There are a few certainties around the end of the year in my business.
- People will complain endlessly about performance reviews — giving them, receiving them, and coordinating the whole process.
- Productivity generally takes a dive as people are more focused on their holiday plans and upcoming vacations (though there are ways to avoid it).
- It seems to be the most popular time of the year to fire people. Admittedly, this is purely anecdotal, but every year in December two things happen to me: I see a spike in people looking for help, saying. “I was just fired and I don’t know what to do,” and I see a spike in conversations I have with my clients who are fishing for reasons to fire people.
The first two points are almost inevitable. But the third is one of my biggest pet peeves, because firing someone during “the most wonderful of the year” is almost always avoidable. Sadly, a determined executive can rationalize their way into it without considering the bigger picture.
Why it happens
If you’re able to eliminate all humanity from the decision, you might make the argument that firing people around the holidays is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Many businesses operate on a calendar-year budget, so they need to be ready to show they’ve hit their numbers. Trimming expenses is an easy way to make the bottom line look better. There’s also something psychologically pleasing about starting fresh in January and not having to carry over any excess baggage into the new year.
When looking to rationalize further, some executives will make the argument that there is never a good time to fire people, so December is as good a time as any. One executive I spoke to about the topic commented, “It’s not fun or easy to fire anyone regardless of the time of year. But it has to be done and the decision needs to based on many factors. Timing, however, is not one of them.”
And that executive is wrong. Timing should absolutely be a factor, because your workforce is made up of human beings, not robots.
Why you should avoid it
Putting aside the argument that only an evil person would fire someone before heading to a party to revel in holiday cheer, there are very logical reasons it’s a bad decision:
It will increase your odds of being sued. Can you think of many people more likely to sue your company for wrongful termination than a parent who was getting ready to buy Christmas presents for their children and who was counting on the year-end bonus? This is particularly true if their termination comes as a surprise.
Your remaining staff will bear the brunt. The holidays are stressful enough for many people. When you add the sudden departure of their co-workers on top of it, now your remaining staff will be charged with picking up their responsibilities. And if the impact of the decision isn’t thoroughly thought through, then it may be a significant and unanticipated burden that will cause them more stress, increase their work hours, and make the likelihood of achieving their own year-end goals seem less possible. Even a nice holiday party or end-of-year bonus might not be enough to make up for the pain you put them through.
It will have long-term implications. The impact on your team may last far after the new year has arrived. Jennifer Schmeiser, a human resources consultant and a former chief human resources officer, explains that she always counseled leaders away from firing people around the holidays. “No matter how appropriate the firing is or how important it is to reduce cost as quickly as possible, it’s a terrible idea that will have significant productivity and engagement impacts on the remaining staff. Even if they understand the reason for the firing, the manager will be viewed as evil for doing it during that time of the year. It will have longer-term implications about how the manager is viewed, how much the staff thinks the company cares about its employees, and ultimately their sense of security in staying with the company.” You can present the most logical explanation you want to your team. But at the end of the day, they are going to look at you and see someone that is okay with firing people at the worst possible time of year.
It may not have any real impact on the bottom line. If all these reasons aren’t enough, the initial rationalization — making the numbers look good at the end of the year — may not even be true. Peter Cappelli, Director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources, previously told Fast Company that there is no evidence that layoffs help the financial performance of companies, and that employees will only accept them if there is the company is in dire straights.
Is firing employees during the holidays ever okay?
With all that being said, there are times when firing employees during the holidays is just unavoidable. For example:
- An employee sexually harasses another employee (which, unfortunately, is an all-too-common occurrence at holiday parties)
- An employee is physically violent
- An employee’s toxicity has been well-documented and brings down the morale of their co-workers every day
- The company is about to go under if they don’t reduce their payroll
In any of these situations, letting people go is the lesser of two evils. Still, there will still be the consequences outlined above to prepare for. Go into it with eyes wide open and prepare to have an open, authentic conversation with your staff about what happened and the security of their positions.
If it’s unavoidable, take care of them.
The holidays are a time of compassion and love for your fellow man. If firing employees who have not committed a grievous offense is simply unavoidable, the least you can do is give them the same consideration you would want if you were in the same position. December is one of the worst times of year to look for a job, and a generous severance package with healthcare coverage (think months, not weeks), along with transition assistance, can go a long way to easing the blow.
How you treat someone on the way out the door matters just as much as how you managed them while they worked there. No matter what type of agreement you have them sign, you must be prepared for word to get back to your remaining employees that will signal how you treated them. What story do you want it to be? Do you want it to be that you kicked them out at Christmas without enough severance to get to the new year? Or would you rather they say that you treated them with dignity and eased their stress so that they could move on? That choice is yours and just requires the will to do the right thing.