By Patricia Burstein
Updated December 14, 1981 12:00 PM

Cheer is not the only thing dispensed in the holiday season. So are pink slips—in greater number than at any other time of the year. Indeed, with the economy deteriorating, at least 8.5 million Americans are now out of work. That’s eight percent of the labor force, the highest rate of this unsettling year. Whether it’s being “let go,” “given notice,” “released” or told “It isn’t working out,” losing a job “can destroy a human being’s sense of self-worth,” says Robert Coulson, president of the American Arbitration Association. The 57-year-old attorney and his staff try to mediate some 40,000 disputes a year. A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, Coulson has condensed 18 years of experience on the firing line into the tactfully titled Termination Handbook (Free Press, $15.95). It provides advice and insight for both management and employee. Coulson lives in Riverside, Conn. with his wife, Cynthia, a magazine editor, and three of their five children. With Patricia Bur stein of PEOPLE he discussed the trauma many consider the unkindest cut of all.

Why are so many people fired at this time of year?

Many companies make their final budget adjustments in November and December, which sometimes forces them to eliminate jobs. There is also a tendency for management to put its house in order for the New Year. However, employers often put off the bad news until after the annual Christmas party.

What are the telltale signs of an impending dismissal?

The obvious ones are exclusion from meetings, no additional assignments or an expected promotion not materializing. Often there are more subtle indicators.

For example?

The boss is nervous in your presence and ignores you. Co-workers become more distant, as if they were avoiding a disease. A tense atmosphere begins to envelop the place.

You warn “Never meet the boss at the airport on a Friday afternoon.” Why?

Many executives prefer firing an employee outside the office to avoid the physical problem of getting him out the door without his griping to everyone. One New York bank prefers to fire executives while they’re on vacation. And many bosses schedule firings on Friday in hopes of getting rid of the body by Monday.

Is the difficulty of firing someone underestimated?

Yes. A firing is like a grueling divorce. It’s hard to terminate someone without giving the impression the person has failed as a worker or human being, although most bosses try to avoid personal criticism. Also, the employer is the one who hired and trained the person, and if someone fails, maybe it’s his or her fault, too.

What is the humane way to do it?

Progressive discipline can cut down the boss’s guilt and the worker’s shock. If an employee is 15 minutes late and gets a warning, the next time the penalty increases. After repeated and specific warnings, it is easier to get rid of someone. When the time comes for a firing session—if you’re the boss—try to concentrate on the business interests of the company. In this way some of the pain is deflected from the individual. Stress that, although the employee may not have fit that particular job, he has a bright future elsewhere. Reassure the person he has friends at the company and that you’re sorry it didn’t work out.

Do most people sense the ax coming?

It’s amazing how many people believe they’re doing good work and expect praise from the boss when called into his or her office, only to be told, “Monday’s your last day.”

Are people really that obtuse?

All of us have a great capacity for self-delusion. Even those who know they’re not following the rules may say, “This organization is forgiving, and I’ve been getting by for quite a while and can continue to.” In any event, being fired is always a shock.

If you detect warning signs, what should you do?

Direct confrontation is best. The worker should confront the employer to find out what the problem is and try to salvage the job. Maybe he can iron out points of contention, either by redefining the job or getting transferred to another division. Even if this still results in a firing, the employee is in a better posture because he has shown a desire to do the job and an interest in and loyalty to the firm. He stands a better chance of getting good references and assistance in finding employment elsewhere.

If the firing is inevitable, what is the first thing the employee should do to protect himself?

Don’t agree to anything because chances are you’re in a state of shock and cannot think clearly. Vulnerability can make people too accepting. Moreover, playing the passive victim often calls forth the bully. Make an appointment to come back and discuss terms of the severance.

What should you do in the meantime?

Brush up on your company’s rules. Find out who is authorized to fire employees and what kind of approval must be obtained beforehand. You may discover some interesting things. A company, for instance, may require the approval of the topmost executives before an employee with 10 or more years of service can be fired. Also, demand to see the person who made the decision to fire you. Don’t be fobbed off on some flunky.

Then what?

Be firm, but don’t lose your temper or go in with a chip on your shoulder. Don’t attack management. Otherwise you’ll be on a kamikaze mission. Negotiation is the key. The points to push for: good references, an opportunity to stay on the premises while job hunting, severance pay and unemployment insurance.

Why should the boss bargain?

To get you to accept the termination without bringing a court suit or without your going to other employees or to some superior and raising hell.

How can you insure you will actually get the good reference you’re promised?

One way is to get the letter in your hand before you leave. Another is to draw up a résumé detailing what you’ve done at the company and have your boss agree to convey that description of your work to prospective employers who inquire. You can’t be positive he won’t go back on his word, but hardly anybody puts criticisms on paper today—they’d be crazy to with all the litigation.

Are firings usually based on job performance?

In most cases people are fired for reasons that have little to do with their own work: Business was bad; somebody did not like them; management changed; the company was reorganized. When reasons are given, job performance, violation of work rules or disciplinary problems are the most common.

Does a boss have to explain his decision?

In nonunion shops, no. More than 75 percent of American workers lack the protection of a contract and can be fired at will, with or without cause. Many workers do not realize how totally unprotected they are. Always demand to know why you are being let go. Check the story discreetly with colleagues. At the least, you’ll gain insight that will help you avoid trouble in your next job. You may find it wasn’t your fault—and that may help you win concessions. Or you may become convinced you’ve been discriminated against. If so, you can call a lawyer or take your case to the local office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Is it sometimes better to resign?

In fields where people hop around—like advertising or broadcasting—it may be wise, but only if you get good references and both sides agree you’re leaving of your own free will. You may be better off being fired in order to qualify for severance pay, unemployment insurance or company benefits such as leftover vacation time or extended health coverage. Have the personnel department go over this with you carefully before you commit yourself.

On job interviews, should you admit you were fired?

My advice is tell the truth, but stress the positive. Make it brief. Above all, don’t grouse about your former job or associates, especially if you want to stay in the same field. Otherwise a new employer may conclude that if you couldn’t get along with your old boss, you won’t get along with your new one. Make it look like you’re taking an upward step.

Can people benefit from being fired?

Yes. Too many employees act like sheep, parading through school, waiting to be told what to do on the job and then waiting for someone to come along and fire them. A firing can be shock therapy, snapping people out of their lethargy.

How many people have you yourself fired?

About 25 people in 18 years. It is always hard taking something away from a person. In some cases, both the fired employee and I were satisfied. The person understood the reasons and believed the arrangement was fair. And I solved a problem. In other cases we both felt anger and rejection. Knowing how to negotiate a firing is as important as getting the right job in the first place.