Have you suffered an “involuntary career event” recently? Perhaps you were a casualty of “corporate outplacing,” the unfortunate, yet ostensibly necessary result of your company “rightsizing.” Managers are running out of ways to say you no longer have a job.
Layoffs in the first month of 2024 have left tens of thousands without jobs, with the tech industry alone cutting 32,000 roles. The way the bad news is delivered is more important than ever, as companies fear being canceled on social media after a poorly executed final conversation. Executives are using all kinds of euphemisms to avoid being straightforward with their employees.
Harvard Business School professor Sandra Sucher said that delicate language is the result of “moral disengagement,” a harm-doer’s effort to rationalize and soften the action for themselves. Ultimately, the meaning is the same to the worker: They’re losing their job.
“The fact that you’re calling it downsizing or an org change — which it very well probably is — doesn’t mean that workers are not going to feel something as a result of what you’re doing,” said Sucher.
A lexicon to describe layoffs euphemistically became more common in the late 1980s and 1990s as job cuts were normalized, according to Sucher. Previously, layoffs were more rare, and mostly the result of a manufacturer closing its plant in a town.
In early December, Spotify Technology SA opted for the term “right-sized” in its letter announcing job cuts. Citigroup Inc.’s statement in November referenced a “simplified operating model” to describe its plans to cut 20,000 jobs. At Meta Platforms Inc., Mark Zuckerberg referred to “org changes” in a lengthy memo that included an array of personnel shifts at the company, including job losses. And United Parcel Service Inc. announced a “workforce reduction” of 12,000 people during its most recent earnings call. “We are going to fit our organization to our strategy,” Chief Executive Officer Carol Tomé said, according to a transcript.
Executives believe that this kind of vague language placates workers, according to Stanford professor Robert Sutton. He called the “anesthetizing” language “jargon monoxide.”
“They somehow seem to believe that if they use language that is more vague and less emotional, that people won’t get as upset,” said Sutton. Instead, it has the opposite effect, he said.
The general shift away from the word “firing” is likely because of the stigma associated with it, according to Wayne Cascio, a professor at CU Denver Business School. “Layoffs” is used to describe dismissal without cause, while a “firing” is now typically in response to a breach of company rules.
Synonyms for layoffs aren’t entirely without purpose. They have differences in their breadth of potential meaning that help a company sort out next steps. “Simplification” can mean people are going to be fired, or that the company is cutting back on meetings. “Restructuring,” on the other hand, can also just signify that an employee is moving departments. A “furlough” is something entirely different, allowing employees to return to work after unpaid time away. “Rightsizing” is intentionally vague so the company leaves itself room to change its plan, according to Cascio.
Phrasing can also vary by region, according to Sucher, who said that “reduction in force” was used more commonly in Europe.
In general, there is a good way to announce a layoff, and it’s not euphemistically. Company leaders should take accountability for the loss of jobs, the experts said, especially because many are responding to their own over-hiring post-pandemic.
“You have to acknowledge the fact that you have done something that you understand has hurt their life in a very direct way,” said Sucher.