When Dealing with Staffing Reductions, Choose Your Words Carefully

Words matter. In January, after the tragic shooting in Tucson, AZ, former Alaska 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 his company’s reputation by claiming “[N]o one wants this to be over with more than I do … I’d like my life back.” BP Chairman Carl-Henrich Svanberg made matters worse when he claimed that “[BP] care(s) about the small people.” Yes, words do indeed matter, even in internal communications that lack the media attention of the Gulf oil spill or the comments of political figures.

The economy has left many companies struggling with declining financial positions and growing costs. Being in Human Resources or organizational leadership during times when many employees must be let go causes us to feel things we would rather not. 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.
“Getting the ax,” “dropping the hammer,” “pulling the plug,” “pulling the trigger,” “fired.” Regardless of how benign the intent, it is important to understand how these words can affect your workforce through their 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 affects not only the employees who lost their jobs, but also those who remain. Be mindful of the language you choose and the resulting cultural message it may convey. It means more than you might think.