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

  1. It’s so great to see some of the HR people I follow all connected and building on each others topics. I also listen to the HWE podcast and heard you last week.

    I think in any situation follow up is crucial for a HR person. Even in a termination (not a layoff) situation and also through the recruitment process. Follow up is key and helps building your brand as an employer and professional.

  2. Excellent post. I truly believe that if
    HR professionals and managers handled terminations with more compassion and empathy, there would be a lot fewer bitter ex-employees and lawsuits.

  3. Unfortunately not all HR representatives work from this angle so please give yourself a well deserved pat on the back.
    The main problem I found with the paperwork of a layoff procedure is all the technical terminology written in formal legalese. You need to view this from the mind of the person whom you are handing this paperwork. You may have taken the time to create these forms to cover and protect your company from lawsuits which means that you had time to process the meaning of the exact wording of the document.
    I was the recipient of one of these documents in 2015 when my company dissolved the company completely and was forced through by the court to do this. ( They were trying to get away with giving us nothing in compensation claiming need to compensate all the remaining executives who already had a very excellent compensation package.) I had to take a few days to read and use a glossary to understand all the words of that paperwork, plus I had to put in a specially worded addendum to clarify the exact amount of the rest of money still owed as they only offered us half of the compensation as their efforts because of court order to do so. ) As none of us workers could afford to pay a lawyer to do this review of the paperwork, our unions had it done and passed this information on to the workers via the union reps. Even with this help, the company got away with only paying us half compensation as required by law. Any of us senior workers by both age and time on job were told flat out that there would be few if any chance of getting a new position in another company unless we accepted the starting wage ( which was a drastic cut in pay) and only in a part time position of 10 hours weekly.
    Maybe you might do more for higher level workers but in terms of the lower level employees that actually do the work of the company, there is not that compassion shown as described in article.

  4. Do you only follow up with people who are laid off and refuse to sign? How do you handle terminations for cause when people refuse to sign? At that point, I figure they are looking to sue, and there’s not much we’d be able to do short of giving them their job back or a lot more money to resolve their concerns. Your thoughts?

    1. If people won’t sign, they won’t sign. But the bar is high for filing a lawsuit. That threat shouldn’t paralyze the company.

      In 2009 I fired two employees for cause. One was a manager, the other was union represented.

      When I heard the Union grievance at my own level, the union withdrew the grievance. They agreed on the basis of the documentary evidence I presented, that the termination was justified.

      The manager filed a formal EEOC complaint. The EEOC, too, closed her case without relief. I later learned via the grapevine that the manager’s lawyer told her he wouldn’t file a lawsuit for her. He explained the bar with the EEOC was much lower than in court, and that they couldn’t win a lawsuit if they’d lost at the EEOC.

      I grant that the cause was extreme, my documentation was excellent, and this was in Texas. But neither employee ever filed suit against our Fortune 20 company which is often seen as an easy target.

      1. Only thing this says is that he hired a lazy lawyer looking for a quick mediation. The bar is not higher at the lawsuit level than the EEOC, the EEOC actually makes you prove that had it not been for your protected class, you would’ve been treated equally.

        If he was actually determined he could’ve whopped your ass in court with a sympathetic jury.

    2. I wouldn’t sign any sort of release without being given something in return. We offered severance in exchange for the release. If someone is terminated for cause, I’m not offering them any severance, so why should they sign any sort of release?

      1. Most releases wouldn’t be valid without valid consideration. If you offer nothing of value in exchange for a release then it’s not valid and enforceable. Also if the terms are heavy handed like the Papa Johns non compete provisions for low level workers. If a company needs a binding arbitration agreement it’s not a company you want to work for.

  5. I’ve worked for a company that DID offer separation agreements to certain HQ employees terminated for cause. Yes, it included severance, stips for references, etc.

  6. Very interesting read. Following up is a great way to understand the entirety of the company and its processes.

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