David Skorton, the President of my alma mater, Cornell University, recently described cost-saving initiatives including, “… an external hiring pause, which has now been extended to June 30, 2009.” A “hiring pause” sounds like a consideration of each open position.Skorton described a priority of avoiding layoffs whenever possible in, “…establishing a university-wide effort to facilitate internal hiring of staff dislocated by program cuts.”
I can’t claim to write half as well as Skorton, and I am not a fan of overused or unexplained jargon that can confuse — but I do know that the language we choose affects the outcome of our message.
At a startup where I was a member of the executive team we spent a great deal of time debating the official title for the body of policies we were writing for the new company. “Standard Operating Procedures” (SOP) sounded too rigid for the culture we were trying to create. Our managers were encouraged to think and make the best decisions on behalf of customers and employees, not simply follow checklists. The “Policies and Operating Standards” we penned encouraged flexibility to exceed expectations in every appropriate situation.
The language used in communicating critical decisions to cut costs can convey a slash-and-burn mentality or carefully considered planning. It’s your decision whether you downsize, right size, complete a reduction in force or lay off employees. Whatever term you use should reflect the actions being taken and the tone of your organization. Consistency in the terms that are applied is also important to ensure communication of the correct intent.
Don’t use language to sugar-coat difficult discussions. Picture a company representative beginning a meeting to announce a layoff of a working mother by saying, “We are going to give you the opportunity to spend more time with your children!” They might as well handout a sheet with the address and contact information for the nearest federal, state or municipal agency that investigates claims of workplace discrimination.
Sticking to a prepared outline or script will help to avoid gaffs. At the same time the language you choose should be as natural as possible using terms that you can explain and justify. The content of a well meaning script will be diminished if you can’t respond to questions about the information.
What language have you found to be the most effective when conveying difficult workplace messages?