder to get their release in so that they could receive their severance.
  2. My secondary goal was to protect the company from lawsuits. Yes, this probably should have been my primary goal, but it wasn’t. If someone hadn’t signed because they wanted to sue, I wanted to know as soon as possible so so that we could resolve any concerns they had. Sometimes this was as simple as verifying what would be said in a reference check. (We actually had what would be said in the paperwork, but people don’t always read it all.) Sometimes they had a real concern that we would turn over to the HR business partner to help resolve. Sometimes this resulted in a slight change to their release so that they could get their severance and move on with their lives. Every once in a great while it resulted in conferences between our attorney and their attorney, but not one of the over 4000 people I helped lay off ever took us to court.
  3. My tertiary goal was to get everything done and checked off so it wouldn’t show up as a task to do in my database. That would drive me insane.

Now, most people signed within a couple of days and we had no problems. The severance packages the company gave were generous and fair and the general release was straightforward and didn’t have any tricky things in it. We wrote it to make it as understandable as possible for the average person, although we encouraged everyone to take the release to their own attorney before signing.

While layoffs are devastating and terrible for most people (but not all), I’m proud of the work I did in this job. I worked for a great company with great people and we really did care about helping people get on their feet. Almost all of them had new jobs before their extended health care benefits ran out, so our methods worked.

The take away from this is that I truly believe, when you’re dealing with a layoff, you should focus on helping the person land a new job and make a new start. It’s certainly not a legal obligation, but I feel like, when all possible, it’s a moral one.

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Suzanne Lucas, better known as the Evil HR Lady, spent 10 years in corporate HR where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers. She left corporate life to focus on making HR better for everyone. She writes and speaks about how to make your business truly employee focused and how to avoid the pitfalls so many other businesses face. Her work has appeared at Inc.com, CBS News, the New York Times, and many other publications. You can connect with her at LinkedIn, follower her on Twitter, or read her blog, at EvilHRLady.Org

Suzanne Lucas

Suzanne Lucas, better known as the Evil HR Lady, spent 10 years in corporate HR where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers. She left corporate life to focus on making HR better for everyone. She writes and speaks about how to make your business truly employee focused and how to avoid the pitfalls so many other businesses face. Her work has appeared at Inc.com, CBS News, the New York Times, and many other publications. You can connect with her at LinkedIn, follower her on Twitter, or read her blog, at EvilHRLady.Org

suzanne-lucas has 28 posts and counting.See all posts by suzanne-lucas

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