You haven’t been fired— you’ve just been ‘un­al­lo­cated’

The Tribune (SLO) - - Opinion - BY KATE SUSLAVA

Cor­po­rate Amer­ica has in­vented many ways to avoid let­ting the pub­lic know it’s lay­ing peo­ple off – or telling em­ploy­ees them­selves “You’re fired.”

Com­mon par­lance in­cludes “down­siz­ing,” “head­count man­age­ment,” “restuc­tur­ing” or even the un­sightly “involuntary sep­a­ra­tion pro­gram.” Or a boss might say “Your po­si­tion has been made re­dun­dant” or sim­ply, “You’ve been let go.” Gen­eral Mo­tors re­cently came up with a new one: “You’re un­al­lo­cated.”

That’s ba­si­cally how the au­tomaker an­nounced it was get­ting rid of sev­eral plants and po­ten­tially hun­dreds of em­ploy­ees – lead­ing to much con­fu­sion among work­ers about what “un­al­lo­cated” ac­tu­ally meant.

Peo­ple em­ploy eu­phemistic terms to talk about any­thing they find em­bar­rass­ing. For ex­am­ple, “rest room” is a eu­phemism for lava­tory or toi­let, even though no one goes there to rest. In ed­u­ca­tional cir­cles, dropouts are re­ferred to as “early leavers.”

To be con­sid­ered a eu­phemism, an ex­pres­sion should first re­fer to some­thing un­pleas­ant – in GM’s case, lay­offs and plant clo­sures.

Sec­ond, it should be a mild way of re­fer­ring to the un­pleas­ant­ness, so “un­al­lo­cated” is a sub­sti­tute for the blunt ex­pres­sion “We are fir­ing work­ers and shut­ting down the fa­cil­i­ties.”

Fi­nally, it should be a sec­ondary mean­ing to an al­ready used term. In busi­ness, un­al­lo­cated funds re­fer to the money that is not cur­rently used in a pro­ject.

To de­velop a proxy for eu­phemism us­age, I cre­ated a dic­tio­nary of cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tion eu­phemisms by an­a­lyz­ing 78,000 earnings call tran­scripts for U.S. com­pa­nies over the last 14 years.

Dur­ing a 2011 con­fer­ence call, for ex­am­ple, TriQuint Semi­con­duc­tor CEO Ralph Quin­sey talked about “cloudier neart­erm vis­i­bil­ity” rather than sim­ply dis­cussing his com­pany’s failure to plan ahead. The same year, Len­nox In­ter­na­tional CFO Bob Hau used “head­winds” to sug­gest the im­pact of mar­kets is as fickle as the weather.

The most com­mon eu­phemisms I un­cov­ered tended to be rather ba­nal or tech­ni­cal say­ings, such as cit­ing “head­winds” in­stead of clearly ex­plain­ing out­side chal­lenges hurt­ing a busi­ness or “lumpi­ness” to de­scribe op­er­a­tional prob­lems with de­liv­er­ing a prod­uct.

Eu­phemisms were most pop­u­lar in the cycli­cal in­dus­tries, such as con­sumer com­pa­nies, where man­agers need strong ver­bal skills to ex­plain the peren­nial ups and downs. I also found that their use spiked dur­ing the financial cri­sis, as com­pa­nies tend to use more eu­phemisms when they are go­ing through tough times.

But this of­ten back­fires. Af­ter an­a­lyz­ing the con­fer­ence calls, I ex­am­ined how mar­kets re­acted. When a com­pany is re­port­ing bad news, typ­i­cally, share prices react quickly and then sta­bi­lize af­ter the in­for­ma­tion has been ab­sorbed. I found that when com­pa­nies used a lot of eu­phemisms on earnings calls, investors didn’t seem to fully un­der­stand the mag­ni­tude of the bad news. As a re­sult, shares tended to slide for sev­eral months af­ter an earnings call filled with eu­phemisms, as investors are hav­ing a de­layed re­ac­tion to the bad news.

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