Getting fired any time of year is a traumatic experience. However, when it happens around the holidays, it can seem particularly difficult. Reconciling a job loss with the “most wonderful time of the year” is tough, especially when there are presents to buy and parties to plan.
It’s not unusual for companies to plan layoffs for year-end and, sometimes, people are fired before the new year kicks in. For many companies, December 31 is the end of the fiscal year. As they wind down, they look at the past year’s performance and sometimes need to make tough decisions, says Claudia St. John, president of HR consulting firm Affinity HR Group, LLC and author of Transforming Teams–Tips for Improving Collaboration and Building Trust. And it’s a difficult situation for the employee losing their job as well as for the manager who has to deliver the news, and coworkers who may feel “survivor guilt.”
“Even if it happens in a very small episodic scale, the emotional trauma around it or the emotions around it happening at the ‘happiest time of the year’ can be significant,” she says.
And while nothing is going to make a holiday termination of employment one of the season’s bright spots, there are some best practices to make the situation a little easier on everyone involved.
Avoid Surprises When Possible
Unless there has been a gross violation of company policy, crime, or other extreme circumstances, employers should try to avoid having a layoff or termination come as a surprise, St. John says. If layoffs are expected, it may be a good idea to let people know that cuts are coming, especially if it’s going to happen around the holidays. She concedes that doing so many not always be possible and may create some uncertainty, but it gives employees time to make plans.
“If the termination is because of a performance issue, the employee should already be on notice,” says Ethan Rasiel, CEO of Brooklyn-based PR firm Lightspeed PR. “The person should be already on a performance review and should have been told there were issues,” he says. By communicating clearly what improvement or change needs to happen by a particular date, managers can help employees understand the timeline involved.
Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of Chicago-based recruitment and staffing firm LaSalle Network, agrees. “The age-old argument is, do you let people enjoy their holidays and then fire them right after, and they’ve bought gifts, and gone on vacations, and done these things, assuming they had a job? Or do you let them go before and feel a little bit like a Scrooge? I don’t think either one is absolute. If people don’t know that they’re on the precipice of getting fired or losing their job, isn’t that the bigger issue?” he says.
Prepare For The Meeting
Before the meeting, think about what the employee is going to need, and come prepared with information and answers to the best of your ability, recommends Michael Marra, a partner at Fisher Phillips, a labor and employment law firm. “Treat employees with dignity and respect,” he says.
It’s typically a good idea to have information about severance pay, health insurance options (COBRA), transition assistance, and other resources your company provides. Even simple actions like preparing an organized binder with all of the information the employee will need can make them feel like you care, Marra says. Answer questions in a respectful and succinct manner and “leave a paper trail of everything,” he says.
Keep It Short And Professional
Delivering bad news is never easy. Marra advises avoiding lengthy explanations or attempts to make the employee feel better, which could be used against the company. For example, if the employee was fired for cause, but the manager says, “This isn’t about you. We all love you,” or something similar to make the employee feel better, the inconsistency could be a problem if there is legal action later.
“By creating that inconsistency, you really do make it difficult for the employer to deal with what it may have to deal with if the employee makes a decision that they think that they were fired for illegal reasons,” Marra says. Be honest about the reasons for termination, being as respectful as possible and move on.
St. John advises remembering that people may be angry, frightened, or hurt and say things that they wouldn’t ordinarily say. She recommends erring on the side of compassion and to try to not take anything said in anger personally. “Give them time to ask their questions. Give them time and space to process, but don’t belabor it,” she says.
Take Care of Your Staff
Remember that the impact of job terminations will have an impact on your staff, and be sure to nurture them, Gimbel says. “[Company leaders] talk about how they’re going to exit the employee. What they don’t do is talk about what the communication is going to be with the staff that remains, and how that’s explained, when it’s explained, and being ready for any additional fallout that may exist,” he says. Hold a short debrief session with the manager who had to fire the employee and, possibly, with other team members, to let them express how they feel and any concerns they have.
The good news for employees who lose their jobs this time of year is that January is often a great time to look for a job, St. John says. “We encourage our employers not to post their jobs right around Christmas because a lot of people aren’t looking, but the whole hiring cycle ramps up in great vigor right at the beginning of the year,” she says.