Don't set sail without shoring up your severance package

Severance never has been a simple subject.

The intricacies linked with parting packages vary from the financially significant (CEOs have sued former firms for hefty unpaid bonuses) to the more common (laid-off friends and family berate themselves for not asking for more money, a reference — or even that e-mail contact list — before signing off on a termination agreement).

Like estate planning, severance is a topic few want to think about. But layoffs and buyouts abound these days, so it's vitally important to devise severance-talk tactics.

"If you're prepared for the discussion, it goes dramatically differently than if you say, 'I'm never going to be laid off.' But then it happens, and then you're stunned and can't think straight," says Maury Hanigan, founder of Layoff Coach (layoffcoach.com).

Adding to the troubles of laid-off workers: Many employers are doling out smaller packages.

"Companies are becoming far less generous with their severance," says Hanigan. "They are finding reasons to reduce severance or make it harder to qualify."

The reason is simple: to cut costs.

One in five companies planned to make future changes to their severance programs, according to a survey, released in March, by consulting firm Hewitt Associates. Of those making adjustments, 43% expect to reduce cash payments, and 21% plan other severance cutbacks.

Real estate development firm Geonerco Management, in Seattle, revamped its severance practice late last year. It didn't have a formal written policy, but prior to December, it gave two weeks' pay for the first year of service, and then a week for each complete year after that, says Greg Szymanski, human resources director. But as business continued to deteriorate, the company provided just two weeks' pay in its most recent layoff round.

Citigroup employees who had a decade or more of experience also lost some severance pay because of a policy change at the financial giant. U.S.-based employees who lost their jobs at the beginning of this year were no longer able to get a "supplemental severance payment" that would add extra money to their parting packages.

Some companies have even turned to variations of severance programs that have roots in the 1950s, so-called supplemental unemployment benefit pay plans. In such plans, employees must qualify for state unemployment to get their parting payouts from the company. In some variations, companies pay the difference between unemployment benefits and the prior salary until the employee reaches the maximum number of weeks he or she can get based on years of company service. If an employee finds a job during that time, all payments would end.

Caterpillar and Gannett, the parent company of USA TODAY, are two firms that have recently used versions of the plan.

To get the best severance deal, employment experts say, it's essential that workers determine their needs and fight for what they want.

Of course, that aggression can go a bit too far: Workers at a French construction equipment plant recently grabbed headlines when they threatened to blow up machinery if they didn't get increased severance packages. Experts suggest following these tips instead:

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