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18 Jun 2019 4:37
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  •   Home > News > Education

    'You're unallocated!' Making sense of the corporate euphemisms used to mask bad news

    Kate pored over 78,000 conference call transcripts to learn about the language companies use to hide bad news. From "selective separation" to "commodity headwinds", she decodes the worst offenders.

    If your boss said you'd been "unallocated", or that the company was pursuing "head count management", "right sizing" or "selective separation", would you have any clue what they meant?

    Kate Suslava would.

    She has pored over the transcripts of over 78,000 conference calls from the past 14 years, noting just how often companies turn to euphemisms when dealing with bad news.

    She has also decoded them into plain English.

    "Euphemisms are normally used to camouflage bad news," Dr Suslava, a management expert from Bucknell University in the US with a background in linguistics, told RN's Late Night Live.

    "So if they are hitting some speedbumps, it's not because they're driving, it's because their quarter just dropped."

    She found that in many cases, managers adopted euphemisms almost intuitively.

    "Because situations were very sensitive, even subconsciously, people [started] to resort to euphemisms," Dr Suslava said.

    And because there was no dictionary of corporate euphemisms for her to refer to during her research, she had to make one.

    "I had to come up with a so called 'field guide' of corporate usage," she said.

    From 'commodity headwinds' to 'lumpiness'

    Speaking to RN, Dr Suslava unravelled some of the most commonly used corporate euphemisms.

    "Cloudier near-term visibility", she explains, means "the company hadn't planned ahead very successfully".

    "Headwinds" is another popular term, used when problems weren't sufficiently anticipated — for example, "we've experienced some stiff business headwinds".

    It can also be used as a justification for change — "offset this commodity headwind".

    The term "lumpiness" is used to explain operational problems around product delivery.

    And "hiccups", like "speedbumps", can refer to a range of problems including a failure to meet financial targets.

    "Right sizing", "selective separation" and "head count management" are all used when firing staff.

    When corporate speak goes wrong

    Of the thousands of transcripts Dr Suslava reviewed, 70 per cent contained at least one euphemism.

    She says the incentive for using misleading language is clear.

    "When it comes to the bottom line, managers are often paid on the basis of share price and so will protect that at all costs," she said.

    But the use of corporate euphemisms doesn't always work.

    Take, for example, when General Motors "unallocated" 14,000 workers last year.

    "It is a new one and it actually caused a lot of uproar here in the US," Dr Suslava said.

    "The primary meaning of something to be unallocated in the business world is 'it's just not being used'.

    "So the way they coined this expression was that 'we are not shutting down the facilities, they will just not be used'."

    Still, she says corporate euphemisms can be effective for companies.

    "I actually find that investors underestimate the magnitude of bad news when managers use euphemisms," she said.

    "And this is reflected in the delayed stock price reaction to companies that deliver news with euphemistic terms."

    Dr Suslava says the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has also recognised the power of euphemisms.

    "They are concerned that companies use language to manipulate," she said.

    In 1999, in an attempt to regulate corporate language, the SEC introduced the Plain English Handbook.

    "That's the first step in the regulatory effort to make the language more straightforward."

    But there have been plenty of speedbumps and headwinds in the two decades since.

    Euphemisms, Dr Suslava says, are "a part of language ... constantly changing through time".

    It seems their capacity to evolve and adapt means they're unlikely to get unallocated anytime soon.

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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