Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A rolling sarcophagus by any other name

As if GM doesn’t have enough problems matters on their hands, one of the things that’s come out is a 2008 confidential Power Point instructing employees on what not to say.

I know that anything can come up in a presentation.

I once sat through a preso in which the president of one of my company’s divisions told us that his division was moving through the market with “all of the momentum of an entrenched juggernaut.”

Ignoring for a moment that something entrenched is not really likely to have all that much momentum, who wants to think of their work as a juggernaut? Unless you don’t take getting crushed to death in anything other than a metaphorical way.

Maybe I just wasn’t cut out for corporate America…

Anyway, juggernaut was not on the list of “judgment words” that GM distributed. But “rolling sarcophagus” was.

Oh, I suppose there was a day – before e-mail, before social media, before even Power Point – where someone could have given an internal presentation using “foils” that used the words “rolling sarcophagus.” But you’d think that by 2008, folks would have known better than to use this term – unless, of course, they were using it to describe a competitor’s vehicle, like the Ford Pinto. Not that GM – maker of the “unsafe at any speed” Corvair - would want to be throwing the first stone here. So probably best to avoid “rolling sarcophagus” altogether.

What else made the list?

Oh, there were some fairly innocuous words – like “always” and “never”, which I guess someone could always pull out to prove that you were wrong. (Never say always? Never say always not never?)

And some words that you’d think might be okay, like “safety-related,” “serious,” and “problem” are warned against.

You’d think that “safety-related” would be an important part of the conversation for any car-maker. And as for “serious” and “problem”, if you can’t use those words in a presentation, then I’d say you’ve got a serious problem.

But GM offered a workaround: just do a global replace of “problem” with “condition”, “matter”, or “situation.”

“Defect”? Why that’s just something that “does not perform to design.” Unless, I guess, the design is flawed. Which you can’t say, because you can’t say “flawed.” (Something flawed about their reasoning.)

But there’s a whole lot of other goodies on GM’s list of “vague non-descriptive words, or words with emotional connotations.” The list is not meant to be exhaustive, but illustrative of the must avoids. Included among these, alongside “rolling sarcophagus,” are: “annihilate,” “apocalyptic,” “asphyxiating,” and “cataclysmic.” Which is not to be confused with catalytic, which is not on the bad word list.

And, by the way, “bad” in itself is a bad word. What you want to go with is “below expectations.” (In case you’re wondering, good isn’t on the bad word list, but it probably should be.)

Seriously, folks, do Power Pointers at GM really need to be told that they should avoid space shuttle Challenger, Hindenburg, and Titanic analogies? That “decapitating,” “disemboweling,” “grenade-like,” and “widow-maker” would look bad, especially when taken out of context?

Didn’t these guys learn anything from Martin Lomasney, a great Boston Irish pol of yore:

"Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink.".

GM employees are also warned to avoid words/terms with “biblical connotations.” So no putting a fig-leaf on matters, no trials of Job for what GM’s going through.

In a statement cited by Reuters Friday, GM spokesman Greg Martin said times have changed since the period in which the PowerPoint was released, citing a new "Speak Up for Safety Program" that "encourages employees to discuss safety issues." But for now, thanks for participating, everyone. (Source: Huffington Post.)

Does this mean it’s now okay to describe a GM vehicle as a Kervorkian-esque – another word on the list - rolling sarcophagus?

Somehow I doubt it…

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