Just Don't Mention the F-Word

Last Updated Nov 11, 2008 1:45 PM EST

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Companies are swaddling redundancies in euphemistic jargon in an attempt to make mass firings sound a little less drastic, says Fortune.

Elon Musk, the CEO of electric car manufacturer Tesla, wins the obfuscation prize for describing a 10 per cent reduction in the company's workforce as a "Special Forces Philosophy".

But fellow Silicon Valley peers are equally fond of fudging when it comes to the F-word: auction site eBay's 1,500 cut in headcount was billed an employee "simplification". Jerry Yang, the embattled CEO of Yahoo!, claimed staff cuts were a bid to "become more fit" as a business.

Other woolly terms such include "rightsizing", "streamlining", "downsizing" and "reduction in force". American Express's CEO, Kenneth Chenault, fell back on that old favourite, "re-engineering", when putting the company's plan to cut 7,000 jobs into context.

Stanford University's Robert Sutton says this is deliberate: "When you're about to do something emotionally hot, you use boring language to attract less attention," he tells Fortune's reporter.

But it's also in deference to those that remain, according to Jennifer Chatman, University of California, Berkeley's professor of management. Those left behind may see through it, she says, but the use of businesslike language provides a modicum of comfort, a sense that things are under control in the organisation.

But it's as time when precision of language would seem more important than ever. The term you choose to describe the loss of a job also characterises that nature of that loss to a large extent. There's a distinction between a sacking -- which may be the result of misconduct or individual performance problems -- and a layoff or redundancy.

Those within the organisation may still need to cling onto the notion that job cuts are part of a corporate plan. And the deliberately distancing use of jargon may soften the blow they feel when they have to say goodbye to friends and colleagues.

But those who've found their roles excised as a result of external circumstances surely need to feel the opposite -- that it was beyond the control of anyone within the business.

Or does it all add up to the same thing when you're looking for a job six weeks before Christmas?

(Photo: Matthew Solle, CC2.0)