In the days before callous commercialism, when the true holiday spirit was upon everyone, it was a legendary custom in the American business world to schedule firings for Christmas Eve.

The employee would be called in on Dec. 24, just as everyone was engaged in joyous leave-taking, told that it wouldn't be necessary to return after the holiday, and wished a Merry Christmas.

It made for a pleasanter Christmas. The boss could enjoy the holiday free of an unpleasant chore, and the company would have a fresh start for the New Year. The employee had more time off than anticipated, a great deal more as a matter of fact, plus something new to talk over with the family during the holiday gathering. Other employees were spared having to deal with their erstwhile colleague's situation because it would be over when they returned.

Miss Manners is hedging with the term "legendary" because she did not actually know anyone to whom this happened. She heard numerous vivid accounts of its being done (even in her own profession, journalism, renowned for its sense of compassion) but these were always secondhand and set in the past.

A lot has happened in the working world since then to protect the worker. People are still fired, often ruthlessly, but it is not so easily a matter of the boss's whim. Legal responses are more common, and the bosses know it. There are cases in which employees are told to clean their desks out and be gone within the hour, but an awareness of morale problems among remaining employees, not to mention armed responses from those who depart disgruntled, have inspired such humanitarian institutions as post-firing counseling and job-hunting assistance.

The old ruthlessness has given way to a form that has the advantage of being more subtle, more drawn out and, in keeping with the spirit of our time, more psychologically oriented. It leaves the employee just as fired, but with only himself to blame.

This technique involves planting and nurturing the idea that the employee is an embarrassment to himself. Through carelessly disparaging remarks, downgraded assignments and downgraded working conditions, the employee's confidence is shaken until the point when an offer to leave with a shred of dignity still intact seems generous.

That this may be an accurate assessment of a particular employee's worth does not make Miss Manners consider it any the less appallingly rude. Furthermore, it has been found to be so effective a strategy in persuading the employee to slink away without protest that it gets used in cases of general downsizing, rather than dissatisfaction with individuals. When mandatory age retirement became illegal, it began to be used on perfectly satisfactory employees, to speed them on their way.

Miss Manners is not under the illusion that there is any painless way to fire an employee. But there are uncivilized ones, and they ought not to be used. As a token of farewell, humiliation is not an adequate replacement for a gold watch.

Dear Miss Manners:

Packages of holiday treats arrive at the small office where I work, sent by businesses we deal with during the year. Some are addressed to "Dr. John Doe," others to "Dr. John Doe and staff."

My boss opens the packages, then sets them aside and later takes them home. Our staff often doesn't know who sent the gifts or what the boxes contain.

I believe that if these gifts were intended for the personal use of Dr. Doe, they would be sent to his home, not our office. He obviously believes they are for him, and not to be shared with his staff.

What kind of staff are you, making the boss open and dispose of his own packages? Especially when the address plainly indicates that you have some responsibility for them, too.

Miss Manners suggests that you log in the packages and, log in hand, point out to the doctor that the senders need to be thanked, not only by him, but also by the staff when they have been included. It would be kind of you to offer to write on behalf of all of you. Naturally, you would open the packages, and return to him those addressed solely to him, while sharing with the staff those that were designated to be shared.

(c)1999, Judith Martin