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How to get fired like a man

September 14, 2006 09:19 IST

Forced out of her Hewlett-Packard CEO role, Carly Fiorina, America's most powerful businesswoman walked away with a severance package totaling more than $21 million, plus millions more in stock options, salary and bonuses. She's not the only savvy female business leader packing a golden parachute.

Edna Morris negotiated a rich bounty before taking the helm as president of America's largest seafood restaurant chain, Red Lobster. After the Orlando, Florida-based company hit rough seas, she was forced to abandon ship. While other women might have lost their bearings, Morris, now executive director of the James Beard Foundation, tells PINK magazine her financial package allowed her to float for months while she considered her next move.

"You owe it to yourself to negotiate an appropriate package," says Morris. "It enables you to move forward to find exciting possibilities where you can make the difference you want to make in the world."

But, sadly, when many female executives leave their posts, they walk away without packages. Their male counterparts, however, more often fly out the door with golden parachutes.

When men leave due to a merger or bankruptcy, or even are fired for lack of performance, they often take with them a sizable check -- sometimes worth millions of dollars.

So why is it that women usually have trouble negotiating packages of their own? The answer: You get what you ask for. But far too often, women don't ask for enough or don't ask at all.

Top female executives who've experienced this personally or witnessed other women making the same mistakes suggest there are three perspectives that keep women from larger exit packages, which ideally should be negotiated before one actually takes the job.

There are the "I don't knows," women unaware of opportunities and their rights; the "I don't asks," women who think asking will jeopardize getting the job; and the "I don't boasts," women who feel it is impolite to spotlight their accomplishments.

The "I don't knows" don't know that getting a big package going out depends on your packaging going in. "I don't knows" are often found within the ranks of women just beginning their careers.

"Many young women are often naive when they enter the job market," concedes Cheryl Bachelder, former president and chief concept officer of KFC, now an executive coach and consultant in Michigan. She received what amounted to chicken feed at first. "I was a terrible negotiator early in my career," admits Bachelder.

She believes too many women think that hard work alone will ensure they'll get a good package when they leave. "I always just assumed that I'd be treated fairly and I was just going to work hard and they'd pay me fine."

Caught up in the magic moment of "my first big job," these neophytes forget that what they don't say now might hurt them later.

Rhonda Parish, executive vice president of The Denny's Corporation, based in South Carolina, warns, "Do not wait until leaving the company to make sure you haven't left anything on the table. Negotiate your severance packages as you are initially working with the company to finalize your salary and other terms of your employment."

New York City-based talent agent Bonnie Lunt, known as the Jerry Maguire of the communications industry, has seen otherwise savvy women make plenty of mistakes. Her search firm, Bonnie Lunt Management, has placed hundreds of women in senior-level positions and has negotiated their severance packages.

"Women have men working for them who have better packages than they do," says Lunt. She refers to one high-level woman in advertising who didn't do her homework to research what her counterparts were earning. The result: The top-level woman came on board for a fraction of what the guy she supervises earns.


"I don't boast" women forgo bigger benefits packages because they feel like braggarts when they tout their achievements. "[The 'I don't boast'] women have a tendency to think they should not ask for things and they should not point out their accomplishments," says Parish.

"Humility is a wonderful attribute. Every company wants their employees to throw themselves into their work, but if your company is not aware of your specific achievements, you become dispensable. You can save yourself the emotional and financial aggravation by speaking up now."

The "I don't asks" are those who just don't ask for what they want or deserve. "It's not part of their repertoire," says Jane Melvin, former Olive Garden Restaurant senior executive vice president, turned nationally recognized consultant and president of Strategic Innovations Group, based just outside of Chicago.

She says asking for what one wants often doesn't come naturally to many women. It didn't come naturally to her. "Our jobs as mothers are not to ask, but to do. I have never asked for a raise in my life." Since women in top-level executive positions remain a rarity, "we often take what we can get. We compromise instead of negotiating," says Melvin. She adds, "Not negotiating compromises yourself and your future."

Jackie Yeaney, former vice president of marketing at Delta Air Lines, didn't ask for a severance package at Delta or her new job as acting senior vice president of marketing of Home Banc. She now regrets it. "I probably should have asked, but I did not want them to think I had one foot out the door before my first day."

Yeaney has plenty of company. As Morris puts it, "A higher majority of women accept whatever is presented." What that means, according to Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide (Princeton University Press, 2003) by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, is that women lose nearly $500,000 by age 60 due to fear of salary negotiations, while 20 percent never negotiate at all.

So how do you get the boot and the booty?

The best way to get fired like a man is to get hired like one. That means knowing the market value of the position so that you can position yourself from the start. Packing your parachute entails negotiating the best severance package possible. This should happen as salary and benefits are negotiated too, ideally before you even take the job.

Potential hires have a right to know. Know the company's policies before you sit down and negotiate. And do some homework in advance.

"Review public filings, if the company is publicly traded, to determine what might be reported about severance packages given to and/or paid out to others," says Parish. "Ask human resources to confirm to you in writing that your severance would be at least equal to other similarly situated employees." Or, adds Lunt, "They can ask the search firm to see what other principals are earning, and if there will be people reporting to them with bigger salaries."

Ask the current employer about the benefits offered and ask for it in writing. Morris adds, "Women need both the capability and confidence to negotiate an appropriate package; be aggressive in knowing what is reasonable and fair, get help in knowing how to negotiate, and do it."

Some self-promotion along with knowledge will put you in a position to ask for the package you want and deserve. Be-sides, it sets a precedent other top female employees will benefit from in the future.

After all, asking for what you want is free. As Melvin puts it, "Don't be shy -- we have a responsibility to the sisterhood."

Here are six golden rules to remember when you approach the negotiation table, according to Kathleen Dahlberg, a former top-level executive at BP, Amoco, Viacom and Burger King Corporation, and president of Open Vision, which provides insight to technology-based companies.

Joey Reiman, Forbes