Magazine article American Banker

Going to Dictionary to Put a Happy Face on Firings

Magazine article American Banker

Going to Dictionary to Put a Happy Face on Firings

Article excerpt

The market downturn has spawned a new set of corporate euphemisms meant to make people feel better about firings.

Take the term "aggressive attrition," which has been used to describe TD Waterhouse's non-layoff-centric staff reduction strategy.

Announcing plans in April to reduce headcount by 8% without layoffs, Steve McDonald, TD Waterhouse's chief executive officer, said, "We're benefiting from inherent attrition in our business. We do have a fairly high attrition rate in our business; it's about 20%."

Comments like these led Chase H&Q analyst Greg Smith to coin the term "aggressive attrition."

"Nobody wants to use the term layoff," Mr. Smith said. "With the Internet, everyone was trying to make things sound different. Now that the New Economy is not doing so well, you need a new lingo."

Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert cartoon empire and a former foot soldier in the banking trenches, said employees may have reason for concern. "It's the prickly panty approach," he said. "What they are saying is that they're going to make life so consistently irritating that it'll be as easy to leave as possible."

"Aggressive attrition?" said Joseph P. Pickett, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary. "Wow, that sounds like military 'collateral damage.' "

Meanwhile, "rightsizing" by now has become the word of choice for describing payroll reductions. J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. executives have said they are "rightsizing" the company's investment banking operations on top of job cuts already planned in connection with last year's merger. This "rightsizing" comes as capital markets profits head south. Other companies have also used the term in recent months.

Ironically, all this "rightsizing" may be a direct result of the "corporate anorexia" of the late 1990s, Mr. Pickett said. That's the term that developed after several years of to-the-bone cutting at U.S. companies badly burned during the recession of the early 1990s. …

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