Bosses are resorting to euphemisms about layoffs amid fears of a backlash
Layoffs in 2024 could leave tens of thousands without jobs. GT
Have you recently experienced an “involuntary functional event”? Perhaps you have been a victim of “corporate superiority,” the unfortunate, but apparently necessary, consequence of “downsizing.” 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 jobs. The way bad news is delivered is more important than ever, with companies fearing it will be canceled on social media after a poorly executed final conversation. Executives use all kinds of euphemisms to avoid being honest with their employees.
Sensitive language is the result of “moral disengagement,” an effort by the wrongdoer to rationalize and mitigate the action himself, said Sandra Sucher, a professor at Harvard Business School. In the end, the meaning is the same for the worker: they lose their job.
“The fact that you call it downsizing or organization change — which is very likely — doesn’t mean workers won’t feel something as a result of what you’re doing,” Sucher said.
The lexicon that euphemistically describes layoffs became more popular in the late 1980s and 1990s, as job cuts were normalized, according to Sucher. Previously, layoffs were rarer, and most were the result of a manufacturer closing its factory in a city.
In early December, Spotify Technology SA chose the term “right sizing” in its letter announcing job cuts. Citigroup’s November statement referred to a “simplified operating model” to describe its plans to cut 20,000 jobs. At Meta Platforms Inc., Mark Zuckerberg cited “organizational changes” in a lengthy memo that included a range of personnel shifts at the company, including job losses. United Parcel Service Inc. announced announced a “workforce reduction” of 12,000 people during its last earnings call. “We will adapt our organization to our strategy,” CEO Carole Toomey said, according to the transcript.
Executives believe this kind of vague language pleases workers, according to Stanford University professor Robert Sutton. He called the language of “anesthesia” “monoxide jargon.”
“They somehow seem to think that if they use more ambiguous, less emotional language, people won’t be as upset,” Sutton said. Instead, he added, it has the opposite effect.
The public shift away from the word “fire” is likely because of the stigma associated with it, according to Wayne Cascio, a professor at the UC Denver School of Business. The term “layoff” is used to describe a dismissal without cause, while the term “firing” is now usually used in response to a violation of company rules.
Synonyms for layoffs are not entirely aimless. They have differences in the breadth of potential meaning that helps a company determine next steps. “Simplifying” might mean that employees will be fired, or that the company will cut back on meetings. On the other hand, “restructuring” can also refer to an employee moving departments. “Furl” is something entirely different, as it allows employees to return to work after taking unpaid time off. “Right sizing” is intentionally vague, so the company leaves itself room to change its plan, according to Casio.
Wording can also vary by region, according to Sucher, who said the phrase “reduction in force” was more commonly used in Europe.
In general, a good way to announce layoffs is not to be euphemistic. Experts said company leaders should take responsibility for job losses, especially as many of them respond to over-hiring after the pandemic.
“You have to own up to the fact that you did something that you understand harmed their lives in a very direct way,” Sucher said.