My dad sacked me, so how can we spend Christmas together?


Christmas - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Our agony uncle, UCS lecturer Robin Herne, tackles a big Christmas issue

Dear Robin,

Up until a few months ago I worked for my father’s company. When I joined the firm I was told I wouldn’t get any special favours but would have to learn from the grass roots up, which I was OK with. However, a few months ago I was one of a group hauled in to the office and told our sales figures weren’t good enough – and we were all sacked! I have really struggled to find work since, and have had to give up renting my own place and am now renting a spare room from an old friend locally. My dad wasn’t a nice boss to work for, and was really horrible during the sacking. I haven’t spoken to him since. He knows how hard things have been for me, but he hasn’t bothered to make contact. But my mother now expects me to attend the Christmas gathering as if nothing has happened – she has always defended him, no matter what. I told my sisters that I can only afford cheap gifts for their kids this year (and have had to eBay some of my stuff to pay for those), but they just think I’m whinging. I don’t want to go to the family gathering, have said so and been told that I’m “just sulking”. Am I in the wrong?

Yours, M.

Dear M,

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Sadly a great many people will be facing a cold comfort Christmas this year, with little or no money to go around. Some of them will have understanding families, and others will be faced with the sort of attitude evinced by your sisters.

There are a number of ethical issues to consider in your situation. For example, what are the duties of a parent to a grown child? Most philosophers have argued in favour of the (theoretically) tight bond between parent and child, wherein mutual support continues long after childhood has been left behind. Does this mean a parent has to give their son or daughter far greater latitude than anyone else? Many do, of course. Working for family may be as possibly fraught as taking driving lessons from them. If he felt (rightly or wrongly) that you were not doing well in the job, what might the ethical response be?

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A conflict of roles may have arisen (I say may, because I don’t know your father’s side of this situation) between your dad’s position as a parent and that as an employer. Having stated explicitly that you were not to be treated with any favouritism, he at least stuck to his guns on this. Whatever other criticisms might be made of him, at least he is consistent! Of course, whether it is ethical for a boss to sack a swathe of employees for having poor sales figures is a whole other question – should he treat any of the staff like this, let alone his own offspring?

As well as the moral dimension, it’s also worth considering whether it is good business practice to have a frightened and therefore demoralised workforce. Most likely many of the remaining employees are keeping a close eye on the jobs section of the local papers ready to jump ship to a safer company. The act of sacking one’s own child definitely gives out a message that nobody is secure – at one level it discourages complacency, at another it makes everyone watch their own back. If the sales were down, maybe a better response would have been to provide training or to redeploy some people to other departments where their skills were better suited.

Immanuel Kant was a great proponent for valuing people in their own right, rather than merely viewing them as a means to a financial end. Employees who feel valued and encouraged work harder and show more loyalty than those who know they probably won’t survive the next glitch in sales figures. Your father has not been in touch since sacking you, and I wonder how he views the situation. Does he, perhaps, take the not uncommon approach that hard-line treatment will somehow “make a man” of you? Quite a few fathers want to toughen their sons up, and sometimes take it too far (especially bearing in mind that their toughened-up sons may one day be choosing their care homes). The practice of tough love went through a phase of popularity some years back, but it’s a bit of a minefield where the difference between firm-but-fair and callous can get very thin at times.

It may be the case that, because your father appears able to draw a clear demarcation between his role as a parent and that of employer, that he expects you to also switch hats with equal ease.

In terms of whether you are ready to sit down to a Christmas meal with each other – I suggest trying to resolve your differences prior to any feigned jollity or potentially awkward scenes in front of other relatives. Ethicist Norvin Richards suggests that adult children owe their parents a debt of loyalty comparative to the affection shown them in childhood. If you are given tough love, maybe it’s fair to return it and take time to put your own needs first? Sorting your own financial, employment and emotional situation out is more important than going through the motions at a family gathering. Hopefully a more fulfilling career will develop for you in 2016, and then you’ll be in a more confident, optimistic position from which to decide how best to approach your father and the rest of the family.

A secondary moral issue arising here is the apparent level of entitlement expressed by your siblings in not appreciating your financial difficulties and wanting presents with a certain price tag attached. Sad to say, there are quite a few people in the world for whom the value of a gift is determined by its cost rather than any sentimental or intrinsic worth. Regardless of how this particular situation pans out, take as a lesson for the future that people who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing” (to quote Oscar Wilde) are seldom if ever happy. Your sisters may never share such a view, but maybe this is an ideal opportunity to develop a moral framework that values the life you have rather than the one other people wish you had.

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