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A Corporate Devil’s Dictionary : Employees need to know that the subtext to ‘streamlining’ is that company loyalty doesn’t mean job security.

Adela de la Torre is an executive fellow in the California State University chancellor's office

We are daily bombarded with news about mergers and acquisitions in the private sector as well as the onslaught of radical restructuring in the public sector to improve the delivery of public education and health-care services. Government and business both are in a frenzy to cut costs while maintaining quality. More often than not, public officials and chief executive officers will spare no expense to expound on new “strategic plans” that will cure their operations’ perceived ills.

We drones, meanwhile, have witnessed our fair share of consultants and czars descending into our midst, creating plans and then disappearing before the imminent collapse of their ideas. We have participated in their focus groups, given them tours of our work sites and filled out the mindless surveys that are the litmus tests of our critical-thinking skills. It is important that we begin to understand the implications of the many code words that slop through their recommendations--promulgated to “enhance our competitive edge” in all our walks of life. Although the following “corporatespeak” glossary is hardly complete, I believe I have selected some of the terms most popular in board rooms, the media and countless government reports.

* Accountability-- This is the au courant word for any manager facing budgets linked to taxpayer money. Lack of same provides an excellent rationale for abandoning public enterprises such as schools and clinics.

* Cost savings--Simply put, producing more with less. Or, forced overtime without compensation.

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* Deep and narrow cuts/streamlining production-- Educating workers that company loyalty does not mean job security.

* Downsizing/rightsizing--A tough-love approach to save American industry. Or, massive elimination of middle management and the rank and file.

* Golden handshake--Eliminates potential gray panthers in middle management. Or, forced retirement after forced overtime. (For those at the very top, the handshake becomes a kinder, gentler “golden parachute.”)

* Outsourcing/contracting out-- The selective firing of employees (sometimes depersonalized as “FTEs” or full-time equivalents), substituting cheaper contract workers with no benefits. Or, the boss gets the golden parachute and the drones are dropped into the rocky terrain of day labor. Extra points if the FTEs are unionized.

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* Pay-for-performance-- A revolutionary concept that links wages with quality of services rendered and the even more arbitrary standard of “attitude.” Or, employees are expected to hum “America the Beautiful” as they do more work for less pay.

* TQM-- Total quality management; product development and service strategies that are client-centered and involve worker input. Or, the workers get to decide who among them gets the pink slips.

* Work groups or teams--Alternative work structures. A side benefit is that they prevent effective organizing at the work site, making every state a right-to-work state. Ever hear of “yellow dog contracts?”

* Workplace violence-- The aftermath of management tough love, when employees finally crack on the job. Or, when the local Pinkertons are brought in to soothe the workers.

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As each of us begins to create his or her own glossary of corporatespeak, we may find that seemingly innocuous words can be more than mere semantics. They methodically pave the way for our public and private conversations and for our future--which is why it is so important to decode the corporate dialect. Then all of us can contribute to the renewal of a humane language as we pursue the human enterprise.


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