Don't get mad - get what you're worth

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The Independent Culture
When your employer finally decides that you are surplus to improved `shareholder value' you can either go quietly - or you can take them for all you can get. By Henry Weekes

"My yardstick for success in the final negotiation with my employers was that none of my bosses would be able to face coming to my farewell drinks party." Lesley grinned at me. "I must have been successful - I was the most senior person there."

What had started out as an ordinary lunch at a wine bar was rapidly developing into a strange cross between a wake and a celebration.

I had arranged to meet two old friends, Lesley and Peter, some time previously and had been shocked to find that both were now technically unemployed, having been advised by their previous employers "to seek new challenges elsewhere".

But neither of my friends fell into the category of City mogul or public utilities boss, neither had enjoyed massive bonuses during successful careers, nor had they worked for organisations that traditionally made such large termination payments that those who had been "let go" could afford to retire in comfort. Although they had held senior positions within their respective organisations, both strictly fell into the category of ordinary mortal when it came to termination time.

However, both had very different tales to tell; stories that show quite clearly how important it is to play your cards right when you sense that your face no longer fits.

After I had expressed my condolences to both Peter and Lesley, Peter told his story. He had worked for a major firm of actuaries for fourteen years, reaching partner level and putting in prodigious hours until finding after a merger that much of his work was duplicated and the exciting jobs no longer came his way. Slowly, painfully, he came to realise that he was yesterday's man - and then came the invitation to talk with the senior partner... "Of course, they were very good to me," he said. "Gave me six months' money, have allowed me to keep the car for those six months and are doing some kind of a deal on my pension scheme; after all, I am fifty now. Yet they won't allow me to do business with any of my old clients for six months."

"I think they have robbed you blind!" interrupted Lesley. Two or three years younger than Peter, she had joined a well-known data and information services company on leaving school thirty years previously and, working her way up from office junior to UK marketing director, now had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the organisation.

"So what happened to you then?" I enquired.

She gave me the contented smile of one who has achieved what she wanted. "As you know," she replied, "we were more fully integrated with our American parent company a year ago and I suddenly found myself working for a new boss; someone who had been brought in from the States and who wanted to shake the place up a bit. Perhaps I made a mistake in telling him that most of his schemes had been tried before and hadn't worked then, but I soon found myself on the outside; my face didn't fit anymore. This newcomer, this young man, wanted me out."

"So what did you do?" I asked.

"At first I was as miserable as sin! After all, I had given most of my life to the organisation and now I could see the end of my career staring me in the face. But the situation was not going to go away and so I decided to seek clarity and asked for a meeting. Well, at the meeting I was given a lot of mumbo jumbo about rationalisation and how it was necessary to enhance shareholder value. From this I concluded that I was being invited to look for another job; at the same time it was hinted that the organisation would look after me and give me plenty of time to sort things out. `Rubbish,' I thought. How much time do you give someone after thirty years, and don't talk to me about shareholder value - I'm a shareholder myself. It was time to go to war!"

"So what did you do then?" asked Peter with more than a passing interest.

"The organisation had taught me how to plan and how to negotiate so I decided to use those skills on them," said Lesley with some satisfaction. "For a start, I forced myself to be realistic. If they want you out, then they will get you out in the end. The only question is when and how much it is going to cost them. I decided that the timing was irrelevant but that the other question was crucial as I wanted to walk away with enough to enable me to live life on my own terms in future. So a plan was required."

"First of all I let them know that I did not want to leave and that I would not go without a fight. There was no point in going to the HR department, they worked for the enemy; so I got myself a solicitor - someone who knew about employment legislation. Between us we worked out a plan: it would be necessary for them to make the first move, give the first offer and I would then say it was laughable and demand at least three times that amount. When they turned that idea down I then started to play tough. I quoted legislation at them, at the same time threatening them with more adverse publicity than they could handle. Once they realised that they would be in for a long and costly fight, they began to be more conciliatory so I turned the screw a little tighter. We were negotiating.

"It was now necessary to apply some basic principles of negotiation. I refused to give my bosses anything unless they gave me something in return and I never accepted their first offer on any concessions. At the same time I used my ex-boss who had retired a couple of years earlier as a mentor. He knew the organisation and how much it could afford; he also knew of some useful precedents that I was able to quote. Eventually, we came close to agreement on the money side so I switched my tack. My company car was three years old, not much use to them but valuable to me - I fought for it and got it as an extra in the package. After that there were other items such as pro rata payment for holiday not taken so far in the year and assurances about my pension."

"But you must have completely destroyed the relationship between the organisation and yourself," said Peter.

"So what!" countered Lesley. "The relationship was technically dead the moment they let me know they would prefer me not to be around. By the end of the process, I had worked out what I wanted to do next - spend a good deal of time in France with my husband who was about to take early retirement. What I could not afford to do was to let them know that I now wanted to go as much as they wanted to see the back of me. Looking back, I think I did pretty well.

"For example, when the negotiations were virtually concluded, I told them that I assumed that I could keep my laptop and they readily agreed - just to wrap things up."

After the lunch, I thought long and hard about the conversation. Had Lesley overdone it? Peter certainly thought so but I could not bring myself to agree with him. Was her advice irresponsible? Greedy? Surely not! Both organisations and those who work for them should foster social responsibility. Words such as rationalisation, delayering and downsizing are common, but when does downsizing become dumbsizing? Just how much talent can an organisation rationalise out? Both employer and employee have responsibilities and not all of them are related to profit. It must be better if the employee can negotiate the best possible deal, thereby reducing potential cost to the state.

What is needed is more sense and more humanity in the employment strategies of corporations, both large and small. Too often those at the very top are protected by large bonuses and rolling contracts that guarantee huge termination payments even when they have failed. This frequently leads to "drawbridge mentalities" the modern equivalent of "I'm all right, Jack!" whereby those who are financially protected start to think of their staff as expendable commodities to be sacrificed on the altars of efficiency or shareholder value. What is needed is more shared responsibility for profits, productivity, growth learning and continuing careers. If this happens then effectiveness and shareholder value may well take care of themselves. There will also be less need for the Peters and Lesleys to battle for themselves.

But while the need remains, perhaps the last word should go to Lesley. "There are only two occasions when you can really negotiate with your employer. The first is just before you join them when you know they really want you; and then at the end - when they have made it clear that they don't want you. In both cases, go for it."

The author is a consultant specialising in coaching and career advice to executives.