by Sharon Epperson
> Know your legal rights. Companies have some responsibilities to employees they are laying off.
> If you’re offered a severance plan, you may be able to negotiate additional benefits.
> Ask for references and connect with your network.
Layoffs at tech giants Twitter and Meta this week have affected thousands — and they’re just the latest examples in a downsizing trend that was already taking place across the industry.
The news has put a spotlight on what rights employees have in mass layoff situations. While the laws around workforce reductions vary by location and employer size, there are steps anyone can take to help cope with being let go.
In addition, dealing with the emotions around a layoff is probably the hardest part for most people, but these three steps will at least help you protect yourself financially as you contemplate what comes next in your working life.
1. Make sure your employer complied with the law
If you’ve gotten notice you are being terminated, experts recommend checking that your employer has complied with the law.
Employment in the U.S. is typically “at will,” meaning that a company can let employees go at any time. But companies do have some responsibilities.
In mass layoff situations for larger firms, companies that fulfill certain criteria are required by federal law to provide employees 60 days’ notice. The WARN Act is meant to provide workers with sufficient time to seek other employment or retraining opportunities before losing their jobs.
While employees can be fired for any reason, they can’t be let go for an illegal reason. “I sometimes see layoffs of one person,” said Kellee Boulais Kruse, a principal at The Employment Law Group, based in Washington, D.C. ”That’s pretty suspicious.”
For example, if a newly laid off employee had just disclosed they were sexually harassed, have a disability or are going to have a baby, that could be an illegal firing. Small layoffs get more scrutiny, but with large layoffs it’s difficult to prove individuals were targeted if an entire department was let go.
Don’t wait to consult with an attorney if you think you may have a case, advises Kruse.
2. Negotiate your severance offer
Employers are not required by federal law to offer severance, but if they do those contracts can often be negotiated.
Companies offer severance to keep goodwill with former employees, keep workers from disclosing company secrets and to avoid potential lawsuits. Severance agreements typically come with a waiver of liability that has to be signed before any payment is made.
Don’t rush into signing an agreement. While it varies based on the age of the worker and state laws, employees typically are given a few weeks before they have to sign. “If someone suspects that they’ve been laid off or fired for an illegal reason, they should speak to an attorney before signing,” said Kruse.
There could be room to negotiate. Often the pay amounts are set, but try to get the maximum that matches your experience and tenure with the company. Other benefits may be available to those who ask.
“Negotiate for continued health insurance if possible, and see if your employer will cover your premiums during the time you are receiving severance,” said Alexandra Carter, a professor at Columbia Law School and author of “Ask for More: 10 Questions to Negotiate Anything.”
Outplacement services, resume assistance and coaching may also be something an employer might help arrange. Some firms might let you keep a work-issued laptop or cellphone if you ask.
3. Prepare for what’s next
Ask for references. There’s no shame in a layoff, but if your layoff wasn’t a high-profile event, you can ask your former employer for a letter or email stating that you were laid off and not fired for cause or performance.
“You are still a valid person, a good contributor [and] you will find somewhere else to go,” said Eric McNulty, associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard University.
Be courageous in reaching out to people you may not know well, he says. ”The research shows that your loose networks, those extended connections will be more useful to you than your immediate connections, just because they’ve got more opportunities you’ve never heard about.”