Like a lot of people in media, I’ve been laid off. I was 23, in my first job out of college, when the newspaper where I worked abruptly folded. There was an emotional staff-wide meeting in the newsroom and then everyone got an email outlining our “separation agreement”: one month’s pay and three months of health-insurance coverage.
Looking back, I realize that my severance package was generous. In corporate layoffs, it’s customary for employers to offer two weeks’ worth of payment for every year the employee has worked at the company, but federal law doesn’t require it. In fact, with the exception of some state laws (including a new one in New Jersey that went into effect last month), most laid-off workers have very few legal rights at all.
In the past few weeks, hundreds of reporters, editors, and other media workers lost their jobs at BuzzFeed, Insider, ESPN, and numerous other outlets. This isn’t the only industry that’s hurting: Meta, Amazon, and Google have slashed headcounts, two banks have collapsed, and a growing list of other large companies have shed staff recently too.
A “no-fault termination” has powerlessness baked into its definition: You’re being let go because of business or economic conditions beyond your control. But there are some things you can do to make sure that you walk away with the best severance package your employer can muster, and a better chance for a smooth job search.
1. If you have time to prepare, take stock of your finances and your company’s policies.
Many people don’t see layoffs coming, but if you do, get your affairs in order. One former Buzzfeed staffer I spoke to, who requested anonymity, says that she lived in constant anticipation of losing her job. “I never felt truly secure,” she told me. “I always tried to stay up to date with doctor’s appointments just in case I lost my benefits, and I kept some basic emergency savings.”
She is also a member of the Buzzfeed News Union, which had a collective-bargaining agreement with the company that included protections for workers in the case of sudden layoffs. She didn’t want to share details about her own severance yet, “but I do feel like I’m not totally left out to dry,” she says. “I know that unionizing isn’t an option for everyone, but at the very least, familiarize yourself with your company’s policies so that you know what you have a right to ask for.”
In the meantime, it helps to know exactly how much money you need to cover your basic living costs. “I’ve been laid off before, so unfortunately I know how to budget severely,” she says. “Hopefully it won’t come to that again, but there’s some comfort in having a plan.”
2. Don’t sign anything right away.
If, like most people, you’re blindsided by a layoff (or even if you aren’t), don’t sign any paperwork until you’ve had a chance to look it over thoroughly, preferably with the help of an employment attorney. “Only a very unsophisticated employer would hand you something and say, ‘Sign this now,’” says Ed Cerasia, a New York–based employment lawyer who specializes in representing workers who have been let go. “If they did, then you’d have a legal argument that the agreement was coerced. Most HR professionals understand that people being laid off are under duress, and so they don’t ask you to sign anything at that point.” Instead, ask for at least a week to review the paperwork, if not longer.
(Note: Federal laws against age discrimination state that people over the age of 40 have 21 days to review any release documents. If there are two or more employees over 40 in the laid-off group, then you automatically get 45 days. That gives you enough time to seek legal counsel and file a claim for age discrimination, if you believe there’s cause for it.)
3. Ask for a letter stating that you were laid off without cause, and then file for unemployment.
Your company should be able to provide this letter right away, even before you’ve finalized your exit package. It may come in handy when you’re filing for unemployment benefits, which you should do immediately. You may not be eligible for those benefits while you’re collecting severance (if you get any), but the filing process often takes about a month, so it’s best to get a jump on it before your income dries up completely. You may also want this letter when you’re applying for new jobs, to prove that you weren’t let go for performance-based reasons.
4. Understand what you’re being asked to sign, and fight back if you want to.
Your exit package isn’t just about severance pay. The paperwork may also contain clauses that waive your legal rights to work for a competitor or talk about the company and the terms of your departure. You want to make sure you understand what these documents say, not only so you can negotiate for changes you want to make, but also so that you don’t violate the terms by accident (which could also void your severance pay).
Not everyone needs a lawyer, or can afford one — an hour-long review of your documents could cost a couple hundred dollars. Still, sometimes it’s worth getting a second pair of eyes. A good place to start is nela.org, a database of employment lawyers that offer 30- to 60-minute consultations.
One woman who spoke to me anonymously (she signed an NDA as part of her exit package) was laid off from a start-up and sent her severance paperwork to her best friend, who worked in HR at a different company. “I didn’t trust my former employer, and I wanted to make sure they weren’t trying to screw me over,” she says. As it turned out, there was a noncompete clause that forbade her from working for any competitors for two years — making it all but impossible for her to find a new job in her field. Her friend helped her write an email requesting that the clause be struck, and her former company acquiesced.
Other provisions to look out for include non-disparagement clauses, which block you from saying negative things about the company. Cerasia often requests that these non-disparagement agreements go both ways, so that representatives of the company can’t say bad things about you either. “It’s something I often negotiate for,” he says. “It may even be in their best interest, if they want to avoid defamation claims.”
Some non-disparagement clauses are also illegal under federal law. Earlier this year, the National Labor Relations board ruled that companies cannot require laid-off employees to sign non-disparagement clauses in order to receive severance, nor demand that they keep their exit packages confidential. This ruling is relatively new, however, so some employers may not have updated their policies. If something looks fishy or unfair, it’s worth speaking to an attorney.
Unfortunately, hiring a lawyer usually isn’t cheap. You’ll have to pay around $500 to $2,000 up-front for the lawyer to determine if you have cause for a claim, and after that, they’ll usually charge a contingency fee — that is, a percentage of any additional money they help you get.
5. Consider organizing with other laid-off co-workers.
If you don’t already have a union, banding together with your former co-workers can be useful if you’re filing a claim. “For instance, if you are laid off and believe it was the result of some kind of discrimination, then it may make sense for you to speak with your laid-off peers who are in a similar protected group,” says Cerasia. “You could also retain the same lawyer. There is some advantage in negotiating based on a strength in numbers, as it may support the claim that the company targeted certain workers as part of the reduction in force.”
A large, noisy group can also pressure your former employer to do the right thing. Back in 2019, over 600 BuzzFeed employees joined forces to demand that the company pay out earned and unused vacation days to its laid-off workers — and they won.
This story has been updated.