A Sign of the Times? In San Francisco, Even Santa is an HR Problem

John Toomey, known as "Santa John" at the Union Square Macy's for more th
John Toomey, known as "Santa John" at the Union Square Macy's for more than 20 years, is now out of a job. (Photo courtesy of The San Francisco Chronicle)

** See update below.

Ever wonder what the world is coming to? Ever wonder about people who can’t take a joke?

If this sounds like you, well, get ready for a story that will make you wish that people would demonstrate a little more holiday cheer and just not take life so damn seriously.

The story? It’s this: Santa has been canned by Macy’s in San Francisco because someone objected this year to one of the jokes he’s been telling for the better part of two decades.

Yes, only in San Francisco — a city known for being kooky and over-the-top politically correct — can Santa Claus become an HR problem.

What was it that got Santa fired?

Here’s the gist of the story, from Kevin Fagan of the San Francisco Chronicle:

John Toomey, known for 20 years at the Union Square Macy’s in San Francisco as “Santa John,” was told Saturday he’ll have to take his “ho, ho, hos” elsewhere because an adult couple complained about a joke he cracked.

The joke has been in his Santa bag for decades. But after thousands of tellings, the 68-year-old retired caretaker for the elderly finally hit the wrong recipients – apparently an older woman and her husband, who considered it inappropriate.

Toomey…said he’d never had complaints before about the joke, which he saves for the occasional grown-up who visits him.”

And what could be the joke that is so inappropriate, so out of line, and in such poor taste that it pushed Macy’s to summarily fire a long-time (and from all accounts, a stellar and customer-pleasing) seasonal employee? It’s this:

When I ask the older people who sit on my lap if they’ve been good and they say, ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘Gee, that’s too bad,’ ” Toomey said Monday.

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.”

The kids who sit on his lap, he said, get only his trademark laugh and questions about what toys they want.”

Firing Santa: an only-in-San Francisco story

If you’re like me, you probably just read that and thought, “that’s it? THAT’S what got him canned?”

Yes, that’s it. But in San Francisco — a city that is so Arabian Nights-odd that longtime Chronicle columnist Herb Caen called it “Baghdad by the Bay” — telling a slightly off-color joke to an adult can get Santa fired, even if he had been repeating it, without complaint, for nearly 20 years. So much for the city famous for Carol Doda, the Mitchell Brothers, and the Summer of Love.

Raise your hand if you think this is a rather gross overreaction and a faux HR problem. Of course, Macy’s won’t explain why they fired Santa, and a spokesperson for the store gave the Chronicle reporter the classic “we-can’t-comment-because-the-matter-involves-personnel” baloney to avoid having to stand up and actually account for their terribly shortsighted, knee-jerk decision.

The newspaper also said that Macy’s workers “used words like ‘devastated’ and ‘overreaction’ to describe their take on Santa John being booted from his throne at Santaland on the seventh floor” of Macy’s Union Square. Of course, “they all asked not be named because store policy forbids them from speaking publicly about such matters,” the Chronicle said, ” but their un-yule-ish gloom was palpable.”

Where is Macy’s HR leadership in all of this?

Is there an adult in Macy’s HR department that can step in and fix this, and perhaps, admit that this longtime Santa’s longtime joke didn’t rise to the level of a fireable offense?

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One would hope so, but frankly, count me as one who doesn’t hold out much hope, and that’s because I consider Macy’s customer service (and this extends to internal customers like employees, as well) to be the worst of just about any retailer in America. I’m sort of an expert on that.

And one last thing; the Chronicle talked to the now terminated Santa John. If he sounds bewildered by the entire experience, well, wouldn’t you be too?

“Everything was going OK until this couple came in,” he said. “I don’t know why they reported me. I don’t think I said anything untoward.”

There’s no doubt Toomey takes seriously the responsibility that comes with the red hat.

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,” Toomey said. “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

It’s an important job,” he said, “and the joking around like I did is only for the adults.”

While he waits to see if Macy’s will relent, Toomey is looking into hiring himself out at parties and other stores.

‘I’ve got my Social Security and some savings, so I’ll be OK,’ he said. ‘But I sure do miss being Santa.’ “

Sounds like a guy you would want as your store Santa, don’t you think? If you answered yes to that, consider yourself a lot brighter than anyone at Macy’s Union Square San Francisco. Ho, ho, ho, indeed.


UPDATE: Well, if Macy’s couldn’t do the right thing and bring back the wrongly-terminated Santa John, at least someone else stepped in and did so instead. The “world’s second most-famous Santa Claus,” as the San Francisco Chronicle now calls him, was hired by Lefty O’Doul’s — a legendary San Francisco sports bar and hofbrau a block off Union Square — “to sit on Santa’s throne for the Geary Street landmark’s annual Fire Department toy drive.”

And the newspaper also said it had received “more than 1,000 messages, phone calls and e-mails”  from readers “who said they had urged Macy’s to rehire Toomey. Many wrote passionately about having fond memories of visiting him.”

Yes, all’s well that ends well – even for a wrongly fired Santa Claus in San Francisco.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


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