Writing for Business

Apr 17 2013   9:10PM GMT

Weasel words, euphemisms, and corporate communications

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

Which is correct?
__________ saved us $750,000 in payroll expenses.
a. A headcount reduction
b. Layoffs
c. Downsizing
d. Rightsizing

Answer: b.

You may be seen as heartless — don’t be gutless, too. Call it what it is. Layoffs are understood; the other three terms are used to make it sound like harmless pruning.

Years ago, when I was in the direst straits of a freelance career, I wrote financial summaries: articles that organized and presented the essence of corporate conference calls, for the benefit of analysts. These were torturous for multiple reasons — not least the requirement that the reports be online about five seconds after the CEO’s last word.

But I think the worst part was listening to the euphemistic BS dished up by so many executives, the weasel words that allowed them to express things in ways that didn’t make the stockholders uncomfortable. It’s hard to cheer openly for “We saved $35 million in payroll expenses by laying off 30% of the men and women who worked for us,” even if that translates to money in your pocket. On the other hand, if you call it a “headcount reduction,” “downsizing” or — the worst — “rightsizing,” well, yay. The company had a headcount reduction. It was downsized; it was rightsized. And lo, it was profitable.

Sometimes downsizing is differentiated from layoffs as a permanent change. However, anyone that’s ever been laid off knows that it may be permanent. Rightsizing, on the other hand, rests on the assumption that there should never have been so many employees in the first place. Silly corporations!

Follow me on Twitter @tao_of_grammar

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