Amid massive layoffs, companies coin new terms to make job cuts seem less painful

Have you suffered an “involuntary career event” recently? Perhaps you were a casualty of “corporate outplacing”, the unfortunate, yet ostensibly-necessary result of your company “rightsizing”. 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 in the United States without jobs, with the tech industry alone cutting 32,000 roles. The way the bad news is delivered is more important than ever, as companies fear being cancelled on social media after a poorly-executed final conversation. Executives are using all kinds of euphemisms to avoid being straightforward with their employees.

Harvard Business School professor Sandra Sucher says that delicate language is the result of “moral disengagement”, a harm-doer’s effort to rationalise and soften the action for themselves. Ultimately, the meaning is the same to the worker: They are losing their job.

“The fact that you are calling it downsizing or an org change — which it very well probably is — does not mean that workers are not going to feel something as a result of what you are doing,” notes Ms Sucher.

A lexicon to describe layoffs euphemistically became more common in the late 1980s and 1990s as job cuts were normalised, according to Ms Sucher. Previously, layoffs were more rare and mostly the result of a manufacturer closing its plant in a town.

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