The protocols of professionalism create an expectation that all parties should be given a reasonable opportunity to review a document, including a proposed employment severance document, prior to either: (1) signing it as written (an extremely unlikely occurrence, by the way, if a good attorney reviews it for the employee); or else (2) responding to the proposed document with a fax, letter, red-line comparison draft, or mark-up indicating the receiving party’s proposed changes. This would normally be the way entertainment attorneys would interact with and between each other on a proposed license agreement, for example. The two entertainment lawyers would expect careful reading and deliberation on either end. If a proffering employer-party in the severance context, however, instead threatens to withdraw the document “since it wasn’t signed on-the-spot”, then they are just being ridiculous and overbearing. The odds are, again, better than 99% that their “non-negotiable” document would have been a legal disaster for the employee to sign as initially proposed. Again, this observation applies to employment severance packages, and most all other forms of proposed draft agreements in most all contexts other than employment, too.
Some employers in the media and entertainment industry context and otherwise even have the unmitigated gall these days to ask employees to prospectively waive their right to a jury trial in the context of so-called “non-negotiable” employment agreements including severance or other exit agreements, as but one type of egregious example of the foregoing. It is jungle out there. If one is asked to sign an employment severance agreement with jury trial waiver or other exit document on-the-spot, it is entirely fair and within one’s rights to say that “I will need to review this document with my attorney”, or “I don’t sign documents of a legal nature without attorney review”. And, if the proffering party disputes the employee’s right to legal representation, perhaps this is someone that the employee doesn’t want to accommodate anyway, on principle. This country’s entire legal history was predicated, in substantial part, on the rights of the individual, and the individual’s right to counsel. The framers of the Constitution worked hard. It would be a mistake to let them down now.
The next rule is a corollary to the prohibition on “on-the-spot” signing: The employee should never believe the employer, when the employer offers a “standard” form of employment severance agreement or otherwise. An entertainment attorney will tell you that “standard” is the biggest lie in the entertainment industry. It should be considered comparably fallacious in the employment context. If the employee wants to empower himself or herself in the workplace and in the commercial world, what the employee needs to do is repeat the following phrase repeatedly, like a mantra: “There is no such thing as a ‘standard form’. There is no such thing as a ‘standard form'”. Because, there isn’t, as any entertainment lawyer should tell you.
Rather, “standard form”, after an entertainment attorney on the receiving end translates it, just means “get over on you”. Similarly, a “standard form” employment severance document is synonymous for “oppressive and one-sided form that takes advantage of the employee”. The employee should remember that the draftsperson of a so-called “standard form” is probably a fairly predatory-minded employer-side lawyer handling the company’s employment severance protocols en masse who is under absolutely no obligation to protect – or indeed even acknowledge or accommodate – the employee’s interests. Indeed, the opposite is true. The employer-counsel’s professional obligation as a member of the Bar handling the employer-side severance work is to be a zealous advocate of only his or her own client’s interests – that is, the employer’s interests only. If the employee signs an employment severance document because the other side tells the employee it is a “standard” or “non-negotiable” form, then the employee might as well be walking off the roof of the proverbial building just because the employee was told to do it. The employee should not trust “standard forms” in the employment severance context or otherwise, or those employers who purport to furnish them. Again, this may be an entertainment attorney observation, but it applies to all workplaces and other contracting situations as well.
The employee should make sure to have retained copies of every single scrap of paper pertaining to his or her employment relationship with any company, up to and including the time of the severance communications. The employee should not trust or rely upon the employer to give the employee copies of – or even access to – those employment documents and the employee’s human resources file, if and when the employee’s work honeymoon period with the employer ends, or if and when the employee’s services are, or are about to be, terminated in a severance or other context. Remember that the Japanese model of “employment for life”, and the antiquarian U.S. model of the gold watch after 40 years of service, just simply do not apply anymore. Severance and parachutes – and these days the absence of them too – often replace the old model of dutiful loyalty.