Why companies can’t be honest with their employees

HR pundits justify avoiding the truth, arguing that organizations are softening the blow and taking the sting out of terminations

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You’re summoned to your boss’s office and told that you’ve been “selected out.”

Strange words. What do they mean?

“Selected” sounds positive. But “out”? That’s clearly a negative and confusing word.

Together, both words are perplexing. An optimist may interpret it as sort of a promotion. A sceptic is worried.

The term “selected out” is anything but positive. It means laid off, terminated, fired, finito. You’ve been given the proverbial boot. Your weekly paycheque ends, and you have a couple of days to clear your desk and get out.

In matter of minutes, your life has taken an unexpected turn for the worse. Your future is as certain as the weather.

Human Resource pundits justify avoidance of the truth, arguing that organizations are softening the blow, and taking the sting out of terminations. Realists say it’s a coward’s way out.

But it doesn’t stop companies from creating new terms for firing their employees. .

The language companies choose is confusing and insulting, asserts Bill Lutz, a professor of English at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ, and author of The New Doublespeak, Why No One Knows What Anyone’s Saying Anymore .

“Doublespeak is a language that pretends to communicate but really does not,” says Lutz. “It is a language that makes the bad seem good, the negative appear positive and the unpleasant appear attractive or at least tolerable. It is a language that avoids or shifts responsibility.”

Lutz identified almost 100 doublespeak terms that companies peddle. For example, dehire; deselect; destaff; de-employ; derecruit; right size; correct-sized (you might have been the wrong size but more likely, “once you have been correct-sized, you are also out of a job,” says Lutz.); select out; release; non-retain; displace; idle indefinitely; retire prematurely; eliminate redundancies in the human resources area; request departure; selectively separate; strengthen global effectiveness; offer voluntary severance; refocus the company’s skills set (one company, after laying off 10 per cent of its workforce, referred to the layoffs as a “refocusing of the company’s skill set”); reposition; reduce duplication; and focus reduction.

A favourite term in Silicon Valley is the frequently used error message or status code 404 that tells a Web user that the requested page is no longer there.

“Laying off workers is a sign business is bad,” says Lutz. “They do not want it to appear that things were tough, so they invent language to make it seem everything is okay.” Simply, doublespeak protects a company’s image.

Solution? Awareness can help you cope with doublespeak, but there is little that can be done to combat it. It is to your advantage to know when your company is flinging it. Take it as a signal that you could be part of the next round of layoffs and get out fast. Do not mistakenly think it is a short-term situation that will not affect you. That is a dangerous assumption. You are better off thinking everyone will be affected. Even if you are not laid off this time, you could be next.


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