Negotiating Your Exit

In May 2020 I left my corporate job. It was toxic, I was stressed, and I was furloughed. Rather than wait around for them to tell me they weren’t reinstating me, I made the decision to leave. I had a fair amount of documentation about their practices, had done some research on separation packages, met with some experts in the field and once I lined up my ducks, I contacted the CHRO. What I said cannot be shared (they get you coming and going) but what I can share is this: you can negotiate your exit.

Before my separation package ink dried, I received no less than half a dozen text messages and phone calls from colleagues. Where are you going? I heard you left, what happened? That was a reminder that NOTHING about HR is confidential. And a note to self that HR is all about compliance not connection. I didn’t take those calls but I did schedule a Zoom and invited a few BIPOC women to join. I wanted them to hear from me directly what I chose, why, and how to leverage my experience along their corporate journey. Here’s what I told them.

First things first: everything is negotiable. When we join organizations, we focus on salary, sign-on bonus, performance bonus, vacation time, and maybe a tech stipend. Sisters, you must negotiate the exit package as well. Don’t wait until you’re ready to leave and then scramble to ask for unvested stock options or tuition reimbursement. Once you are at the bargaining table discussing what it will take to get you to say yes, you need to consider what happens if you (or they) say no. If you work in an at-will state, your employer can drop you at any point (or you can quit them) and if that happens, what is your parting gift?

Beyond that, we are in a pandemic. No one predicted this, and we certainly didn’t expect it to be dragging into its third year. Your company has no idea what will happen in future and neither do you. But you do know this: change is inevitable and if things get stank enough, the company will serve its best interest. That may mean furloughs, layoffs, early retirement packages, suspending 401K matching, cutting salaries by 10% or all of the above. You need to prepare for this when you join, not as you are leaving.

Second, plan for the unexpected. In June 2001, I was laid off from a tech company. They offered a redeployment option, allowed me to fly to Arizona on the corporate shuttle in search of another gig. It didn’t pan out and I was kicked out of the redeployment pool and landed in the unemployment line. The economy was in a recession; the unemployment rate was around 6% and hit 7.8% by year end. I had no savings, $8K in severance (not negotiated), and no plan. I naively thought I’d return to work within a few months, but then 9/11 happened and the nation was in freefall. I was young and didn’t think about healthcare or anything beyond paying my rent and car note.

Fast forward 20 years and I had a strategy. My finances were such that my only major debt was my mortgage. I saved my bonus checks, suspended extraneous spending, and prepared my “ask.” I didn’t know when my plan would be activated, but I was ready. The rumor was layoffs were imminent and I was prepared when I got the call. It was brief, maybe 20 minutes, and as soon as I was eligible, I filed for unemployment. I messaged the CHRO, discussed my concerns and desire to separate, and we began the negotiation dance. Did I get everything I wanted? No, you rarely do in a negotiation, but I was pleased with the outcome.

Third, vet your plan with folks you trust. I cannot say this enough: before you make any moves DO YOUR RESEARCH!! You need to talk with HR before you make the call to cut ties. This means you need a trusted advisor in the HR department who will give you the skinny on severance, the number of weeks for your job grade, what’s been done in the past, and what you can reasonably request. That does NOT mean that you don’t go for broke and elevate your ask, it means you need to know where the boundaries lie. There is a way to structure this conversation such that you do not reveal your intentions. I recommend engaging HR, or someone in the know, at least six months before you’re ready to exit. Create distance between your inquiry and your action.

When I prepared to leave, only four people knew, and one of them was the CHRO. I had two trusted advisors and an external third party. I did not discuss this with family, colleagues, or friends. My goal was to control the communication channels and that way if anything leaked, I knew where it came from. In my situation, my former manager told the team that I left the company. This spread quickly. It was yet another mark of his lack of professionalism, considering I had not yet left the company. So even though the people involved may have basket mouths and leak your actions, it is critical that you move in stealth. That sounds James Bond-ish, but it’s true. If you reveal even one part of your plan to someone you think you can trust, you lose the element of surprise and your negotiation may fail. Too often we engage current coworkers, or people who know the players, and when we put the plan into action they know we are coming.

Fourth, execute the plan. I don’t want to gloss over this point: when I was ready to execute, I approached a senior leader who could take action on my request. Do not be afraid to schedule time with a decision-maker who will take your request seriously and who has the clout and cachet to make things happen. I am not telling you to demand, threaten, or bully anyone; I am telling you that when it’s time to move, you need to speak to someone with authority. No filtered or brokered deals through an HRBP, they would have to connect with a senior leader to advance your request and that creates delays. Cut out the middleman and speed up the process. If the senior leader chooses to deputize an HRBP or HR Director to handle your paperwork, so be it. That is beyond your control.

Finally, after you exit, take a beat. I cannot stress enough that leaving a company is like ending a relationship. I don’t care how long you’ve been together, it stings when you part ways. No matter how toxic the environment or how underappreciated you feel, when you cut ties, you’ll be in your feelings.

After I submitted my documentation, I was emotionally depleted. Dredging up all that occurred was draining and I relived it as I wrote it. I was angry and felt betrayed by the leadership and that was exacerbated when I got the furlough phone call. There was no way I could bring that baggage into a new relationship with a new company.

When we fail to plan financially and mentally, we feel compelled to rush into another corporate gig. The problems arise when the behaviors at the new spot feel like what we’ve left. That creates “corporate PTSD” that may reveal itself unexpectedly. That’s a topic for another post, but the last thing you want is to be branded the ABW because you are carrying residue from your previous boo.

Rather than start another gig with six months left in grad school, I chose to finish strong and start a consultancy. For the past 18 months, I have been consulting with women on how to exit, how to rebuild, and how to find their next career opportunity.

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