Synonym showdown: Which word works best?

Six sets of synonymous terms to consider closely the next time you whip up some written communication.

“We fired the manager.”

“We terminated the manager.”

“We dismissed the manager.”

Which one’s best? It’s all in the eye of the beholder, of course, but it’s undeniable that those three sentences, all of which say essentially the same thing, convey very different messages. Those messages will resonate with some, alienate others, and possibly anger a few, particularly if the subject matter is something as volatile as job losses.

With that in mind, here are six sets of synonymous terms to consider.

Fire vs. terminate vs. dismiss

“Terminate” is awfully cold. After all, in popular culture the word is most closely associated with a murderous cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. That’s the reason human resources departments so often use it. It gives them a little distance from the actual people whose employment is ending. That’s not a great practice for communications, though.

Saying your organization “fired” someone sounds overly harsh, but, at least in the United States, it’s the most commonly used word for involuntary dismissal (in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, the word is “sack”). It’s colloquial. It’s straight talk. If you want to sound like you’re relating to employees on their level, use it. “Dismiss” is more formal, but it lacks the cold-bloodedness of “terminate.”

Lay off vs. let go vs. downsize

There’s no good way to tell someone he or she is getting laid off. There are, however, plenty of really bad ways. As communicators told Ragan.com last year, many of those bad ways involve jargon seemingly intended to make the bad news easier to swallow. Terms such as “downsizing,” “right-sizing,” “re-verticalization,” and, the weirdest of the bunch, “reducing units of liveware,” do the opposite of what they’re meant to.

Telling employees that they’ve been “let go” takes some of the edge off, but at least one communicator told Ragan she disliked that term, too: “It sounds like workers have been trying to escape for years, but the company just wouldn’t allow it.”

Sometimes, just saying “layoffs” is the way to go, but as Rick Amme of Amme and associates wrote, do it with sympathy, as if the employee’s mother had just died.

Allow vs. enable

As social media becomes more and more engrained in what employees do every day, it seems like they’re “allowed” to do new things all the time. A new game “allows” them to win badges or a new wiki “allows” them to share information more efficiently.

Here’s the problem with that: Were those employees specifically prohibited from doing that kind of stuff before now? No. They have the ability to do it now because of technology. That technology “enables” them to do these things. Or better yet, it “empowers” them. There’s an element of authority to “allow,” so be careful with it.

Rules vs. guidelines

At first blush, it may seem that calling a new set of rules “guidelines” is the thing to do, as it sounds less Draconian. But there’s the rub. A “guideline” doesn’t sound particularly ironclad. In fact, it sounds a lot like a suggestion. If you want your rules to be rules, you better call them that. Or you could say that it’s “policy.”

Cut vs. reduce vs. adjust

In general, things you “cut” (or “slash” or “shave”) should be restrictions. Everything else, you “reduce” or “scale back.” If your company has to decrease vacation time, a match to a 401(k), work hours, or pay, saying you’re “cutting” those things seems rather callous. Even so, if you’re dealing with an audience that prefers straight talk more than anything else, “cut” is the straightest of talk.

One thing not to call the reductions is an “adjustment” or, worse, a “correction.” People know by now that “adjustment” means “cut.” And “correction” is downright insulting. Most employees think their higher paychecks are plenty correct, thank you very much.

Employees vs. workers vs. staff

There are lots of things you can call your company’s people: employees, workers, staff. At companies such as IBM, there are even special names for them (there, it’s IBMers). And all those are fine. But more than anything, they’re people. It’s never a bad thing to call them “our people.”

Any other synonyms to offer or contribute or share?

This article first ran on Ragan.com in October 2011.

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