— No company wants an employee to say something to the media that would intentionally, or unintentionally, make the company look bad. Even words used in internal company memos could come back and haunt the company in a court case. Most reasonable people would agree, but what if the company is a huge automaker where using the word "safety" is a no-no?
According to internal documents related to the congressional investigation of General Motors, the automaker issued a list of words in 2008 that were never to be used by GM workers.
Some of the words are clearly words an automaker wouldn't want in the media, such as a car being called a "big-time" "life-threatening" "deathtrap" that could "explode" into a fiery "inferno." And of course, you wouldn't want your newest SUV really known as a "powder keg" on wheels capable of "potentially-disfiguring" "gruesome" injuries.
But then there are other words GM didn't want thrown around the office, and it's these words that have safety regulators scratching their heads. If a worker is writing a report about a potential problem with a car, how can the worker describe the problem if they're not allowed to use the word "problem?"
How can someone say a safety issue might exist if they can't use the word "safety?"
An auto recall is based on a safety defect, so why would GM tell workers to never say the words "defect" or "defective?"
The list of words employees shouldn't use was released in documents related to GM's agreement to pay a $35 million fine for waiting 10 years to recall millions of cars with defective ignition switches. It's the maximum penalty currently available under the law, but there is a push on the federal level to increase future maximum penalties to $300 million.
“A penalty of $35 million is a parking ticket in comparison to the toll this defect has taken on the lives of America’s families. We need to increase the statutory caps for civil liability settlements to ensure that auto manufacturers know they will be held fully and fiscally accountable if they do not report safety issues in their vehicles in a timely and responsible manner.” - Senator Edward J. Markey
Here's the list of words GM employees were told to avoid when writing reports:
- Big Time
- Brakes like an “X” car
- Powder keg
- Rolling sarcophagus
- Safety related
- Spontaneous combustion
- Words or phrases with a biblical connotation
- You’re toast