Muzzling a departing reporter may seem an extraordinary step for a media company to take. Think about the constitutional rights that news organizations work to uphold -- Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Speech -- not to mention their commitment to being public watchdogs. Nonetheless, requiring reporters to sign away their right to speak out about their former boss has become a standard part of severance agreements. Just as it is for departing workers in the rest of corporate America, should they be lucky enough to be offered severance.
|Blythe (USA Today)|
Will Blythe, who was fired from the digital publishing company, Byliner, won't have that problem. As is standard these days, Byliner would only pay Blythe severance if he agreed to sign a "termination" agreement. He balked when he read the "no disparagement" clause:
"You agree that you will never make any negative or disparaging statements (orally or in writing) about the Company or its stockholders, directors, officers, employees, products, services or business practices, except as required by law."
Blythe, the victim of budget cuts, thought about it and discovered that such clauses are difficult to enforce. Still, he chose to walk away from two weeks severance pay rather than agree to stay mum.
"To disparage is but one tool in a writer's kit, but it's an essential one," Blythe explains in his op-ed piece in the New York Times. "That a company would offer money for my silence, which is what this boils down to -- well, I've seen many a mob movie about exactly that exchange."
I happen to know that some severance agreements bar the employee from suing the company for age discrimination. And, quite unbelievably, like something out of the gulag or Guantanamo, they also state that the employee is not allowed to acknowledge that the severance agreement even exists, except to a spouse, lawyer or accountant.
On the other hand, termination agreements also may counsel the employee to consult a lawyer before signing – something that departing workers, in the anguish of losing a job, perhaps with no notice and a security guard ushering them out the door, and needing the money to tide them over – may not do.
I wonder what Blythe would have done if his severance package had amounted to six months of pay instead of just two weeks? And if, for reasons of age, he faced little chance of future employment (instead of having the stature he has as a book author and writer for such publications a Sports Illustrated and the New Yorker).
Would he have taken the same stance?
What is the price of silence?