What to do if you're laid off: 3 tips from two ex-hospital executives

No one, from the starry-eyed engineer at a health IT startup to the tenured hospital administrator, is immune from the risk of layoffs. While layoffs are tough to endure, employees can make the experience less painful by preparing for the worst.

That's the ethos behind Don't sign anything: A guide for the day you are laid off, a new book authored by Paul Levy, former president and CEO of Boston-based Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and his wife Farzana Mohamed, former chief of staff and director of strategic planning at BID-Needham (Mass.) Hospital, and founder of the consultancy Process Improvement.

The book is geared toward anyone who considers themselves an employee — even those who have a unique set of skills and expertise, like physicians. "You need to recognize your status has changed," Mr. Levy said of physicians, who are increasingly seeking hospital employment. "No matter how good you are, you are now part of an organization that goes through ups and downs and are now subject to being laid off."

When that pink-slip day comes, Mr. Levy and Ms. Mohamed's 68-page guide is designed to provide succinct advice rooted in negotiation theory and backed by extensive interviews with parties on both sides of the negotiation table.   

Becker's caught up with Mr. Levy to talk about the book and what he learned from interviews with HR directors, executives, employment lawyers and employees themselves. Here are three tips from the conversation:

1. Know your rights. During layoffs, companies typically pull employees into a meeting and ask them to sign a release letter within a given timeline to receive their severance package. Unknowing employees abide and accept their deal before it expires, no questions asked. Employees should know they have a say too, according to Mr. Levy. They do not have to sign the release letter, and they should be able to defer their decision without sacrificing a fair deal. "Lots of people out there don't know what their rights are," Mr. Levy said.

2. Always negotiate. One HR director advised point-blank: "Don't sign the deal. You have a right to question." More often than not, employees can better their outcome through negotiation. Mr. Levy spoke with an employee of a large tech company who relocated for a position and was laid off shortly thereafter. The employee wrote a note to his supervisor about why the severance package was unfair and after review, his supervisor agreed. Employees should document any transgressions throughout their experience at the company because they can be used as leverage during the negotiation process, Mr. Levy advised.

3. Think about how you want to negotiate. "The person with whom you are dealing usually is not some misanthrope who wants to mistreat you," Mr. Levy said. "They also want to get through this in the most pleasant way possible." In interviews, he found older employees didn't want to push too hard, for fear of coming off obnoxious and damaging their professional brand. He found the sting of a layoff was felt more acutely by younger employees, often of the Silicon Valley workforce, who joined a startup with aspirations to change the world. Those employees wanted to pursue negotiations much more aggressively, he said. While neither approach is wrong, it can change how you are perceived in your network, Mr. Levy cautioned. He advised employees hire a lawyer to conduct negotiations on their behalf.

For more detailed advice on how to negotiate a fair severance package, from noncompete clauses to health insurance coverage, read Don't sign anything: A guide for the day you are laid off, available here.


More articles on leadership and management:

5 recent healthcare layoffs
Here's why University Medical Group's Shon Brink says health IT is a myth: 4 questions with the director of finance, business operations
Viewpoint: Massachusetts lawmakers should adopt federal review policies for healthcare legislation

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