What Can Employer’s Learn From Conan O’Brien’s Severance Agreement?

contractguy_thumbIt now appears the Conan and NBC saga is coming to the end. It is being reported that Conan will leave NBC with a boat load of cash and will be free to have a new show on another network in the Fall. The specific terms of the deal have not yet been released, but they will definitely be detailed in a contract between Conan and NBC. Such a contract, often called a severance agreement, is used in high risk terminations as a means of avoiding costly and distracting litigation.

The key elements of a severance agreement include:

  • A provision detailing the nature of the separation. Employees usually want it characterized as a resignation. This allows the employee to search for new work without the stigma of a termination on his or her record. This provision should, of course, describe the last day of work.
  • A discussion of how much money is going to be paid to the employee and how it is going to be paid. This is obviously a key provision for both the employee and employer. While it is unlikely that an employee will be receiving $33 million like Conan, it is likely that some payment will be made. Such a payment may be in a lump sum or paid on some schedule agreed to by the parties.
  • A release of all claims the employees may have against the employer. This release must be broad enough to ensure that the settlement is truly the end of the matter. As a result, it should be drafted in a way that covers all entities and people who may be the target of a lawsuit. It should also cover any particular state or federal statute or claim that can be brought by an employee against a former employer. Special care must be given when drafting a release involving a claim under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). A federal law, the Older Workers Benefits Protection Act (OWBPA), requires that the employee: be provided notice that ADEA claims are being released ; allowed at least 21 days to consider the release; be given 7 days to rescind the release; and be advised that they should consult an attorney.
  • A provision detailing payments for any accrued but unused sick or vacation pay.
  • Provisions detailing the treatment of confidential and proprietary information. It is crucial that the obligations of the employee be spelled in a way that both parties know what is expected of them. For example, it is reported that Conan will be required to leave behind the various characters he and his team developed through their years at NBC. All employees should be required to return any company papers, computers, and the like.
  • Terms describing when and how the departing employee can compete with his old employer. Key employees, like Conan, often have an employment agreement containing a restrictive covenant limiting their ability to work in the future. The scope of such a covenant is often modified during the negotiations involving the employee’s departure. In Conan’s case it appears that he will be able to launch a new show sometime in September. You can bet, however, that there was a lot of discussion over what Conan could do in the interim.
  • A term discussing whether the employer will oppose the employee’s unemployment compensation claim
  • A discussion as to whether the employer will continue the employee’s health care coverage and for how long. Such continuation may be for a number of months or until the employee obtains new coverage from an new employer.
  • A discussion of how the employer will respond to requests for references from potential new employers. Consideration should be given requiring the employee to direct all such inquiries to a specific person who will respond in an agreed upon way.
  • The agreement should require that the terms of the agreement remain confidential or, at a minimum, provide what will be provided to the press or public. Such a provision is especially important in high profile terminations in which each party will need to “save face.”

To catch up on the Conan/NBC saga, see my previous posts, Why NBC Should Have Used Delaware Law In Conan O’Brien’s Employment Contract, and What Can Employers Learn From Conan O’Brien and NBC?


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