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THE LANGUAGE OF TERMINATION

Posted on Wed, Feb 18, 2009

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"Workforce realignment" and other buzzwords are often used by companies to describe layoffs. They strike some as annoying, but they may not necessarily be inaccurate.

By Andrew R. McIlvaine

Sycamore Networks recently announced the layoffs of 46 employees, representing 10 percent of its total workforce. The Chelmsford, Mass.-based technology company says the move is part of a "workforce realignment."

From downsizing to rightsizing, companies and their HR leaders use a variety of terms to describe what were once simply referred to as "layoffs."

Some of the more recent and unusual ones include "brightsizing," "decruitment" and "downaging," according to Suzanne Bates, president and CEO of Bates Communications Inc. in Wellesley, Mass.

Bates and others believe HR leaders risk making themselves and their companies look dishonest and foolish by using such terms.

"The harmful thing about these words is that they make it sound as if you're talking about equipment or facilities, not people," says Alan Weiss, a motivational speaker and president of Summit Consulting Group in East Greenwich, R.I. " 'Workforce realignment' -- it's an HR euphemism. You're still firing people."

Elaine J. Eisenman, dean of Babson College's executive education program and a former HR executive herself, says "workforce realignment" and its ilk are often used as euphemisms to try to soothe the harsh reality of layoffs.

"A lot of those words allow people to forget the human face of layoffs," she says. "They have the effect of letting people who say them feel better about themselves."

"Downsizing means layoffs -- don't think you can put lipstick on a pig," says Eisenman, who oversaw a number of layoffs during her HR career. "It's like calling civilian casualties 'collateral damage.' "

Not everyone thinks 'workforce realignment' or the other euphemisms are meaningless buzzwords, however. Pamela Harper, an organizational design consultant and president of Business Advancement Inc. in Glen Rock, N.J., says certain so-called buzzwords are more than jargon.

"It depends on what the company is trying to accomplish," she says. "A 'downsizing' can have more to do with shrinkage because of economic pressures, while a 'rightsizing' is about the company changing its business."

"Rightsizing" and "workforce realignment" are used properly when they describe a company's efforts to adapt itself to a changing market or new business processes by closing some divisions or locations and opening new ones, says Harper. While such efforts may include laying some people off, they're typically accompanied by increased hiring in other areas, she adds.

Scott Larson, a Sycamore Networks spokesman, says the workforce reductions at the company will not be accompanied by increased hiring elsewhere, although the company will continue to post positions that were open prior to the announcement.

Harper says it's not so much the words HR uses as how it delivers the news about personnel reductions to employees.

"I've worked with many employers over the years, and people would be very upset when all they saw was layoffs and hiring freezes on the one hand, then hear about hiring going on in some other part of the company," she says.

Harper says that in such cases, employees would come up with their own jargon: "They'd call it a 'slush' instead of a hiring freeze."

By employing clear, consistent and frequent communication, HR can help minimize the poor morale and cynicism that often accompanies layoffs, regardless of whether or not the layoffs will be accompanied by hiring in other areas.

"Employees crave information," she says. "Explain the company's business strategy clearly and honestly, and don't tell different groups of employees different things, because word spreads quickly these days, and you'll lose your credibility."

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