The Ghost of Ebenezer

Last week three of my clients implemented staff reductions. All three are financially healthy service companies, but they had far more capacity than they had work to fill it. In a service company, of course, capacity means people.

Naturally there was considerable agonizing among the owners and managers about the timing of the move. While everyone involved in the decision process agreed with the numbers and the necessity, when the time came to name the names of people to be let go they balked. Some wanted to wait a bit longer to see if things improved. Some felt that the company had an obligation to keep employees until it was clearly unprofitable and deeply in trouble.

Many prevaricators, however, simply didn’t want to look like Scrooges by doing something now. They wanted to make the necessary business decision, but hold off on the announcement until just after the first of the year.

Why would you think that terminating someone in January would make them think you are a good guy? Most folks aren’t stupid. The normal lull in business activity at the end of the year isn’t a surprise and wouldn’t be the reason, so they would know that the decision was made some time before. As they thought about it, they would realize that at least some folks were toasting them at the holiday party and giving them best wishes knowing full well that they were dead men walking.

Then the January bills come in. “If I had only known…” they would say. I wouldn’t have bought so many presents. I wouldn’t have thrown that party. I wouldn’t have booked that airfare for a short vacation. I wouldn’t have blown my year end bonus.

I wish I had known when I went to those business open houses and our vendors’ holiday parties. There were lots of opportunities to network there, if someone would just have warned me that I needed to.

Finally, many if not most employees spend the holidays with family. The security and affirmation or loved ones is at its highest over the next few weeks. The common post-holiday let down isn’t a great base for dealing with a new shock.

There is never a good time to tell people that they are no longer employed. In a small business, where the owner knows every employee and probably their families, downsizing is especially painful. Making the decision and telling people after the holidays, however, is a special form of cruelty. Like the Santa Clause bonus bosses mentioned in my last posting, these are self-serving motivations. The boss just doesn’t want to look bad; to have folks think of him as cold and heartless when he is working so hard and spending so much money to look like a great guy.

Instead, let’s praise the boss who makes the painful decisions to protect the employment of the majority, even though those decisions may not make him look good personally. That takes courage and leadership.

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