Ask Annie

Fortune

ASK ANNE

Happy Holidays—and You’re Fired!

U.S. companies send out more pink slips in the fourth quarter than at any other time of year. Here's how managers can soften the blow. Plus, how to keep office parties from getting too rowdy.

Anne Fisher

November 2005

Dear Annie:

I manage a team of loan officers for a bank that recently merged with another bank, and I found out two days before Thanksgiving that I’m going to have let 25% of my staff (seven people) go before year-end. In previous jobs I had to lay people off, and it was not pleasant to say the least, but I’ve never had to do this during the holiday season before. I feel really awful. Is there any way to lessen the pain?

—Unwilling Scrooge

Dear Unwilling:

Unfortunately, the 5,000 job cuts General Motors announced last week (for a planned total of 30,000) and the 7,000 cuts Merck announced on Monday are just the tip of the iceberg. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, in seven of the past nine years, employers laid off more people in the final three months of the year than at any other time. This is mostly intended to give the year-end balance sheet a boost by cutting costs (including eliminating bonuses for employees who will no longer be around to collect them), but it sure makes for a less-than-jolly season.Maggie Craddock, an executive coach who wrote a book about resolving career dissatisfaction called The Authentic Career (New World Library, $14.95), has advised plenty of managers in your shoes—including one who had to lay off 30% of his employees the day after the company Christmas party. Ho, ho, ho. “This is really tough, because at the same time that we’re being bombarded with media images of abundance and good cheer, we get hit with the harsh reality,” she notes. “It creates tremendous anxiety for everyone.”

If your company is lawsuit-leery, you’ve probably been given a script to follow when letting those seven staffers go. “Usually these prepared scripts are extremely limiting. It’s considered too risky even to say to the person, ‘You did a great job,'” Craddock says. “So managers like yourself are in a bind, because they do care, they do feel terrible about having to do this, but they aren’t allowed to say so.” Her advice: Use the tone of your voice and your body language, including facial expressions, to convey how sorry you are. It won’t give anybody his or her job back, but at least you won’t come across as a heartless drone. Then, offer to stay in touch and, if you can, call upon a few people in your own network to try to help these folks land on their feet. “Often it really helps to say, ‘Let’s have lunch next month’ or ‘If there’s any way I can help you in your job hunt, please let me know,’” Craddock says. “And then, of course, follow through. You want to feel that you did everything you could.” Going the extra mile for someone you’ve had to let go isn’t just balm for your conscience. It’s a small world, and people have long memories. You know the old saying: Be kind to everyone on your way up, because you may meet them again on your way down.