The Ghost of Employers Present
Humbugs seem to be everywhere this season
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future.” — Charles Dickens, 1843
Two weeks before Thanksgiving, a friend texted me. He had been unexpectedly and unceremoniously fired.
No warning, no performance review issues, nothing. Just done.
Another friend in another part of the country shared on social media the following week that he was being let go as well. Same kind of scenario.
And then later that week, the very same thing happened to a third friend.
Right before the holidays. To put it bluntly, that stinks.
But those three are not alone; they’re joined by thousands of other victims of corporate executives, all of whom must be drinking the same Christmas punch, laced with callousness and greed, the two spirits of Christmas Present.
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Condé Nast and Vox Media are terminating 5% and 4% of their staffs, respectively. The aim is to cut costs and adjust structures in response to the turmoil in advertising.
And Spotify laid off 17 percent of its staff to “rightsize” after having grown too much in 2021 and 2022. This is despite just reporting a $70 million profit in Q3. But Spotify stock rose 7% on the news.
At least the shareholders will be happy
All of this news dropped on the heads of employees right before the holidays, as unpleasant and jarring as an errant and unexpected gift from Dasher or Dancer. Could the timing have been any worse?
Have we not learned the lessons of humanity from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol?
Even Scrooge himself came around.
We’re all familiar with Dickens’s Christmas morality tale.
Ebeneezer Scrooge — a name now synonymous with miser — is “hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”
But over the course of one evening, he is greeted by three Spirits — the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come. And based on what he observes and learns by traveling across London with each of them, Scrooge emerges a changed man.
He was initially visited by Jacob Marley, his late partner, who had died seven years before. In his eternal state of torture, Marley told Scrooge that he had come to realize that when he was working, his priorities were skewed:
“Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
The Impact of Words and Actions
On his travels with the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge admires the ways of his old boss Mr. Fezziwig. He realized that a leader had an outsized effect on the people who worked for him:
“He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”
Happiness and Gratitude
Even in some of the poorest and most dire situations he witnessed with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge found people who were joyful and acted with grace. His employee insisted on toasting him at Christmas dinner:
“Mr. Scrooge!” said Bob; “I’ll give you Mr. Scrooge, the Founder of the Feast!”
“The Founder of the Feast indeed!” cried Mrs. Cratchit, reddening. “I wish I had him here. I’d give him a piece of my mind to feast upon, and I hope he’d have a good appetite for it.”
“My dear,” said Bob, “the children! Christmas Day.”
“It should be Christmas Day, I am sure,” said she, “on which one drinks the health of such an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man as Mr. Scrooge. You know he is, Robert! Nobody knows it better than you do, poor fellow!”
“My dear,” was Bob’s mild answer, “Christmas Day.”
When he traveled to the future, Scrooge witnessed businessmen standing around, discussing his death and remembering his miserly ways as they discussed his upcoming funeral. He realized he didn’t really take the time to get to know them, and kept them at a distance:
“He knew these men, also, perfectly. They were men of business: very wealthy, and of great importance. He had made a point always of standing well in their esteem: in a business point of view, that is; strictly in a business point of view.”
The lessons are profound and more far-reaching, but they remind us that what we have in our pockets is far less important than what we have in our hearts — and how we share each.
And yet, we seem to be living in a world some 180 years after Dickens published this classic, in which Scrooge’s ways are admired.
For a moment, our fever dream of the pandemic acted as the Three Spirits, reminding us of the value of empathy, understanding, and humanity as we all struggled.
Even then, as many people worked from home, they found home and work life blurring, working longer hours, like Bob Cratchit hovered over his desk and begging for time off.
And with the recent layoffs — unfortunate but sound business decisions that sometimes need to be made — what strikes me most is the timing.
Is there any reason that these announcements couldn’t have waited until after the holidays? The holidays can be emotionally trying for many people, and now they have the added stress of losing a job?
Where’s the humanity? Where’s the compassion? Where is the acknowledgement that the words and actions of leaders have scarred their employees?
But unlike the miserly and miserable Scrooge, it’s almost a certainty that each of the companies mentioned above will still hold their holiday parties this year.
And won’t that be a bittersweet moment for those who are on their way out? An insensitive celebration for those who won’t be able to bring themselves to make merry over that or over anything this season.
This isn’t our first reversion to Dickensian ways. In 1995, Lewis H. Lapham wrote a satirical essay of A Christmas Carol, later published in a delightful book 30 Satires.
In it, he recognizes that we’ve fallen into the same pattern of greed and misanthropy as Scrooge here in the late 20th (now early 21st) century). He wonders if we have outgrown the mawkish sentimentality of the Dickens classic:
“The plotline of A Christmas Carol didn’t fit the bracing spirit of the times, and neither did its irresponsible moral lesson. Here was old Scrooge, an exemplary Republican, troubled in his sleep by ghostly dreams of human kindness, changed into a gibbering liberal at the sight of a crippled child. Hardly an inspiring tale of triumphant profit taking.”
What follows are five short staves concerning Ebeneezer Scrooge V in modern-day America, visited again by three ghosts.
Except the Ghost of Christmas Past warns him of “the ageless ingratitude of the poor.” The Ghost of Christmas Present invites him to “gaze upon the prizes that money buys for people mature enough to know in the end…they only have themselves to please.” And the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come scares Scrooge straight with visions of a world run amok: undocumented aliens, single mothers, and street toughs threatening the police, among other things.
Lapham’s skewering of our skewed priorities is a masterpiece. You can read it by getting a copy of 30 Satires or you can listen to it here:
But the ending in particular is worth sharing in print:
“At last Scrooge has come to know the meaning of a dollar and the beauty of the bottom line. In a hurry to be up and dressed, his hands busy with his shirt and tie while at the same time talking on a cellular phone, he cancels the clown ordered for a children’s cancer ward, instructs his brokers to buy shares in companies that own and manage prisons, orders the closing of seven factories, chases out of the house the company of useless guests, berates the cook (for putting too much stuffing in the Christmas turkey), disinherits his grandchildren, and sells the owl. Later in the morning, on the way to his office in New York City, Scrooge walks briskly north on Fifth Avenue, shaking his shrunken fists at the Christmas wreaths but coveting, like any other loyal American, all the precious merchandise in all the better stores. Asked for money at the corner of 57th Street by a crippled child as surely doomed as Tiny Tim Cratchit, Scrooge rebukes the waif for its insolence and kicks away its crutch.”
How many incarnations of Scrooge do we see in the world around us today? Something to consider.
Meanwhile, as Tiny Tim said, “God bless Us, Every One!”
There’s so much to learn,