You’ve been ‘synergy-related headcount restructured’

Even the word layoff is a euphemism, when you think about it. Yes, it can serve to draw a distinction between budget-based and performance-based termination, but not many laid-off workers get recalled to their old jobs these days; “laid off” pretty much means you’re fired.

And while certainly nothing new, the art of dodging plain English when it comes to describing mass firings continues to advance, so to speak, as the ongoing economic crisis piles mass firings one on top of another. For example, here’s a headline on a press release forwarded to me this week: “Nokia Siemens Networks enters final stage of synergy-related headcount restructuring.”

“Hi, honey, I’m afraid I have bad news: I’ve been synergy-related headcount restructured.”

A tone-deaf Nokia Siemens public relations department even went so far as to put the mealy-mouthed words on the lips of company CEO Simon Beresford-Wylie: “With the successful completion of these plans, we will have the vast majority of the synergy-related headcount reductions completed and we can then start to put this chapter of our history behind us and focus on creating a world-class company.”

A world-class company might start by referring to 3,000 individuals about to become unemployed as people instead of “headcount,” and their company-issued trauma as a business decision instead of an inalienable force of nature.

After reading the Nokia Siemens release, I set off searching for other recent examples of companies resorting to euphemism instead of calling layoffs simply layoffs. That didn’t take long because the first item I found via a Google News search was a story by Fortune magazine writer Yi-Wyn Yen, who had the same idea only sooner.

Among the examples noted in that story are American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault’s use of “reengineering plan” (7,000 layoffs); Fidelity Investments’ Rodger Lawson resorting to “cost improvement plans” (1,300 fired); and, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk calling a 10 per cent reduction in the electric-car maker’s workforce part of a “special forces philosophy.”

The Fortune story also features business management experts unabashedly defending the practice.

“When you’re doing something bad to someone, it helps to use vague language to distance yourself,” says one expert. And then this: “Companies have to reassure the people who are left that there’s a plan in place. . . . People see through what executives say, but what unnerves people the most is believing that nobody has control over anything.”

So let me get this straight: Seeing your CEO spew obvious baloney — insulting baloney, no less — creates a sense that he or she wasn’t personally responsible and that someone is in charge?

It tells me that someone doesn’t care all that much . . . and thinks I’m an idiot.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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