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GM workers, grab your thesaurus

Automaker should focus on building a culture where it’s safe to speak up, not banning words and phrases

By Todd Humber

Words matter.

And I’m not just saying that because I’m a journalist. Clear communication is critical to every professional and every organization. If you’re sending an email, you want it to be as short as possible and to the point, leaving no room for misunderstanding.

I could write an email that says, “I will be unavailable for the next 45 minutes as I go out in search of sustenance, something likely of an Eastern slant prepared with grains of rice and raw fish at an establishment I often frequent.”

Or I could say: “Grabbing some sushi. Be back at 1.”

GM’s naughty word list

Maybe it’s the editor in me, but I cringed when I saw the list of so-called “naughty words” that General Motors has asked its employees not to use in their internal communications. The embattled automaker presented the list to employees back in 2008, but it just leaked out.

Some of the words, I can see the automaker frowning on. It doesn’t want staff using terms like deathtrap, widowmaker and rolling sarcophagus, according to a post on CNNMoney. Other banned words and phrases included Hindenburg, powder keg, Titanic, apocalyptic, you’re toast and Kevorkianesque. Also on the list are safety, safety-related, serious, failure and defect.

Clearly, GM is aware internal emails could end up being used in court proceedings, and it doesn’t want plain language unmuddying the waters for a judge or jury. In addition to words, there are also complete sentences that are taboo, including:

• “This is a lawsuit waiting to happen.”

• “Unbelievable engineering screw-up.”

Rather, the automaker wants employees to be more constructive with their feedback. Something like “Windshield wipers did not work properly. Would run for three to four seconds, and then quit for the next seven to eight minutes… repeatedly.”

But that sounds like a defect to me. And one that could have safety-related implications that could certainly end up with the driver being toast. What’s the harm in providing that honest feedback? Yes, it’s more helpful to describe the problem and not be “vague” — which was one of GM’s reasons for the word ban.

But if I’m driving down Highway 401 at 100 km/h surrounded by semi-trucks in driving rain, having the wipers quit for 30 seconds — let alone seven or eight minutes — is going to cause a major safety hazard for myself and the vehicles around me. If I worked for GM, and had that happen on a test model, I would want to call a spade a spade. That’s something GM should want too — if an employee thinks a vehicle is a rolling sarcophagus because of a serious design flaw, she should be able to say so. (No crying wolf, of course, but — we’re talking about professionals, here.)

Beyond just being vague, GM also urged employees: “Understand that there really aren’t any secrets in this company. For anything you say or do, ask yourself how you would react if it was reported in a major newspaper or on television.”

That’s a good rule when it comes to social media — the old “don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see.” But it doesn’t seem so applicable when it comes to employees expressing concerns or reporting malfunctions with products that could literally kill people.

Safe to speak up?

General Motors has plenty of work to do when it comes to culture. This is the organization, after all, that had elevators at its Detroit headquarters that would let senior executives travel from their office to the parking garage without stopping on any other floors. No mixing with the junior staff, after all.

Instead of banning words, GM should work on building an open culture where people feel safe to speak up rather than spending time running to their thesaurus to find a new way to tell management that a wheel fell off during testing.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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