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FIELD NOTES: Merry Christmas! You're Fired.

Last week, the CEO of online mortgage company Better.com made headlines, and not in a good way, by firing 900 employees on a Zoom call. My initial thought was, if that’s Better.com, I’d hate to work for Worse.com, but then I reflected upon the whole idea of hiring and firing during the holidays and realized my hands aren’t entirely spotless, either.  

Growing up in a distinctly blue-collar household, there was always a sense my family’s fortunes were tied to the whims of management at U.S. Gypsum, where my father had worked since returning from France at the end of WWII. The local plant made paint and wallboard for residential construction, the demand for which varied considerably with the ups and downs of the housing market. Although it was an era when temporary layoffs were often used to right-size the workforce during slow times, my father had enough seniority built up that job actions rarely impacted him directly. Still, the idea that on any day, management could send a group of employees home for six months had to weigh heavily on the entire workforce, and at no time was that weight heavier than the holidays. 

My first job out of college was in retail as a department manager for a store chain called BEST Products. Not the Best Buy electronics chain, but a now-defunct catalog showroom-style store known for its creative building exteriors. Like the vast majority of retail stores, BEST did half of their annual business during November and December and hired many part-time seasonal employees to cover the additional volume. Hiring for Christmas help began in early October, and we added staff, two or three at a time, through the middle of November. The department I was responsible for, Electronics/Sporting Goods, typically added about a dozen employees,  and I had to interview and hire them all. 

I took a couple of human resource classes at BGSU, so I had a pretty decent idea of how to interview, but I will admit I never took the process with the seriousness it deserved. These were, after all, 20-hour-per-week positions that ended the first week in January and paid $5 an hour, a little better than minimum wage at the time. The store was close to the University of Toledo, and all but a handful of the applicants were college students hoping to earn a few dollars over their winter break. But occasionally, I would run across an applicant looking to enter the workforce in earnest. 

One of the “carrots” we dangled in front of seasonal employees was the possibility of continued employment after the holidays for “one or two of the best seasonal workers.” And that was somewhat true, but there was an unspoken caveat; we kept the employees whose schedules fit our needs, even if they weren’t necessarily the “best.”  

In my second Christmas at BEST, I hired a seasonal worker named Sherry. Sherry was a single mom in her late twenties or early thirties. Her availability depended, as do many in her circumstances, on her ability to find cost-effective childcare.  

Sherry was a great employee. She always showed up on time and put together, knew the products, and had a friendly yet efficient way with customers. But there was just no way I could keep her odd availability after the holidays. She cried when I told her we wouldn’t be keeping her on and asked what she could have done better. When I explained that it was just her schedule, a sense of quiet resignation came over her; she had clearly heard it before. John 2021 might have found some way to make it work, but John 1987 – lacking life experience and empathy – couldn’t be bothered.  

As economic development director for the county, I walk a tight line between populist calls for more jobs and the admonitions of our existing businesses that workers are hard to find. Our NC Works office currently lists more than 500 job openings in the county, ranging from low-skill minimum wage to six-figure professional positions, so it is hard to accept that there are no jobs. But I understand that if there aren’t any jobs you want, it might appear that way. After all, there are fewer than 100 positions in the entire state for county economic development directors, so I have sympathy for what it’s like to have your interest in a job for which you are qualified summarily dismissed or your future livelihood determined by an interviewer who’s having a bad day. It all seems so random it’s a wonder anyone ever finds work. And I guess that’s the life experience I spoke of that makes me a better person and a better boss than I was all those years ago at BEST.

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