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When Bad News Befalls You in the (Academic) Workplace- What You Do (Not!) Do Next

Scenario 1:

You work in the administration of an academic institution, as a Vice President of a department, and are in a meeting with the Provost or President. Out of nowhere, you receive devastating news that is going to impact your standing at the institution- you are being demoted and will be forced to report to someone you cannot stand.

Scenario 2:

You work in the administration of an academic institution, as a Dean or the equivalent, and you are also a tenured professor. You are suddenly told during a meeting with the Provost or President that you will be removed from your role as a Dean, and you know that you will find it unbearable to just go back to teaching and nothing more, and you will be politically powerless as well.

Having counseled clients who have experienced both scenarios, the most important thing that should happen next is what the clients MUST NOT do, if they are to protect their interests.

They must not:

• Insult the decisionmaker;
• Have an outburst or curse;
• Storm out of the room;
• Abruptly resign;
• Sign any documents;
• Start negotiating their separation package.

Individuals in both scenarios should listen very carefully to the bad news. If it’s possible to maintain composure, they should engage the decision maker to learn about the institution’s justification for the employment action.

Once the meeting is over, it would be an excellent idea to contact an experienced employment lawyer about what happened and schedule a consultation promptly. The employment lawyer will probably want to see any handbooks, rules, executive plans, or contracts that may govern the terms and conditions of your employment along with your reviews, and any documents that can shed light on why you are currently in the position that you are in.

If the individuals insult the decision maker or have an outburst or storm out of the room, the decision maker will confirm to them, that said conduct is precisely why they took a particular action, i.e. the employees lack fitness for the role they have been in.

If the individuals abruptly resign, from an employment law perspective (with rare exceptions), resignations are excellent for employers, because the employers will owe the employees nothing. Even if institutions pay out severance monies to those who have resigned, based on formulas set forth within their policies and procedures, you can be sure that the payouts are not as high. Of greater significance, if there’s a claim of discrimination that the employee could have brought, that claim will be weakened substantially.

Why not sign documents? During a meeting when emotions are most likely running high, most employees cannot read and clearly understand the document that they are being asked to sign. A danger is that signing what is in front of them, may kill any protections that may be present in documents they signed earlier, when they began their employment. If handed a document to sign, it is best to tell the decision maker that it needs to be reviewed outside the presence of the decision maker first.

As far as negotiating a separation package, employees usually do not fare well when they start negotiating on their own, because they don’t understand how negotiations in the employment arena work. They make a demand that is too low, or not reasonable, or does not ask for items that they need to be amicably able to separate. They may make concessions they should not make. They may not properly employ their negotiating leverage, if they don’t even know what it is.

If the employees sit tight and contact an employment lawyer, the lawyer has more options to present to the employee to arrive at the destination that the employee would be better off at, including but not limited to:

• Filling the demoted role, and filing a charge of discrimination and/or a lawsuit, if the demotion was an act of discrimination;
• Negotiating a transfer before the demotion takes effect—at the same or higher title and salary;
• Negotiating an extension on the Deanship followed by a sabbatical and then a transition into teaching;
• Negotiating a separation package for the Dean based on the amount of time left on the contract term, in addition to other items of value, for the employee.

Employees should avoid making hasty decisions because a wrong move can ruin one’s ability to get another job within a specific university system (for non-tenured administrative employees). For tenured employees, hastily leaving a university altogether, because of political issues, can make it difficult to obtain a similar job at another university, because employed professors are always more attractive than unemployed ones.

Pausing rather than reacting upon receiving terrible news, can be protective, career-saving— and ultimately increase the probability that your employment lawyer can help you negotiate a solution that is in your best interests, even if it might take a little time.