What Football Can Teach White-collar Employees About Layoffs, Severance

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

With football season upon us, I would like to use football to explain some common situations that employees face.

I get a lot of calls from white-collar professionals who have long careers with a company but then are laid off a few months after a new boss is hired. This happens a lot in football when a general manager/athletic director replaces a head coach and the head coach fires the previous coach’s assistant coaches. White-collar employees in middle-management positions are essentially the equivalents of assistant coaches in football. In the world of football, it is assumed that a new head coach can bring in his new assistants. The same assumption holds true in the business world.

Assistant coaches are oftentimes “bought out” of their employment contracts. Sometimes white-collar professionals have employment contracts, but more often than not they do not. Sometimes professionals are offered severance agreements, but unless there is an employment contract, that severance is not a buyout. Employers are also under no obligation to offer severance. If severance is offered, that doesn’t necessarily mean that an employer wrongfully terminated the employee.

Of course, no employee can be terminated because of age, disability, sex, race, nationality, or in retaliation for engaging in a protected activity like filing for workers’ compensation or filing with OSHA. But even if there is some appearance of wrongful motivation on behalf of the employer, the employer can still defeat a potential lawsuit if they have a legitimate business reason for terminating the employee. Going back to a football analogy, if the new head coach wants to switch an offensive or defensive scheme, they have the right to hire the person they choose. The fact the new hire might be less effective than the old hire is not a decision that a court will second guess in a wrongful termination. Sure, if there is something else wrongful going on, it is something a court or a jury could consider, but in a case where there is a recent change in management, employees will have difficult time overcoming the assumption that the new boss just wants to “put in their team.”