Spotify to Meta Platforms, How Companies Say 'Layoffs' Without Saying 'Layoffs'

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Have you recently experienced an “unintended career event”? Perhaps you're “corporate outplacing,” an unfortunate but clearly necessary result of “rightsizing” your company. Managers are running as if you don't have a job anymore. Layoffs put tens of thousands out of a job in the first month of 2024, with the technology industry alone cutting 32,000 roles. As companies fear being undone on social media after a poorly executed last conversation, the way they deliver bad news is more important than ever. Executives use all kinds of euphemisms to avoid being direct with their employees.

Harvard Business School professor Sandra Sucher says insensitive language is the result of “moral dissociation,” an attempt by harm-doers to rationalize and soften the action for themselves. Ultimately, the meaning for the worker is the same: they are losing their job.

“Just because you're calling it a downsizing or an org change — which it very well may be — doesn't mean workers aren't feeling something as a result of what you're doing,” Sucher said.

As job cuts became common in the late 1980s and 1990s, a lexicon describing layoffs as a euphemism became common, according to Sucher. Previously, layoffs were rare and more likely the result of a manufacturer closing a plant in town.

In early December, Spotify Technology SA chose the term “right-sizing” in its letter announcing job cuts. In November, Citigroup Inc. ’s announcement referred to a “simplified operating model” to explain its plans to cut 20,000 jobs. At Meta Platforms Inc., Mark Zuckerberg referred to “org changes” in a lengthy memo that included a series of staff transfers at the company, including job losses. United Parcel Service Inc. It announced a 'workforce reduction' of 12,000 people in its recent earnings call. 'We're going to align our organization with our strategy,' Chief Executive Officer Carol Tome said, according to the transcript.

According to Stanford professor Robert Sutton, executives believe that this kind of vague language will appease workers. He called “narcotic” language the “monoxide of jargon.”

“They somehow believe that if they use more vague and less emotional language, people won't be as upset,” Sutton said. Instead, he said, it had the opposite effect.

According to Wayne Cascio, a professor at the CU Denver Business School, the general shift away from the word “firing” may be due to the stigma associated with it. “Layoffs” used to describe dismissal without cause, while “firing” is now usually a response to a violation of company rules.

Synonyms for deletions are not entirely without purpose. They differ in the breadth of potential meaning that can help a company sort out next steps. “Downsizing” means people are laid off or company meetings are reduced. “Restructuring”, on the other hand, also refers to an employee moving departments. A “furlough” is completely different, allowing employees to return to work after unpaid time off. “Rightsizing” is intentionally vague, according to Cascio, to leave room for the company to change its plan.

Terminology can also vary by region, according to Sucher, where “energy reduction” is used more in Europe.

Usually, there's a better way to announce a layoff and it's not a euphemism. Company leaders must be held accountable for job losses, experts say, especially as many are responding to their own hiring post-pandemic.

“You have to accept the fact that you did something that you understand very directly hurt their life,” Sucher said.

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