01/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Four Christmases : The Humiliation of Explaining Your Unemployment Around the Holiday Table

Losing your job is dreadful, no matter what the reason. In this journalist's mind, it's better than health issues, divorce, and death -- but that's it.

The new holiday movie Four Christmases reminded me of how we can get trapped with family during the holidays. Under normal circumstances, this is tough enough for some people. But can you imagine having to explain that you're unemployed to the people you see only once a year?

The truth is, the reason you were fired really doesn't matter to anyone else. They really only think of you as "unemployed," "not working," and "still looking." That's how you're defined.

Even if you were fired due to downsizing and not your performance, that's still of little comfort to you. No matter how much you try, and regardless of how much you truly believe that your firing was nothing personal, you still can't help but feel ashamed. And even today when so many people are losing their jobs, hearing "you're not alone" offers little solace. Whatever the reason, what remains is that you don't have a job -- and a job is how society judges us and defines who we are.

I receive hundreds of emails from people who have been fired, and many of them tell me that the worst part is having to tell a loved one. During the rest of the year, you can avoid your friends and extended family for a little while, but you may be coming home to someone that you find it impossible to tell. Many people don't tell their kids right away, either. Eventually word gets out, but you've still avoided the direct humiliation of having to explain yourself over and over, or worse, having to listen to a well-meaning friend or relative dispense unwanted advice.

However, this time of year, there's a rub: the holidays. Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year's... all right around the corner. You may have to see friends or relatives you see only once a year. You can't avoid it, and as always, it will be your job -- second only to health, a recent divorce, or death -- that everyone wants to talk about.

Basically, you're screwed.

Aunt Gladys and Uncle Ernie don't even work and have no clue there's a recession out there. Your brother-in-law Robert is a lawyer, so he can always fall back on that. And cousin Joey, well... he has what my mom would call "a good job with a pension" -- he works for the post office or is a cop and doesn't seem to be affected in the slightest by the economy.

You went to college and were moving up the ladder (and, incidentally, still will), but then this darn recession came along. You are trying to figure out how to navigate or The Ladders, pay your COBRA, and do your resume -- and now you're trapped with all the people you've known your entire life to celebrate the holidays, and all they want to hear about is your job. It's excruciating. Worse, if they already know, then you get the "any luck?" or "how's the job search going?" questions and the unsolicited career advice. Everybody knows somebody who they think should have a copy of your resume. The worst holiday tale I've heard was from a friend whose Uncle Larry told him, "My doorman's son is an executive at NBC. I can ask Jose if he will pass along your resume. Oh, and please pass the turkey." Great holiday dinner, right?

Look, there's no one answer for everyone. And in fairness in journalism, I have to admit that I've never been unemployed myself, so I am writing from the perspective of the readers of my book, Bulletproof Your Job (HarperCollins), and columns and who watch me on TV. I don't say this smugly; I'm the first to say that it's only due to luck that I've never been fired.

Here are some options, and then I'll tell you which one I'd do personally. You may not be asking for my advice, but I get more letters about this topic than almost anything else (second to "Gee, I wish I had read your book [Bulletproof Your Job] before I was fired!").

Option 1: Lock yourself in the house with your family. Tell the kids this is a "stay-at-home Christmas or Hanukkah." Concentrate 24/7 on finding a new job. Send out hundreds and hundreds of resumes, and then send a hundred more. Talk to no one except potential employers, and remember: by the time there's an opening, it's too late. You just want informational interviews, and then use that step to make a good impression that could potentially lead to a job later. Just like everybody has a boss they hate, every boss has at least one employee they hate. They're just waiting for the right replacement to come along. That could be you.

By the way, misery loves company, and the jobless seem to all love Starbucks. But drinking expensive coffee all day does not help you find a job. Stay away from your unemployed friends. Repeating "you are not alone" over and over to each other has a shelf life. Guess what? You really are.

So stay away from Starbucks. Going to Starbucks is like AA meetings for the unemployed, but without the results. Sorry, folks, there is no "higher power" at Starbucks that is going to find you a job. It's all up to you, a little luck, and really good "chemistry" with the person you are interviewing with.

So with this plan of action, you can avoid everyone close to you. Punish yourself and your family while hoping to save face by hiding. Look... it's an option.

Option 2: Go out with your brave face on, be an adult, and just tell the truth. "I got fired during the worst time to be unemployed. It's happening everywhere and we will get through it." Milk the current economic climate -- unemployment is up, so make your friends and relatives feel like they are the rejects for keeping their jobs. Having a job is so last year. Then be polite, but ignore the advice, the empathy, and your uncle's offer to give your resume to his doorman. Follow the rest of my advice about avoiding Starbucks and put all your energy into finding ways to get in front of people who are in a position to recommend you for a job.

Option 3: Lie. It's just a little white lie. Besides, I'm not sure that "not telling" is even a lie all. Don't tell anyone except your spouse or partner. Why torment yourself by giving nosy relatives a chance to gloat -- or worse, sympathize.

I know it seems like everyone is getting fired, but guess what? Most people aren't. So why act unnaturally cheerful about something that is a dreadful experience? You're still going to have to go through it, but without everyone sharing in the experience, I'd sure find it easier. Who wants to be in a small house around a dining room table with people you've known forever having to explain that your boss was an ass? I guess now it's clear that I would choose option 3. Happy Holidays!

Stephen Viscusi is the author of
Bulletproof Your Job (HarperCollins) and can be reached at Visit his website at