Macy's Re-Learns Why Firing Santa Can Be A Bad Idea

John Toomey has been a much beloved figure at the Union Square Macy's in San Francisco for 20 years, which is how long he's worked as the store's Santa. Worked, that is, until December 4 when he was fired for having told a couple of very old jokes to some adults. From a PR perspective, this dismissal couldn't have been much worse. Let's see. A very popular Macy's Santa Clause is fired because he made a couple of politically incorrect non-traditional remarks. Sound familiar, fans of Miracle On 34th Street?

Before we delve into why this choice will—and should—be such a headache for Macy's, let's review the facts as they are known. To be fair, the only version of this incident that has been publicly aired is the one offered by the terminated employee, so it may not be the whole picture. Personnel rules dictate such matters.

The 68-year-old Toomey's self-admitted offense was to tell two mild (and, for what it's worth, really old) jokes to a pair of adults who asked to sit on his lap. The first quip is that he asked the adults if they've been good. If they said "yes," he replied, "Gee, that's too bad."

Toomey was quoted by The San Francisco Chronicle describing the second quip: "Then, if they ask why Santa is so jolly, I joke that it's because I know where all the naughty boys and girls live."

Let's take this one element at a time. The second joke would have an extraordinarily slight ominous element to it if someone thought he was being serious, but only if uttered by someone in customer service or delivery or some other employee who might actually have addresses. (In case you don't know, the stores' Santas are merely deputy elves. Only the real Santa has the actual addresses.) Given that Toomey doesn't have that info, it's impossible to interpret this as anything other than a silly quip.

Besides, if you want to explore creepy, how about adults (the Chronicle described them as "older" but didn't say older than what) who want to sit on this guy's lap and whisper in his ear?

This person's job is to look and sound like Santa—something he apparently did well—and entertain young children who visit the store. Listen to Toomey's description of how he did his job: "With the children, it's important to listen carefully to them and make sure they're doing things properly, like brushing their teeth, helping Mom around the house, things like that. Then when they tell you what they want, repeat it loudly enough so the parents can hear, and tell the child you'll talk it over with Mrs. Santa and the elves. That way, you leave it up to the parents."

What part of his job did he fail to do? There have no suggestions that he said anything to any child that was un-Santa-like. (As for the Grinches who turned Santa in, I hope they have a coal-burning stove. If so, they'll be all set this winter.)

Maybe Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren can play the Mr. Macy role and shame the firers into reconsidering. Playing a movie role would be perfect for Lundgren. Have you ever met him? Besides being one of the smartest CEOs in business today, he looks, acts and talks as though he was sent over from Central Casting to play the role of a CEO.

The serious point in this story is that some employees honestly take on larger-than-life roles to customers. At Wal-Mart, an 86-year-old greeter may seem like a low-level employee, but customers react emotionally if someone mistreats them. Lay off a popular greeter and the uproar is disproportional. You could lay off 10 associates who handle POS and stocking and related issues—and even various managers, including the general manager—and barely generate a customer whimper.

Santa is one of those positions. If it's a long-time Santa who is popular, the offense had better be one that you can disclose. Otherwise, well, you may get hit over the head with a cane.