'All I Want for Christmas Is a Layoff'

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I was at a holiday gathering earlier this month when I heard something completely surprising, especially considering how many people are out of work (not to mention holiday cheer).

"Getting laid off before the new year would be a holiday gift," Matthew, a software project manager from Boston, told me over eggnog.

"Morale in my department is nonexistent," said the exasperated employee, who's survived two rounds of layoffs this year. "Meanwhile, the workload grows and grows. I've been putting in 15 extra hours a week since the summer with no relief in sight. It's not like I can afford to leave though, not in this job market."

Instead, Matthew, whose employer offers long-term employees a generous severance package (we're talking months and months), said praying for a layoff is his best option.

But he's not the only one who views collecting unemployment checks and severance pay as the key to sanity and solvency. My inbox is sprinkled with e-mails from embittered employees who say they're hoping Santa gives them the old heave ho this Christmas.

"Since [my] company started slowing down, I hardly have any work to do," e-mailed Jessie, a sales account manager who didn't want her real name mentioned. "It's boring, I've stopped learning and a lot of the remaining staff are feeling the negative atmosphere here."

Like Matthew, Jessie's caught in a game of career chicken with her employer.

"If I leave by myself, I don't get the cash," said Jessie, who says that she's eligible for several thousand dollars of severance pay if let go. "That's a big incentive to stick around."

For the lucky few whose employers offer a generous severance, waiting for a layoff seems to have replaced writing the resignation letter. In this era of mass unemployment, you can't blame them. Between gouged paychecks and towering health care costs, personal savings are in short supply. And getting hired anywhere else can seem like a Herculean feat.

Brother, Can You Spare a Layoff?

Jim Woods of San Francisco was one of these employees in waiting. But the commercial real estate analyst didn't just pine for a pink slip. He begged his boss to add him to the layoff list.

"I asked to be laid off in December of 2008, two weeks after the first round of layoffs," said Woods, who in 2006 launched the organic beer company MateVeza on the side and was ready to concentrate on his business full time. "I was really nervous about how to frame everything. I said that I would not mind being part of the next round as long as I received a similar package to those that had left in November."

Though his boss seemed receptive to Woods' request, the budding entrepreneur didn't get his wish until the firm's third round of layoffs this summer.

"It was totally bizarre," said Woods, who received four months' severance pay (plus benefits) for his five years with the company. "People were congratulating me and offering condolences to those who were let go against their will. I almost felt guilty for celebrating my layoff."

No need, says Karen Florence-McMullen, an executive career coach based in the greater Philadelphia area.

"If I were an employer facing 10 people to lay off and one of them volunteered to go, regardless of the motivation, I now only have nine hearts to break," she said.

But other career management experts warn that showing your cards like Woods did is one of those "don't try this at home" stunts.

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