It's easy to underestimate the power of buzzwords: In the right hands, they can serve a wide array of purposes, from perking up language to making simple ideas seem impressively complex. But perhaps their greatest strength lies in their ability to clothe unpleasant or unpopular news in relatively innocuous language.
Buzzwords make it possible to "pass the hat" rather than beg, "pass away" rather than die, and "pass gas" rather than fart. Buzzwords that perform as euphemisms enable the user to transform an unpleasant reality into something that sounds almost enjoyable.
And speaking of passing the hat, two of the most miserable trends currently affecting the economy are the rising tide of unemployment and the simultaneous movement of jobs to places where labor is much cheaper. "Downsizing," a euphemism for "firing," and "offshoring," a buzzword for "sending jobs overseas," have both become offensive terms, as demonstrated by the furor that erupted when U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas J. Donahue announced that "There are legitimate values in outsourcing not only jobs but work."
If older euphemisms like "downsizing" and "offshoring" now pack the same negative punch as "firing" and "shipping jobs to China," how can a business exec refer to the processes without sounding like a bad guy? Create new buzzwords, of course. Since the late 1980s, the terms "rightsizing" and "rightshoring" have ridden to the rescue, transforming disturbing-sounding corporate moves into things that sound. . . well, right.
On the surface, rightsizing suggests a pleasant process, akin to getting a suit altered or having your home remodeled. In fact, one company, Dreambuilder Custom Homes, uses the word in exactly that way, offering readers of its newsletter Creative Ideas for 'Rightsizing' the Master Bath. For that matter, Ciji Ware, a lifestyle guru, offers her readers tips for Rightsizing Your Life by reducing clutter, moving to smaller homes and otherwise simplifying their lifestyles. Even former DailyFinance media reporter Jeff Bercovici indulged in the term, suggesting that readers "rightsize" the hype over the Apple (AAPL) iPad.
But while it has developed some more attractive usages, rightsizing originally referred to cuts and layoffs, and that's the way it's most often employed. Roy Roberts, GM's (GM) vice president of personnel administration in 1988, has been credited with coining the term as a palatable way of describing his decision to fire 25% of the automaker's salaried staff. More recently, Florida State Senate Leader Mike Haridopolos has announced plans to "rightsize" the legislative body by eliminating staffers -- especially those who are ideologically opposed to Haridopolos. Similarly, Detroit's controversial plan to rightsize itself translates into a decision to cut services and bulldoze buildings across 30% of the beleaguered city.
Rightsizers R Us
If Detroit or the Florida senate has any questions about where to make their cuts, they might try talking to some of the many companies that offer advice on rightsizing. For example, TBM consulting offers a "Rapid Rightsizing" service that "deploys 'Extreme Lean' SWAT teams to help manufacturers quickly adjust" their workforces. Employers who are less eager to launch a paramilitary attack on their workers may try the comparatively gentle methods of Bowman Becker Consultancy, whose "'Rightsizing' the Right Way" technique encourages employers to implement layoffs "with the same thoughtful, systems approach as any other major organizational development initiative."
Even if a business decides against "manpower reductions," there's a lot to be said for "rightshoring." Rather than "offshoring," the unpleasant-sounding process of moving jobs to countries where people will work for pennies, rightshoring suggests putting jobs where they belong. Flatworld Solutions in Bangalore, India, describes this process as outsourcing "simple and not-so-important processes to other countries, while retaining the complex processes in-house."
Then again, there's some question about what qualifies as "simple" versus "complex." For example, Firstsource, a major rightshoring company, offers to run everything from "customer acquisition" to "business research" from its "world class centers" in India and the Philippines. And as recent developments in medical, legal, and R&D outsourcing demonstrate, there are very few jobs that can't be sent overseas, suggesting that the "right" shore might always be located in Asia.
Luckily, some jobs are likely to remain safely within America's shores for the foreseeable future. Buzzword creation, for example, with its reliance on American culture, seems ideally suited to stay a U.S.-dominated industry. Then again, as more MBAs find their way overseas, there's always a chance that today's wordsmiths may one day find themselves in deep masala.
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