You are sitting in an all staff meeting. You know business has been slow, and you are worried about your job. The CEO begins ok, but them he starts talking about the need for furloughs. Each staff will have to take two weeks of unpaid leave. He emphasizes that you will have flexibility in “choosing your time off.” He makes it sound like a vacation. He doesn’t apologize or acknowledge that you are giving up a half month’s salary. You are happy you still have a job, but the salary loss is significant.
Or a corporate notice is sent out that your company needs to “right-size” and, as a result, 50 positions are being eliminated. The affected employees “will be separated” from the company. The more accurate word might be “fired,” but you will never see that word in a written document.
Why does management use such ambiguous phrases? It doesn’t actually soften the blow. It doesn’t make the situation any better—in fact, sometimes the language seems confusing, almost insulting.
More than likely, any letter or announcement containing negative corporate news has been vetted by communications, human resources, and legal counsel. If there are union members involved, management will want to be certain that they are following contract language. They don’t want to open any legal loopholes or create bad press for the company. They seem to worry more about their image than about the impact on their employees.
Another reason for corporate speak is simply that many administrators don’t know how to communicate effectively, and they certainly don’t know how to give bad news. Much like people say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” rather than,”I’m so sorry Bill died,” they believe euphemisms sound better. They don’t, but they do tend to make the speaker less uncomfortable.
What is really needed in situations like these is directness. It helps to receive the facts and figures that explain the situation, and employees want to understand how the decisions were made and what the process will be going forward. Perhaps most importantly, it helps if management acknowledges the difficult situation that the action creates for employees. A sincere apology can go a long way.
When in a meeting where corporate speak is being used, you can (respectfully) ask for clarification or for more information. That may or may not work. For example, you could ask for a definition of “rightsizing,” or how the “right” size was determined. Or you could ask if lost pay for furloughs could be recouped if profits improve dramatically during the year. While your questions may not change the situation, they might help to hold management more. accountable.
Importantly, when it’s your turn to move into management, remember how much you disliked “corporate speak,” and work hard to avoid it. Your future staff will respect you for being direct and transparent.