The term "golden handshake" is a euphemism for severance benefits due an employee should she be let go ahead of schedule. Those in CEO and similar roles often get golden handshakes that include millions of dollars in cash, stock options and even moving expenses. If you haven't reached the corner office yet, you can still fight for a better deal should you one day lose your job.
When negotiating your new benefits package, reinforce the positive and never use words or phrases that even hint at a possible separation of parties somewhere down the road. For example, instead of asking for a severance package by name, request an employee contract. When you operate under contract, your employer may include a severance package with your benefits in case it terminates the contract ahead of the agreed-upon date. You can then move the discussion toward improving on the standard if you have sufficient demand for your services.
When you have special talents or skills that are in demand with a new company, use them to negotiate for a better severance package should things not work out in the long term. Just because your salary is high doesn't mean you'll be able to bargain for a package. The most important factors are whether your skills are unique and irreplaceable and whether your company will provide you with a contract. Contracts set the stage for long-term relationships between workers and employers, and many also provide some stipulation for early termination.
After the Fact
If you're over 40 and receive a pink slip unexpectedly, you have by law 21 days to negotiate your own golden handshake. As long as the preexisting severance package you're about to receive requires you to waive the right to sue for age discrimination, you're legally able to bargain further. This means you and your lawyer are free to engage in a back and forth with the company to see how it can improve your parting benefits to get you to sign off and part amicably.
If your company is unwilling to bend when it comes to cash severance payments, you may find it a bit more flexible with other benefits. For example, extended health care coverage in the case of dismissal, job search services and even long-term life insurance are all possible peripheral benefits that provide benefits well after you've left your current role. Request one or more in lieu of actual payment during your negotiation to see what sort of reception the idea gets.
Never sign anything that stipulates you're resigning rather than being laid off. Although the company may promise a host of benefits if you do, the truth is it will no longer have to provide you with anything and you may have just signed away your entire severance. Noncompetition clauses are another potential danger to be avoided. They can restrict your future employment options and cause other employers to shy away from considering you as a candidate just to eliminate possible legal problems that may result.