NEW YORK – Have you suffered an “involuntary career event” recently? Perhaps you were a casualty of “corporate outplacing”, the unfortunate, yet ostensibly necessary result of your company “rightsizing”. Managers are running out of ways to say you no longer have a job.
Layoffs in the first month of 2024 have left tens of thousands without jobs, with the tech industry alone cutting 32,000 roles. The way the bad news is delivered is more important than ever, as companies fear being cancelled on social media after a poorly executed final conversation. Executives are using all kinds of euphemisms to avoid being straightforward with their employees.
Harvard Business School professor Sandra Sucher said that delicate language is the result of “moral disengagement”, a harm-doer’s effort to rationalise and soften the action for themselves. Ultimately, the meaning is the same to the worker: They are losing their job.
In early December 2023, Spotify Technology opted for the term “right-sized” in its letter announcing job cuts. Citigroup’s statement in November 2023 referenced a “simplified operating model” to describe its plans to cut 20,000 jobs. At Meta Platforms, Mr Mark Zuckerberg referred to “org changes” in a lengthy memo that included an array of personnel shifts at the company, including job losses. And United Parcel Service announced a “workforce reduction” of 12,000 people during its most recent earnings call. “We are going to fit our organisation to our strategy,” chief executive officer Carol Tome said, according to a transcript.
Executives believe that this kind of vague language placates workers, according to Stanford professor Robert Sutton. He called the “anaesthetising” language “jargon monoxide”. “They somehow seem to believe that if they use language that is more vague and less emotional, that people won’t get as upset,” said Prof Sutton. Instead, it has the opposite effect, he said.
The general shift away from the word “firing” is likely because of the stigma associated with it, according to CU Denver Business School professor Wayne Cascio. “Layoffs” is used to describe dismissal without cause, while a “firing” is now typically in response to a breach of company rules.
Synonyms for layoffs are not entirely without purpose. They have differences in their breadth of potential meaning that help a company sort out next steps. “Simplification” can mean people are going to be fired, or that the company is cutting back on meetings. “Restructuring”, on the other hand, can also just signify that an employee is switching departments. A “furlough” is something entirely different, allowing employees to return to work after unpaid time away. “Rightsizing” is intentionally vague so the company leaves itself room to change its plan, according to Prof Cascio.
In general, there is a good way to announce a layoff, and it is not euphemistically. Company leaders should take accountability for the loss of jobs, the experts said, especially because many are responding to their own over-hiring post-pandemic. “You have to acknowledge the fact that you have done something that you understand has hurt their life in a very direct way,” said Prof Sucher. BLOOMBERG