should you lay someone off right before Christmas?

A reader writes:

I have a very part-time admin worker who has been with us for about six months. We are a small company with a tight budget. Unfortunately, the last few months have been rough and I need to make some cuts. I have been struggling with getting this employee up-to-speed and it seems like she is not a good fit for the role. I have made the decision to let her go. However, Christmas is in a few weeks and I am not sure if I should wait to let her go in January or let her go now.

Financially, keeping her through December will be doable, but I am wondering if it might be better for her to know that she is going to be let go and give her a chance to look for a new job now. Her background is in retail, and it would probably be pretty easy for her to pick up a seasonal part-time job in retail now. Plus, she might need to cut back on holiday spending if she knew she was going to be losing the income from this job.

Should I let her go now in the hopes that she will be able to jump into another job for the seasonal rush? Or, wait until January and don’t ruin the holidays? I would also be able to pay her a severance of two weeks pay if I let her go now. But might not if I wait to let her go. She does have another job, so this is not her only source of income.

I answer this question — and three others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • Is it rude to answer a voicemail with an email?
  • Should I be the one to make sure my staff knows when people will be out?
  • Mixing formal employee awards with more fun ones

{ 71 comments… read them below }

  1. Rosyglasses*

    #1 – Let her go now with the severance. It sounds like it would be about the same pay-wise (if you’re not able to give severance in January) and I’m always a fan of not dragging things out for people.

    #Awards – We do both as well, and carve out time during our company presentations for the formal ones, and give out the fun ones during a dinner or social time. It splits them appropriately and allows for both while not diluting the impact of either.

  2. Department of Teapot Relations*

    Unless she has a store she’s worked at before to go back to, just a note that December is typically too late to pick up part-time retail work, people don’t want to train people at this point generally unless they’re absolutely desperate, because everyone is slammed. The prime time for that is around the start of November – you might not start till Black Friday but that’s when stores are onboarding and training.

    1. learnedthehardway*

      Yes – this. Stores hire for the holiday season starting in October, as they have to do training. She MIGHT be able to find work, but probably not as easily as you might think.

    2. Calliope*

      The other thing about this letter is that the admin is described as “very part time” so it does seem possible she might have another job she could try to pick up more hours at.

    3. Here we go again*

      You’re not going to find work a week before Christmas in retail. We’re winding down for the season now.

  3. My Cabbages!*

    For LW1, I would say that depending on the relationship, you should let her know the situation and offer her the choice. She may prefer the severance and the chance to get a bit extra with retail, or a few weeks paid break, especially in holiday season where she could spend time with family that she otherwise couldn’t.

    Or, she might want the full month of salary and the chance to job-hunt while still employed, because of all the issues with that. But if you have a good relationship and think it won’t cause problems, I would say she should be part of that decision.

    1. AnonPi*

      This 100%. Give as much notice as possible by telling her now, and offer her both options and let her choose. She would know best which option would work best for her situation.

    2. Cmdrshp*

      The way I understood it the pay will stay the same no matter what, the question is about how much notice the employee is given.

      IE the employee is given notice now with a two week severance that pays through December 31st/Jan1st, or the employee is not given any notice and on Jan 1st they are let go immediately.

      But if it is the way you say, I do agree to give them the choice, but it should be clear that while they can apply for some jobs if they keep working through December they still need to get their work done. The staying on for a month isn’t just 3/4 weeks of severance instead of two.

      1. Ben*

        Boy, it would never have occurred to me to read it that way, but you may be right about how the timing and severance work out. If so, then this is really a false dilemma. The employee gets paid the same and either does or does not have to work for it? Hard to frame the former as a kindness to the employee.

        1. Cmdrshp*

          My local radio station just did a segment on the basic question “if you were going to be let go after the holidays would you want to know a head of time?”

          The responses were mixed, there were people that said they would not want to know so they could enjoy the holiday (ignorance is bliss) before having to face the issue of being without a job, but plenty of others that would want to know.

          I would want to know so I could tighten the belts during the holidays.

          Without having asked the employee that same question at onboarding, I say the employer should give the info at far in advance as possible.

          1. Ben*

            I agree, I also would want to know as soon as possible. Especially if I knew I’d get paid through the end of the year whether or not I worked those weeks!

          2. londonedit*

            Yeah, it’s so subjective. Some people would say ‘how could you ruin Christmas by laying people off right before the holiday?’ and others would say ‘how could you let us spend all this money over Christmas and then lay us off right after the holiday?’. Both opinions are valid. I’d agree that in this case it’s best to tell the employee as far in advance as possible.

            1. I am Emily's failing memory*

              Yeah, I don’t need someone to withhold information from me because they think they need to manage my feelings. I can manage my own feelings, but I can’t make sound informed decisions if I don’t have all the pertinent information, and I might have to make decisions during the time someone is trying to shield me from my feelings.

      2. My Cabbages!*

        Hah, I thought it was quit now for 2 weeks pay as severance, or work for 4 weeks paid normally. I forgot it was already halfway through December!!

  4. RT*

    I don’t know if this is an obvious question, but for #1, why would waiting until January mean she doesn’t get severance?

    1. KatEnigma*

      They can’t pay her twice. She will get paid for December only, but if laid off now, won’t have to work for it.

    2. Cmdrshp*

      The whole/main reason for laying her off is that the company just does not have the funds to keep her on. It seems they have the funds/budgeted to pay her through December but after that there is no money.

    3. Here we go again*

      Well if you’re paying severance. It’s better to rip off the bandaid now. That way she can have extra time off.

  5. Essentially Cheesy*

    Is this a situation where it’s more important to think factually instead of emotionally? I think we all can get tied into the feelings associated with “oh someone is losing their job if I do this” and really, people are supposed to deal with this sort of situation. I’m betting they are aware that this position isn’t a super great fit and are having a hard time facing it.

    1. tessa*

      “I think we all can get tied into the feelings associated with ”oh someone is losing their job if I do this…’”

      …and with good reason. It’s unrealistic, impractical, and really, just downright insensitive to not think that way when struggling to decide whether to lay off or let go someone at any time of year, let alone the winter holidays.

      “…someone is losing their job…” is powerful, and nonchalance over it is kind of…odd.

      1. Essentially Cheesy*

        I’m not saying people shouldn’t have sensitivity about the situation – but it is a business decision.

        1. Insert Clever Name Here*

          I think the OP has thought factually about it though — this employee will no longer have a job in January — and is now (was then) attempting to think sensitively about when to let the employee know the business decision. It’s a reasonable combination of the factual and relational aspect of business.

          1. ecnaseener*

            Yeah, I don’t see the issue with considering the human element after the business decision has been made.

            But also, the human element is part of the business decision – it can’t hurt to have former employees out there saying “they handled my layoff with as much compassion and respect as I could’ve asked for, I really appreciated the severance” vs “they strung me along for a couple extra weeks knowing they wouldn’t have any money left to pay me after the new year, supposedly to avoid ruining my Christmas but I’m pretty sure it was to get that much more labor out of me instead of giving me severance”

  6. Seeking Second Childhood*

    For that last letter, why on Earth would anyone think it is a fun award to tell somebody they have the messiest cubicle in the group!? That would be nasty.

    1. RT*

      Imagine the person in the cubicle next to you gets “Most Outstanding Financial Reports of the Quarter” and you get “Messiest Cubicle”

    2. Rainy*

      Those “fun” awards are not actually fun. For anyone, actually, including the person who has to come up with a bunch of random “awards” so everyone gets a silly piece of paper. Being recognized for something silly when other people are getting recognition for impact and accomplishments is likely to make people feel worse, not better.

      If it were me, I’d just recognize the people who are getting recognized, talk about the whole team’s success this year and how valuable everyone is to the effort of GSD, and call it good.

    3. Cmdrshp*

      Eh I would be the recipient of the messiest cubicle/office and it would be true and it is not a secret. I wouldn’t say mine is nasty, no food or anything like that, just more organized piles of files.

      But I would not be upset, but I have already been told several times I have the messiest space.

      1. Miss Chanandler Bong*

        I think it would depend on the context.

        For example, in our company, the company attorney reports up through finance. The man is the LOUDEST person on the phone. Most of us are fully remote/hybrid now, but everyone in that space was aware that he could not use his indoor voice, including him. Within finance, the joke was fine.

        During a company presentation, if they were giving out silly awards and did one that was “Loud talker” along with the awards for high performing team members, that would certainly be embarrassing.

    4. Weaponized Pumpkin*

      I was given a “most likely to respond with a zinger” award once and I’m 100% sure they meant it as a fun compliment but honestly that felt devastating. I’ve worked so hard on curbing that habit — zingers, like pranks, often seem fun but are actually mean — and to be given an award for it means I’ve failed. :(

      1. Jack Straw from Wichita*

        I’ve had a similar experience and I still think about it almost 12 years after getting the “award.” They so often go awry IMO they aren’t worth the trouble–either because they are actually mean/pick at people’s insecurities or because Amy is mad that Georgia got Best Hair because she spends more time getting ready in the morning than Georgia does or because Georgia has more money to spend on her hair or because Georgia was just blessed with great hair.

        Then there’s me, sitting over in the corner FUMING because my work-related accomplishment that I busted my bum for is being lumped in with Best Hair and Neatest Desk.

      2. icedcoffee*

        I was given something along the lines of “most helpful notes” when they meant that I left passive-aggressive stickies in the kitchen. It definitely prompted reflection on my part, even though it hurt at the time.

    5. Skyblue*

      Very much depends on the recipient. I know more than one person who could be in the running for that award and would find it lighthearted fun. They’re the type of people who make jokes about it themselves and wouldn’t mind if other people did too.

    6. What She Said*

      When we did this it would actually be the opposite. The “messiest cubicle” went to the cleanest or least decorated. When done right, of course you need to know your team, this can actually be a fun thing to do. But it definitely should be separated from the formal awards like someone else mentioned.

    7. Beth*

      I remember getting a “Miss Congeniality” award once at a summer job. The end-of-season awards were entirely silly, and they made sure that EVERYONE got an award, and made at least some attempt to make the awards more or less equal in silliness.

      Those last two points are very important to my way of thinking.

    8. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      I think what I hate particularly about this idea (and I hate a lot of different things about it) is how deeply patronising it would be to win a “””fun””” award picking holes in my personality when other people get “highest sales” or “best click through”.

      It’s like the worst parts of a school yearbook where the editors have to think of something for the less popular kids.

      1. Sally*

        I agree. At my last two jobs, I would have gotten “largest shoe collection,” and I definitely would NOT have appreciated being called out for that as opposed to my work accomplishments. Plus, it really strikes me as gendered and other-ing, and that would make me feel embarrassed, angry, and not appreciated.

    9. Bagpuss*

      Yes, I read that and thought that the number of people who would find those awards funwould be vanishinly smnall. I think for me , if I were getting a genuineaward I’d feel it was being trivilised by being lumped in with awards about tidy cubicles, and if Igot one of the ‘fun’ awards I’d feel I was being patronised.

      IF you want something that’s fun, have it ias a totlally separate part of the event.
      (Also, unless you are giving genuine awards to (say) 24 people out of a workforce of 26, where not getting one is going to look like a snub, I would have thought that adults mostly know that not evyine gets a n award every year.

  7. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

    I agree with letting the employee go before Christmas. That way she’s not pushing herself to perform her job duties in addition to all the extra stuff that goes with Christmas (especially if she has a family that expects her to cook, host, and manage holiday gift-giving). Sometimes a layoff comes with a sigh of relief!

  8. Miss Chanandler Bong*

    For the awards one, for the fun awards one, ensure that they’re in good taste. We had some awards that were supposed to be “fun” a while back. They included “the loudest typer”, the “forgets to mute on Teams”, “Comes in early and stays late”, “Does good work but never gets credit” and “forgets their badge.” I truly wonder where these people’s heads were when thinking these up.

  9. Keymaster of Gozer*

    1. Depending on the reason for layoff. If it’s ‘we can’t afford your position’ then let them go. Maybe. If you can scrounge up the money to pay them longer notice period then wait.

    If it’s ‘you’re not doing your job even after warnings’ then let them go.

    If it’s ‘your behaviour is bad’ then let them go.

    However if it’s ‘we’re doing a reorganisation and your position doesn’t work in the new structure’ then wait till January. The logic here is that anything that isn’t the fault of the employee or the lack of money can take a backseat for a month.

    1. Fluffy Fish*

      Disagree on 3. OP is saying basically they can keep her on until January OR let her go now with pay.

      It’s the same amount of money – it amounts to
      A. her just getting the money and then having that time she would have been working to look for a new job
      B. Working for that money

      Most people would prefer to have the money and the time to look for a posiition.

  10. NewJobNewGal*

    I take the “OMG! They laid them off right before Christmas!” with a grain of salt. I believe that you should let your employees know as soon as a decision is finalized that they are on the layoff list. The evil people are the ones that know in September that there will be layoffs and wait until December to announce it.
    You could wait until January, but then an employee is buying a new house. Or in February, an employee’s spouse gets sick. There will always be something going on. I think the most respectful thing is to share bad news as soon as possible, even if it’s Christmas Eve.

    1. KHB*

      If you happen to know that an employee is buying a new house, you need to let them know ASAP that their job is not secure. They may be choosing a budget and/or preferred location based on their income from you.

    2. Lcsa99*

      I agree with this. Since you are able to keep them on for a while, let them know now, a give them the option of staying on or leaving now with no severance. It gives them a bit of control when you’re likely to send their world spinning.

  11. Becky*

    My family is facing threats of layoffs right now. It sounds like this large company is just going to hold it over people’s heads for months–will he have a job in a day? a week? a month? 6 months?

    So… even though we have the job now, we’re cutting way back on our Christmas spending. It’s hard to know the right approach, but it seems unkind to let someone spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on Christmas, operating under the assumption that they’ll have a job for next year. When they may not have spent that money if they knew they’d be unemployed.

  12. SaffyTaffy*

    Only tangentially related, but it brought back memories of an acquaintance who complained for years that she was “fired just a couple months before Christmas!”

  13. Lcsa99*

    Honestly, for #3, these are adults. I understand you want to include everyone but it will likely feel like they’re just getting participation awards they got in kindergarten.

    1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      I don’t see a way of doing it that *doesn’t* feel like participation awards for little kids.

      1. icedcoffee*

        I attended one once where they polled the office and told a story about each individual that exemplified the award. It felt more like recognition at a retirement party, or presenting the employee of the quarter than kindergarten graduation. But even the “fun” qualitative awards weren’t too silly: best person to ask in a crisis, most creative approach to running joke issue, etc. The next year when they got more silly, the awards felt more forced and awkward.

  14. lebkin*

    Alison, I signed up for just to support you and these articles. You’re all I read there, but you’re worth the small subscription fee. I couldn’t find any way to tell why I signed up, but I thought you should know. Thanks for all you do.

  15. Resident Catholicville, U.S.A.*

    I was fired from a job (for performance issues, no severance, etc, so admittedly different) the week before a very much needed vacation. While everyone was really nice about letting me go and sympathetic, it really stung when the HR person said, “At least you’re on vacation next week!” As if I was going to enjoy myself or relax 1) when I knew I had to kick my job hunt into gear after getting back (I started before leaving, but obviously couldn’t start a few fledged search in a few days); 2) had the performance aspect, shame, and doubt of my own abilities hanging over my head; and 3) the worry about my finances weighing on me every time I had to pay for anything that wasn’t already paid for during pre-planning.

    At the end of the day, you have to do what’s best for the company, regardless of what you THINK her situation will be like. You can’t really anticipate anyone’s emotions or preferences- you can spin it however you’d like, but you just can’t assume, based on your own reasoning, what she’d prefer.

    1. Bast*

      I worked for a company that was known for firing people ON VACATION so they wouldn’t have to have a face to face conversation. They avoided it like the plague. Made me terrified to ever take a vacation there and lo and behold what happened… (other issues with that job, but I had recently shared news of a pregnancy and boss was less than thrilled.)

      How much fun could they expect you to have on vacation right after getting fired? Then it isn’t “the time I saw Niagara falls” or “ate my way through italy” it becomes “the vacation where I got fired right before.”

  16. I should really pick a name*

    I will always come down on the side of letting them know now. Whether that means laying them off now, or telling them that they will be laid off in the new year (or at the very least letting people in general know that there will be layoffs in the new year, even if you don’t specify who).

    Ruining the holidays is better than withholding information that affects their financial situation.

  17. The Person from the Resume*

    Should I be the one to make sure my staff knows when people will be out?

    It sounds like the system you use to approve isn’t visible to everyone else which is completely understandable and normal. So I think you should develop, work with your team to develop a process for them to let each other know. It could be as easy as everyone puts their Time Off on each others’ calender as an Outlook all-day meeting. Or a physical calendar in the office that they write on once Time Off is approved. Whatever work for your office and culture. Obvious for people working from home this needs to be electronic versus physical.

    Yes, maybe they should have figured this out on their own by now, but if you’re the boss it is your job to manage your team’s processes and this is one of them. It’s as simple as adding an extra task to the process for requesting PTO which says leave is approved they mark it through whichever process you use.

    1. zuzu*

      At my last three jobs (all libraries), we have a series of calendars that various groups can see/subscribe to on Outlook or Google: Library, School/University, RefDesk, CircDesk, etc. That way you know who’s in, who’s busy, who’s on a desk, who’s teaching, what events are happening in the school/university or the library, and nobody has to be responsible for keeping someone else up-to-date about a third person’s whereabouts.

      There’s also a handy “find time” feature that coordinates everyone’s calendars when trying to schedule a meeting, which is key for my completely overloaded director. Eliminates the back-and-forth and Doodle polls, at least within the organization, assuming everyone’s calendar is up-to-date. Even a small organization can benefit from this.

  18. Ann Furthermore*

    Years ago I worked for a large software company, and there were some people who were going to be laid off in the consulting division. The way they handled it was to let them know ahead of the holidays, and told them they had until mid-January to find something internally or they’d be let go with severance. It’s never an easy thing, but I thought that was the most thoughtful way to handle it. It gave people some advance warning so they could reign in holiday spending or change travel plans, and also gave them a little time to regroup and think about their next move.

    I know the OP can’t do this, but I would say do it now and provide the severance, and it will help soften the blow a little bit.

  19. NCKat*

    I work in an area that is traditionally manufacturing. The week of Thanksgiving, a manufacturing facility laid off its entire workforce by text (telling them not to come work the next day) and telling all its delivery truck drivers to finish their deliveries and return their trucks. No word of COBRA or severance. No WARN notices were filed. The sh*t hit the fan and there was a lot of negative press for the company, who did not seem to care. They certainly burned a lot of bridges.

  20. Needs coffee*

    OP #1… I am not an accountant, but it would seem to me if you lay them off now, and get the severance payout done now, you also have simplified your taxes for next year (and theirs).

    I know that sounds a little heartless, but it actually comes from the perspective of having been laid off mid-December, getting the severance paid out in the following January, and then having to deal with tax paperwork for 1 check another year beyond that (because of tax timing).

  21. Sara M*

    I did awards for my department once, but they were a) all my peers, and b) I had a good sense of who’d want a serious award and who’d want a silly one.

    It went over wonderfully. But I put a lot of thought into it to make sure it didn’t hurt feelings.

    I think I handed out “Least Annoying to Customers” :D

  22. Purple Cat*

    I have serious doubts about mixing up “formal” awards with “fun” ones. If Bob gets an award for increasing sales x% and then I get one for “best smile” it’s going to be crystal clear what the company thinks of my performance.
    If they can’t all be tied to specific metrics, then they at least need to be tied to valued performance attributes like “Most Helpful” “Best Trainer” etc. But really, adults don’t want to be gaslit. Don’t fake awards.

  23. metadata minion*

    I get a kick out of silly awards like that, but I think it would work best to have the silly-award presentations completely separate from the serious ones. If they’re mixed then yeah, a lot of people are probably going to feel patronized or otherwise unhappy about getting Fanciest Office Plants while their colleague got Highest Sales.

  24. Middle Name Danger*

    Let her know now. Give her the chance to update her resume and start looking when people are hiring for the new year. This also might affect things like healthcare – even if she doesn’t have insurance through your company, marketplace insurance premiums are discounted depending on your expected income in 2023, so she might need to put a lower number knowing she’ll be out of a job at the beginning of the year.

  25. Been there*

    If she is laid off now, she can apply for unemployment, and still have income if there’s a waiting time for unemployment to start paying.

  26. Michelle Smith*

    LW2: Do you have Microsoft Outlook? Google? My office prefers Microsoft Outlook, but we have access to both. It is required that if I’m going to be out and not responsive on Slack that I put both in my Slack status and on our team’s shared Outlook calendar that I’m out of office. It takes me 30 seconds to drop that event on the shared calendar and because my Outlook is connected to Slack through some kind of add-on, the Slack status automatically updates to also say that I’m out of office. It is really not necessary for you to micromanage this to accomplish what you need to accomplish. Set a rule that if someone is going to be out on planned leave time, they must update on the shared calendar. If someone is out unexpectedly (like they call in sick the morning of or have to go home early), update the calendar for them. Easy peasy.

  27. Aggretsuko*

    Man, I just don’t know on the whole Christmas firing issue. I watch too much Hallmark Channel, but like 80% of the movies have Christmas Firings in them and I always think it’s goddamned horrible. Ditto Christmas Relationship Breakups, because let’s face it, you do it December 1, 15 or 24, someone’s always going to think of it as a Christmas firing/dumping and it’ll taint the season at least that year and possibly for years to come. Who wants to have to see all their relatives and when they ask how your job is going, say “I don’t have one any more?”

    I can get it for the “curb your spending” reason, but otherwise. it just feels very Grinchy/Scrooge-y to do now. Come to think of it, the one time I got laid off, it was about November 30…never mind that invite to the Christmas party, Aggresuko!

    That said, this situation might be the one time where “ask what you prefer in job-losing” (especially the severance question) might be viable, though.

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