Holiday Terminations? Mr. Grinch Approves, But So Does Common Sense

When is the best time to do a termination or layoff?

Other than never, most people wouldn’t likely choose November or December as optimal times to do one either. I’ve worked with a company whose informal policy was to avoid layoffs — and really, any terminations other than the most egregious for-cause firings — after October 31 through the end of the year.

Unless you pocketed some company cash or groped a co-worker, you were sticking around until January 2. Lucky you.

And then January and February would come and it would be particularly brutal and the company would be in worse shape for delaying the inevitable. This leaves a company in an unenviable position: do the wrong thing for all of the right reasons, or, do the right thing in spite of just one wrong reason?

The holiday termination

What brought this to my attention was a reporter this week asking why the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs fired their head coach so close to the holidays:

When Chiefs G.M. Scott Pioli and owner Clark Hunt addressed the media to announce the firing of head coach Todd Haley, one of the questions they got seemed to startle both of them: Why fire Haley during the holiday season?

Karen Kornacki of KMBC pressed that point with Pioli and Hunt, noting that Haley has children and wondering why he couldn’t have been kept on until after the holidays.”

Of course, Haley was let go for performance reasons, had a large contract and made millions. I’m sure the Haley’s will still be buying their five kids some presents this year. But for other employees in a similar situation, the concern would be a bit more valid.

Timing and consequences

If you’re an HR person, you’ve probably asked this question at least once in your career: Why now? Why don’t we wait until January?

I remember I had an employee who had a performance plan that ended on the 17th of December and it wasn’t going well. His boss was going on vacation the following day until after Christmas and thought we should take care of it before she left. I argued, successfully, that we should leave him be until after the first of the year.

Maybe that was the compassionate choice but I don’t believe it was the right one. The fallout from that decision included:

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  • Losing over two weeks of time when I could have been working on filling the position;
  • Paying compensation and benefits for an additional two weeks;
  • A modified severance package (with reduced pay out because “we already paid him two weeks”) that freaked everyone out because he delayed signing it; and,
  • The employee lost time and severance money because we chose to delay it

Here was the thing that still gets me: the guy was mad that we fired him after the holidays! He said he would have preferred to know before. Of course, my hunch is that he would have been ticked off if we fired him before and that he would have preferred if we did it afterward.

Easy solutions not included

What I do know is that every situation is different. People aren’t going to be happy being laid off in December or July. They may think that being laid off at a particular time is better or worse but, in reality, hiring and firing happens year round.

Looking to compassion is a good reason to consider timing terminations and layoffs a little better. And we are also better people for thinking about the condition of our fellow humans. There is nothing shameful in considering that (nor is there anything more shameful than being all business, all calculating, all of the time).

Business doesn’t pause for two months though, and your mileage may significantly vary. It’s very easy to assume that what you would want (or what looks best to people outside of the situation) is going to be the best solution.

Depending on the person, being laid off during the holidays might be an okay arrangement (when you can decompress with the people closest to you) and then start a job search fresh the next year. And depending on the company, holding over a poorly performing employee or putting off a layoff may not mean much in the long run.

In short, it depends. And maybe more importantly, having a blanket informal policy to not take action for a couple months is probably a bad idea no matter what. Grinch or not, making the right decision in this case requires flexibility, compassion and a sense of the business.

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.