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At the very end of a company's severance agreement (for laid-off employees), just before the signature box, the agreement reads (emphasis mine):

I HAVE CAREFULLY READ THE FOREGOING RELEASE, FULLY UNDERSTAND ITS MEANING AND CONSEQUENCES, AND SIGN IT VOLUNTARILY AS MY OWN FREE ACT.

Given that an employee isn't voluntarily laid off (i.e. being faced with this agreement in the first place isn't a voluntary act), and that an employee must sign essentially under the threat of not receiving severance pay and benefits if they don't (i.e. they "voluntarily" sign it in the same way they "voluntarily" don't drive head first into oncoming traffic), this seems like a curious thing to state: It does not seem that the employee is really voluntarily signing it under their own free act. They kind of have to sign it, or they're hosed.

My questions are:

  1. What does this language protect the company against?
  2. What employee rights does this forfeit if the employee signs?

That is, what purpose does this language serve?

The reason I am wondering is: There are many contracts without this language, are those contracts therefore not protected against claims that signing them was forced? For the implication that "if you don't like it don't sign it", isn't that true of any contract even without this sentence? If the company didn't put this language in, it seems like it would be similar to any other typical contract that also does not have this language, so if it was a generally required protection I would expect to see it all the time. What could make this agreement different as to require that statement?

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3 Answers 3

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What does "sign it voluntarily as my own free act" mean? What does this language protect the company against?

It secures the signer's admission that he is not being subjected to wrongful termination. It is a form of settlement with which the company could refute claims of wrongful termination, breach of contract, or similar.

What employee rights does this forfeit if the employee signs?

It depends on the jurisdiction, since each legislation might provide different remedies for labor disputes; whether employment is at-will vs. of specific duration, or termination is for [good] cause; and other terms of the employment contract regarding the method of termination.

are those contracts therefore not protected against claims that signing them was forced?

That language is not really necessary. It just tends to make it easier for the employer to refute claims that employee might subsequently file in court or --if mandatory-- for quasi-judicial proceedings.

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    Usually, what an employee is forfeiting is unemployment insurance benefits.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 16, 2023 at 21:53
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The "Severance Agreement" is a contract between the company and you. It spells out what the company will do and probably what they expect you to do going forward.

Simple enough.

The statement you referenced merely says that you are not being forced to sign the agreement. That's all.

You don't, presumably, have the option of remaining employed at this company but you DO NOT have to sign this agreement. But if you don't, it's likely that any benefits being promised in the agreement will not be delivered to you.

So specifically in answer to your questions:

  1. It protects them against a claim that they somehow forced you to sign the agreement.

  2. Likely anything that the agreement says the company will do such as pay you a certain amount of money and the like.

Bottom line is that if you don't like the agreement, don't sign it. If you want the benefits they are promising in the agreement, then sign it and move on.

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    For whatever reason their attorneys wanted that language. Ask them if you want to know why. Does this mean that you could not later sue them claiming coercion? Of course not but then you'd certainly be asked "why then did you sign this agreement that says 'voluntarily'?
    – jwh20
    Jan 14, 2023 at 14:57
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    @jwh20 “I sign this contract without coercion” is a lot like “this statement is true”.
    – Sneftel
    Jan 14, 2023 at 15:00
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    @jwh20 why then did you sign this agreement that says 'voluntarily'? To which the answer would be "what part of 'coercion' do you not understand?" I don't see how such language could have any weight whatsoever.
    – Aetol
    Jan 15, 2023 at 11:35
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    I'm not arguing for or against this clause. Someone, however, though it beneficial to them to include it.
    – jwh20
    Jan 15, 2023 at 13:31
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    @Aetol Also, it seems like succumbing to coercion is still a free act, philosophically, anyways, heh... right? My only theory is that maybe they had a run-in with an employee in the past and added it for some reason to try to avoid it happening again. Possibly related, this particular agreement also gives the signer a period of 7 days after signing to revoke their signature. I have their legal department's contact info, I'll ask on Monday.
    – Jason C
    Jan 15, 2023 at 17:54
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"what purpose does this language serve?"

One way of looking at this is it allows the employer to place the employee in a Double Bind situation.

The first injunction of the Double Bind is often implied but not stated.

Sign this severance agreement, or you will be punished. (not receiving severance pay and benefits) Do not sign this severance agreement, because then we will use it against you. (implying you chose to take our offer freely)

The second injunction of the Double Bind is then written in almost classic form.

You must sign this severance agreement, but only because you want to.

Double binds are often utilized as a form of control without open coercion, because the use of confusion makes them difficult to respond to and to resist. The person responding will automatically be wrong, no matter how they respond, and in this case, cannot opt-out, because as stated in the question, "being faced with this agreement in the first place isn't a voluntary act."

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