Oswald Letter

Sometime You’ve Gotta Use the “F” Word

Recently, I was intrigued by a Wall Street Journal article — “A Four-Letter Word Schools Won’t Use.” It said that colleges absolutely refuse to use the “F” word. Yes, it’s true. Schools avoid using the word “FIRE” at all costs.

According to the article, the writer analyzed 50 recent news releases announcing coaching changes in college football and basketball. Of the 50 releases reviewed, not a single one contained the word “fired” — zip, zilch, nada.

“How can that be?” Well, while none of the coaches was fired, all had been “relieved of duties,” “released,” or “replaced.” Seems like schools that find the “F” word taboo are really comfortable with “R” words!

Although these colleges can’t bring themselves to say they’ve fired their coaches, the schools certainly don’t seem to have a problem doing it.

Companies avoid the “F” word, too
Avoiding the “F” word isn’t limited to colleges and universities. Companies of all sizes seem reluctant to admit they’ve fired anyone. Here’s the lead paragraph from Yahoo’s September 6, 2011, press release announcing the firing, uh, removal, of its CEO:

Yahoo! Inc. (NASDAQ: YHOO), the premier digital media company, today announced a leadership reorganization under which the Board of Directors has appointed Timothy Morse interim Chief Executive Officer, effective immediately, replacing Carol Bartz, who has been removed by the Board from her role as Chief Executive Officer.

Do you see the word “fired” in there? You can look, but you won’t find it. In fact, the word “fired” never appears in the press release. Read the Yahoo! press release

And if you look closely at the Yahoo! press release, you’ll discover it really wasn’t about firing Carol Bartz. The headline reads, “Yahoo! Announces Leadership Reorganization.” Oh, so it was just a “reorganization.” (Another “R” word.) Whew! Glad it was good news!

The subtitles in the press release continue the ruse — “Board Appoints Timothy Morse Interim CEO” and “Board Initiates Search for Permanent CEO.” Again, no word about anyone being fired. This was about the board appointing an interim CEO and looking for a permanent one. No mention about how the job had come open. Did the CEO retire or take another job? You can’t tell by the company’s press release.

Ms. Bartz, on the other hand, knew she had been fired. In fact, in an email she sent to Yahoo! employees, she wrote, “I am very sad to tell you that I’ve just been fired over the phone by Yahoo’s Chairman of the Board. It has been my pleasure to work with all of you and I wish you only the best going forward.”

Wow! Ms. Bartz wasn’t afraid to use the “F” word. Maybe she did it out of anger. Many of us must admit to uttering the “F” word on occasion. C’mon, admit it. You’ve let it slip once or twice.

Who benefits from not using the word “fired”?
So what’s the aversion to using the word “fired”? Is it that we’re trying to preserve the person’s dignity? Let’s imagine that is exactly the reason for the avoiding the “F” word.

Take, for example, what transpired at Penn State University. Doesn’t the whole world know that Joe Paterno was fired? Sure, Penn State didn’t use the “F” word. Instead, it chose to say Paterno would “no longer serve as head football coach.” Did the university’s word choice fool anyone? Did it help preserve Coach Paterno’s dignity? Not for a minute. Everyone knew he’d been fired.

OK, maybe not EVERYONE. But those few rubes who weren’t sure if he was fired or had resigned, well, we talked about it some more until everyone was crystal clear that he’d been fired. You see, avoiding the word “fired” only caused more discussion of the situation.

Are we averse to the word “fired” because we’re worried about lawsuits? Again, refraining from using the word doesn’t change what actually happened. It’s the act itself that can lead to legal trouble, more than what you call it. Where I grew up, firing someone and then calling it anything but that is what they called “putting lipstick on a pig.”

My guess is that all these alternatives we’ve coined to avoid using the word “fired” are really for the benefit of the person doing the firing, not the person getting fired. It makes us feel better if we are “parting ways” with someone. It helps us sleep at night. But are we fooling anyone? Certainly not anyone but ourselves.

2 thoughts on “Sometime You’ve Gotta Use the “F” Word”

  1. Dan, when Syracuse officials fired assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine over the weekend, they used the “T” word (“terminated”) http://wapo.st/ur15ev. They must have read your column about not mincing words. tk

  2. Despite the “publics’ right to know (apparently) EVERYTHING”, it’s nobody’s freakin’ business what transpires in an employment relationship. With very ‘public’ situations, some kind of announcement ‘reorganization’/’removal’
    MIGHT be necessary but the whys and wherefores are between the involved parties.

    Some years ago the Boston Red Sox ‘fired a coach’ “not because of his poor performance”, they said, but they “didn’t want to miss the opportunity to promote an up-and-coming minor league manager, before someone else grabbed him”.

    I don’t know why SOMEBODY didn’t file a wrongful termination suit in this very publicly mishandled public relations stupidity. Everything is so anti-employer, (we) enlightened employers have learned to articulate only as necessary.

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