You don’t need to look too far in recent history to see that despite our intent, our words matter. In January, after the tragic shooting in Tucson, AZ, former Alaskan Governor, Sarah Palin received harsh criticism from the Jewish community for using the term “blood libel.” Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP Oil, did damage to the Gulf oil spill clean-up efforts by saying “…no one want this to be over with more than I do…I’d like my life back.” Followed soon thereafter by another faux pas from BP Chairman, Carl-Henrich Svanberg, when he reaffirmed “[BP] care(s) about the small people.” Yes, words do indeed matter. And while internal communication may not have the media attention of the Gulf oil spill last year or the comments of political figures, the words still matter.
The recent economic situation has left many companies struggling with declining financial positions and growing payroll costs. As a result, many companies have decreased the number of employees in an effort to stabilize losses in other areas, and many good, qualified, people lost their jobs. There is an emotional component to being in Human Resources or organizational leadership during such times that often causes us to feel things we would rather not feel, most notably when people lose their jobs. It hurts to know that person goes home to tell his or her family that the job they relied on is no longer there. It’s hard, it’s real, and it is the least favorite part of the job for most organizational leaders.
Authenticity is an important leadership quality and it is hard to be authentic when dealing with such issues. It means we have to feel, and feeling bad about someone losing their job is the last thing we want. So we separate ourselves from the emotional language of the situation and replace it with metaphors and euphemisms to make ourselves feel more comfortable. While we may feel more distanced from the decision, those affected do not. And in some cases, our euphemisms do more harm than good.
Some common terms regarding reducing the workforce can have particularly negative impacts. “Getting the ax”, “dropping the hammer”, “pulling the plug”, “pulling the trigger”, “fired”. While the intent is benign, it is important to understand how these words can affect your workforce. They are not without emotional impact. Using these terms still speaks to our removal from the situation and can encourage a lack of empathy in others when considering staffing decisions.
While these decisions still must be made, the way they are communicated can have a great deal of importance when it comes to that result of that interaction and well beyond. The impact reaches far beyond the employees who may be losing their jobs; it also has proven repercussions to those employees who are left. Be mindful of the language you choose and the resulting cultural message it may convey when dealing with staffing reduction or terminations, it means more than you might think.