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The 69 Words GM Employees Can Never Say 373

Posted by timothy
from the ok-and-you-can't-say-that-number-either dept.
bizwriter (1064470) writes "General Motors put together its take on a George Carlin list of words you can't say. Engineering employees were shown 69 words and phrases that were not to be used in emails, presentations, or memos. They include: defect, defective, safety, safety related, dangerous, bad, and critical. You know, words that the average person, in the context of the millions of cars that GM has recalled, might understand as indicative of underlying problems at the company. Oh, terribly sorry, 'problem' was on the list as well."
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The 69 Words GM Employees Can Never Say

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  • by just_another_sean (919159) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @09:10AM (#47045857) Homepage Journal

    Of course they don't need to use any of those words. Everyone knows GM vehicles are doubleplusgood!

    • by Immerman (2627577) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @09:29AM (#47046053)

      Rejoice! The fuel tank exhibits a delightful ability to consistently emit large cheerful conflations of thermal exuberance in response to mild percussive excitation. We recommend modifying the roof-rack to double as a full-length barbeque grill to maximize the occupants appreciation of this fortuitous feature.

    • Re:Corporate speak (Score:5, Informative)

      by JaredOfEuropa (526365) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @09:31AM (#47046065) Journal
      Actually, avoiding certain words makes sense if those words bolster a legal case against GM, as a partial admission of guilt. Same reason your side mirrors still bear that stupid warning about objects being closer than they appear. Fix your silly legal system that allows anyone to sue anyone over anything, and if their case has any merit, gives them a chance to win the damages or out of court settlement lottery.

      Our own legal system mostly awards actual damages (which can still be quite high in injury suits), and orders only small awards for stuff like "mental anguish". Moreover, we do not have the notion of punitive damages, instead companies can be fined, with the proceeds going to the state, the object being to punish, not arbitrarily reward a wronged party.
      • Re:Corporate speak (Score:5, Insightful)

        by JazzLad (935151) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @09:36AM (#47046137) Homepage
        That's ok, here most of the moneys go to the lawyers anyway.
      • I think - in extension to this point - that the lawyers suing GM are too lazy/unable to read every document GM could produce in discovery and therefore they simply do word searches among the documents for the 69 words. The other alternative for protecting yourself from lawsuits (besides never using the words the lawyers will find) is to delete all copies of all emails, memos, and presentations that are more than 6 months old. I have heard about a company that tries to use this method to reduce its legal ex
        • Re:Corporate speak (Score:5, Informative)

          by penix1 (722987) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @11:14AM (#47047167) Homepage

          The other alternative for protecting yourself from lawsuits (besides never using the words the lawyers will find) is to delete all copies of all emails, memos, and presentations that are more than 6 months old. I have heard about a company that tries to use this method to reduce its legal exposure.

          There's a better alternative... Don't make fucked up shit that has to be recalled to protect people's lives. If a recall is necessary, do it as soon as the problem is identified. Don't wait for years to pass in the typical bean counter fashion in the hopes that less people will be hurt than product sold. Don't cover it up and pretend the problem never existed.

          In short, do the right thing and fix the damned thing before more people lose their lives. That is, after all, what we are talking about with most car recalls.

      • I don't think any of the parties involved should benefit from punitive measures. Let it go to a non-involved party. A charity or a independent body that does safety checks.
        Neither individuals or the state should benefit from a punishment, because it taints the motive for the punishment. Was it punishment for profit?

    • by countach (534280)

      Yes, as Orwell observed, if you remove the vocabulary necessary to commit thought-crime, then thought-crime becomes impossible. In this case GM doesn't want to be convicted of actual crime.

    • by Darinbob (1142669) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @03:03PM (#47049945)

      As a GM employee, I take ___ at the idea that we're all ___ over here. In reality we ___ very hard to make the ___ possible ___ for the American ___. Many of our ___ have spent ___ developing the ___ automobiles in the ___. To ___ the hard working ___ of __ is an ___ to the ___ workers here. But no, the ___ at Slashdot think it's ___ to laugh at the ___ even though they ___ in the same situation. Ever since being taken over by the ___ at the US government during the ___ out we have been held ____ to the highest ___ of excellence by our ___ overlords in ___ DC. No matter what automobile you own, whether it be ___, ___, ___, or even a fine ___, you should be proud of the ___ at ___.

  • Note to myself: (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TheDarkMaster (1292526) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @09:11AM (#47045865)
    Never buy a car from GM. A company that practices this type of policy can not have my confidence in any way.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by ColdWetDog (752185)

      Be careful about over-wide proscriptions - walking is good for you, but a bit limiting.

      • Well .. As a curiosity, soon we will have so many cars on the streets that everyone will not be able to transit anymore, then will have to walk as I :-) (but do not worry, I understand your point)
      • Re:Note to myself: (Score:5, Informative)

        by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @09:45AM (#47046239) Homepage Journal

        If you've worked on GM cars, you know what he's talking about. They are mostly underbuilt and they are not built to be maintained, they have a severe love of rivets. They are also well-known for paint failure. The paint is one of the most important parts of the car, it protects the body which I am sure you will agree is a significant part itself.

        The up side of GM is parts interchange, which is by far above the other domestics. They also have some fantastic engines. The down side is everything else.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Gr8Apes (679165)

          They also have some fantastic engines. The down side is everything else.

          Fantastic engines? Compared to what? Ford Escorts or a 90s Hyundai? Fantastic engines would be those 4-cylinder Toyota, Subaru or Honda engines that run efficiently for 200K miles, or diesel engines from mercedes or volvo that can go 500K. Not some 70s style inefficient powerplant that reliably falls apart pre 100K in some way and requires half a rebuild at a minimum, provided the rest of the car is still functioning.

          I've owned and driven quite a few cars into the high mileage territory (i.e. ~200K) and t

    • Never buy a car from GM. A company that practices this type of policy can not have my confidence in any way.

      Got bad news for ya - they all practice this type of policy; GM just happens to be in the spotlight right now, and that's why you're hearing about their list of no-no words, rather than Ford's, or Chrysler's, or Toyota's, etc.

      • Ask Apple about it. They never have problems or bugs and seldom have 'issues'.

      • Fine. Buy a Tesla. Quality has a price. Your car or your money.

        • Fine. Buy a Tesla. Quality has a price. Your car or your money.

          Wait until Tesla is building tens of millions of cars a year; they'll have their issues as well, and will likely develop a corporate culture of trying to shove as much as possible under the rug, just like everyone else. Manufacturing consistency is easier for a boutique than an industrial giant.

          FWIW, I've owned & driven Chevy trucks for pretty much my entire life, and never had any sort of issue caused by a manufacturer's defect. The closest I ever came was when I was a kid, and my dad got a recall lett

        • by pla (258480)
          Fine. Buy a Tesla. Quality has a price. Your car or your money.

          Not knocking on Tesla, because yes, they make a damned fine car. Wish I could afford one!

          But to address your deeper point - Three different makes available in the US offer a 10 year / 100k warranty on cars that start under $20k. Another three offer it on cars under $35k. Strangely, not one of those companies bases its operations out of America.

          And GM? Well now! They'll let you pay extra for a whopping six years of no rust. I would l
    • Re:Note to myself: (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Rob the Bold (788862) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @09:25AM (#47046017)

      Never buy a car from GM. A company that practices this type of policy can not have my confidence in any way.

      All you know from TFA is that GM has a list. What you don't know is whether other automakers -- or manufacturers in general -- have similar lists. Given that all companies of any size have lawyers whose job it is to reduce potential legal liability, I'd have to assume that GM is not alone in having such a policy.

      • by PPH (736903)

        This is a good point. Although I think publishing an (internal) list is a pretty simplistic way of dealing with this.

        When I worked in the engineering department at Boeing, we were expected to write all of our memos clearly and concisely, using proper technical terminology, avoiding hyperbole and lots of adjectives. And to confine our writing to our area of expertise. For example, we could write that such-and-such an event could lead to the failure of some critical function or component. We would not write

    • The only thing cheaper than the pathetic moron that said, "ya, this is good idea, do it." And then emailed it to the new CEO is the parser that will run against the emails with the phrases reversed back.

      This would be a interesting application using AIML. [wikipedia.org]
    • I'd personally feel comforted if someone referred to the auto I was in an accident in as a "rolling sarcophagus". We need more frank honestly like this which could be potentially damning in courts. I'm sure KIA refers jokingly to their cars as Killed in Action when presented with queries about their safety. When Ford employees refer to their vehicles as rolling death boxes I'm sure whoever uses that terminology gets super not fired too.
    • Do not bail out GM and its subsidiaries and daughter companies like a chump like the German government did for Opel. You will get screwed in the worst possible way and GM will still close shop and move east the second they don't need your free guarantees anymore.

    • A company that practices this type of policy can not have my confidence in any way.

      Good luck being Amish.

  • by barlevg (2111272) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @09:12AM (#47045873)
    For using all 69 words. No exceptions, right?
    • For using all 69 words. No exceptions, right?

      Obviously there are exceptions. "Quality and Safety" is one of the top level links on GM's website. And "Ignition Recall" is right there on the front page.

    • Someone complained and HR agreed that he intentionally stopped short of making the list an even 70. Fired for sexual harassment.
    • by Ecuador (740021)
      What about the people who made this nice GM ad seen in John Oliver's show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com] ;)
    • by Anubis IV (1279820) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @11:19AM (#47047241)

      I remember this one odd incident from my college days. I and my roommate--who DJed for the college radio station and from whom I had picked up some random trivia about the business--had a friend over to hang out. We were shooting the breeze, and at some point my roommate excused himself to use the restroom. The friend and I kept chatting for a bit, until we found ourselves wondering just what exactly was going on in the bathroom, since we could hear my roommate laughing like crazy while presumably still occupied with relieving himself.

      As it turns out, he was laughing because in all the years he had known me, he had never once heard me cuss, and yet, while in the restroom, the one thing he could hear from the conversation was me releasing a string of profanities as if I was a seasoned sailor. What he didn't know was that I never really had any problem with using expletives in a purely referential manner, and that our friend had asked if I happened to know the list of words that were banned on the radio.

      Which is to say, no exceptions. ;)

  • words (Score:5, Funny)

    by serviscope_minor (664417) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @09:14AM (#47045903) Journal

    I like how the article explains to us the meaning behind the words Hindenburg and Titanic.

    You know just in case we couldn't picture an engineer likening the powder keg of a rolling sarcophagus spontansously combusting in an apocalyptic grenadelike explosion, mangling and impaling the hapless ocupants like Curt Cobain flying the Challenger into the Hindenburg.

    On the plus side you could use the result to cook you're toast at the end of it all.

  • Two more words,

    "We're Sorry."
    • by bobbied (2522392)

      Two more words, "We're Sorry."

      Saying that is like handing signed blank checks to a host of personal injury lawyers. Especially for a company like GM which is seen as HUGE money pit. So the corporate lawyer reviewing the public statement is going to have kittens if the PR department tried something like this.

  • by johnjaydk (584895) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @09:19AM (#47045945)

    You get a Challenger disaster.

    In my experience, You have to use exactly these words in order to get management to take problems serious. Turns out it was because they put management in a legal bind.

    Any engineer who follows GM's edict should be flogged. Bad stuff happens because good men do nothing.

    • by Ihlosi (895663)
      You have to use exactly these words in order to get management to take problems serious.

      Actually, you have to use words like "liability", "class-action lawsuit", "company stock price drops like a rock", etc.

      At least when you're dealing with real managers, and not pretend ones that used to be engineers at some point.

    • by eth1 (94901)

      Yeah... note to self: All the good engineers are going to leave, so all of GM's future cars are probably going to be well-described by all the forbidden words.

    • by jellomizer (103300) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @09:55AM (#47046339)

      Playing devils advocate here

      However the engineer, is often overly cautious, to the extreme, and sometimes have a fit if they don't get there way, and having engineers over exaggerating to get their point across isn't unheard of.

      The words seem to be "Power Words" terms that get people to agree without only on an emotional basis. So an engineer can use them to get his way, without really backing himself up. And if his idea gets rejected and the media gets their hands on the email, there is a huge PR problem, where the email is taken out of contexts.

      Lets just say this discussion was about the vanity mirror, the engineer wants it to be bolted on, vs. a plastic clip. His design is superior because the bolts will last longer. However other engineers find the plastic clip is good enough, and looks better. The engineer who proposes the bolts may fill a bit annoyed that they went with an other design. So he may complain to protest his point, and over emphasize the risks of the plastic clips, and toss in a few of those power words. To try to get his way. Then a few years down the line, there is an unrelated problem with the car, and there is a law suit. They find emails from an engineer discussing doom and gloom. Now the media will have a field day with that. Even though it was unrelated.

    • by bigpat (158134) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @10:08AM (#47046467)

      Exactly. The Thiokol engineers knew that the air temperature at the launch pad was below the lower range operating temperature of the O Rings which was 40 degrees (or 50 degrees for the system as a whole). The O rings themselves were certified down to 40 degrees but the engineers were bullied by management who wanted proof that the system would fail rather than the other way around and then when the engineers couldn't prove that it would fail they were overruled. I think the comments that it would be "away from goodness" was just a really impotent way of saying something like "there was a potentially increased risk that the rocket would explode that can not be quantified because of lack of data", but saying the rocket might explode in such blunt language was probably a quick ticket to being fired shortly afterwards and the engineers probably knew that.

      Language matters and the fact that GM was more worried about getting sued than about engineers accurately conveying concerns over safety is damning. GM is supposedly a new company after bankruptcy. Is it?

      • It is cargo-cult management. Instead of engineering a car that would not elicit these words in a serious manner, they just ban the words.

      • Exactly. The Thiokol engineers knew that the air temperature at the launch pad was below the lower range operating temperature of the O Rings which was 40 degrees (or 50 degrees for the system as a whole). The O rings themselves were certified down to 40 degrees but the engineers were bullied by management who wanted proof that the system would fail rather than the other way around and then when the engineers couldn't prove that it would fail they were overruled.

        Sure it sounds bad - when you only tell the s

  • The NSA will be recording their voice conversations anyway. But seriously, this is a joke, right? If not, it's instant "Hall of shame" material, and my cynicism reaches a new height.

  • Just say, "this may have negative marketing implications", and corporate will have the recall in effect by lunchtime.
  • It's a survival-challenging vehicle!

  • I'm thinking something like a pre-commit hook, only integrated into Microsoft Office. ;-)
  • Just common sense. You don't write anything in an email that could be used as evidence against the company in a court case. Everything you write can and will be used against the company in a court case, no matter how much it has to be taken out of context. Much easier to just avoid some words.

    If you know that writing "the car has a defect" can cost the company millions, while writing "the car has a condition" has the same meaning, and your fellow engineers know it has the same meaning, why would you want
    • Trying to hide a serious problem that can cause deaths is even worse for the image of the company to admit that it has a product problems. It is high time to send these managers to hell and start doing things right for a change.
  • by l3v1 (787564) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @09:33AM (#47046103)
    "'problem' was on the list as well"

    Well, as everyone knows, there are no problems, only challenges :))
  • by Len (89493)

    "There seems to be a bagel with the ignition switch that we should look into."

    The emails and memos will still get written, and it's not like anyone will be fooled by the obtuse circumlocutions.

  • by tomhath (637240) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @09:39AM (#47046165)
    The list is just examples of words a lawyer will latch onto. For the same reason doctors are instructed to never say they're sorry for a less than perfect outcome; it can be presented to a jury that they admitted guilt - whether they intended it that way or not.
  • by pefisher (774697) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @09:39AM (#47046173)
    Sometimes it seems that engineers have the lowest power to education ratio of any profession in the US. Lawyers and bean counters seem to spend their days making sure that any good that might be done by engineers is preemptively neutralized.
    • Exactly. Which is why I would never encourage my kids to go into engineering. It's not the 1960s anymore, we've squeezed all we can out of engineering and we're coasting back to the historical mean of how humans behave.

  • by damn_registrars (1103043) <damn.registrars@gmail.com> on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @09:43AM (#47046215) Homepage Journal
    The summary goes so far as to tell us that it is Engineering employees who cannot use those words in specific types of communications. People outside that division can use those words, and people inside that division can use them in communications that are outside that list.

    GM has enough problems on its own without people distorting their message to make them sound worse than they are.
  • It comes down to good engineering. Some of the words on the list are pretty reasonable. Telling your engineers not to use terms like apocalyptic and powder keg is fine--those aren't necessary to accurate technical writing. But defect and safety seem like words that an engineer needs. It's hard to believe that GM's engineers didn't object strongly to those restrictions.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @09:43AM (#47046221)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j6IZ2TroruU

  • It's the lawyers (Score:5, Insightful)

    by LarryWMSN (1104101) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @09:47AM (#47046259)
    If you've ever been deposed as part of a lawsuit, the lawyer will go through every email and key on those particular words to present them is the worst possible light. I had to go through this once and spent three days, basically, justifying every word I used. Now when a customer comes to me and says they have a problem or something is not working, I will ask, "what behavior are you expecting to see and what are you seeing?" When we resolve the "problem", we simply say they should see the expected behavior now and please get back to us if they don't. It sucks but that's the reality.

    GM definitely knew they had problems and didn't fix them, but I'm sure there were many emails that were unrelated to their intentional disregard to the known problems that they had to defend along the way. Every little sentence or word that someone has to justify means more time with the lawyers racking up fees. You can't skirt around real problems with the change in words, but it makes it harder for the lawyers to bring in unrelated or insignificant facts into the mix.
  • In other news, the GM employees responsible for setting the length of the list will be attending sexual harrassment training.
  • n/t see subject.

  • Years ago, I remember reading an interview with a GM former employee and he talked about advances in safety. He said, paraphrasing, that GM discovered hundreds of ways each year to improve safety related equipment through R&D and testing, but lawyers prevented from implementing the changes. The lawyers reasoned that the older equipment still passed safety regulations and implementing the improved equipment could open GM to legal action.

  • NOT emails & memos. (Score:5, Informative)

    by asylumx (881307) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @10:01AM (#47046405)
    According to the WSJ article that the AOL article is "borrowing" from (and sensationalizing) these limitations are only applied to "documents used for reports and presentations."

    That's bad enough, but we really don't need to discredit them even more for limiting their employees ability to communicate with each other (which they haven't done). They are simply trying to keep emotion out of the official reports & presentations and stick to the facts. I actually don't blame them for trying to do this.
  • http://www.dangeroustrailers.o... [dangeroustrailers.org]

    Seems like SOP.

  • So they have no way of expressing something along the lines of: "We are very serious about safety. It is a critical concept to us"

  • bankrupt.
    Only made it because General Motors is actually 2 words.
  • by jones_supa (887896) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @10:10AM (#47046493)

    It's a troll headline. Guys, it's not a strict list. Someone just crafted a bunch of examples [imgur.com] for guidance. A few of those are even made tongue in cheek, such as "rolling sarcophagus".

    The another page [imgur.com] of the guidelines shows the general idea: just try to use neutral and professional expressions instead of scary words.

    Nothing to see here, please move on...

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