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New words, bad newsAs bad times batter...


New words, bad news

As bad times batter the economy, corporate wordsmiths are being challenged to put a positive spin on the depressing news: People are losing their jobs.

Companies are "rightsizing, downsizing and reshaping," as if they're going through some kind of corporate weight-loss program.

It's a lot like the language of a romantic breakup, said Stanford University communication professor Steven Chaffee: "You say, 'We'll both be the better for this.' You put a nice face on it, and I think that helps get the task done of breaking the thing off."

There is some reason for all this, say unemployment consultants: Companies have canned the word "layoff" because, legally and psychologically, it suggests a temporary condition. In many cases, the "excess" jobs are gone for good.

Besides, experts say the old terms -- discharged, fired, terminated -- don't describe the increasingly complex ritual of job loss in today's world. Fired implies punishment for bad work.

But the new doublespeak oozes an optimism that might make people wince.

National Semiconductor talked about "reshaping" last August and predicted it might cause a "reduction" in the "head count." Digital Equipment Corp. referred to "involuntary methodologies" when it cut 3,450 employees last year.

Executive pay

Executive salaries are becoming an increasingly public issue, figuring in U.S.-Japan trade talks and domestic electioneering. Now, Rep. Martin Olav Sabo, D-Minn., is trying to cap the tax deductions companies can take when they pay big salaries.

Many studies seem to confirm that the salaries are soaring. Since 1978, figures adjusted for inflation show that cash pay alone has jumped 27 percent for top executives, while earnings for plant workers have dropped 10 percent, said Stephen F. O'Byrne, of Towers Perrin, a compensation firm.

Using even a conservative formula, figures from General Motors show that chairman Robert Stempel made $1.1 million, in cash and stock gains, in 1990 -- 32 times more than his lowest-paid employee, at $34,000, according to data from GM. And this employee is in a union; the company refuses to release data on the pay of employees such as clerks, who make much less.

All of a business' wages and salaries are tax deductible as business expenses. The Sabo bill would eliminate as a tax deduction that part of an executive's salary that is more than 25 times what the company's lowest-paid employee earns.

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