GM’s bad words: This is what happens when leaders listen ONLY to their lawyers

Posted on May 20, 2014 12:32 pm by | Crisis Communication | Internal | Legal

Part of GM's presentation on banned wordsOn his new HBO show on Sunday, comedian John Oliver excoriated GM over its current recall crisis. CEO Mary Barra’s optimism that GM’s difficulties will result in a better, stronger company, Oliver said, must mean that the 13 people the company acknowledges were killed as a direct result of vehicle defects are actually a good thing.

Among the issues Oliver raised was a list of words employees were told to avoid using. The list, which were part of a 2008 presentation to employees on how to communicate with each other about safety issues, included deathtrap, widowmaker, and rolling sarcophagus. In all, there were 68 words and phrases employees should avoid.

Oliver wondered where the words (Hindenburg, Kervorkianesque, Corvair-like and potentially-disfiguring among them) came from. While I have no certain knowledge, I’d be willing to bet real money they were words and phrases identified from employee emails. The rationale for avoiding these words, after all, is that companies are required to archive internal messages and emails containing such words could become part of a legal discovery process.

The simple act of communicating that these words shouldn’t be used, however, most likely inflicted more damage to GM than their discovery in emails ever could have. This is an example of what happens when companies make decisions based exclusively on legal advice without weighing other considerations.

I’m not opposed to lawyers (heaven knows I’m related to enough of ‘em) or legal counsel. The corporate lawyer’s job is to minimize risk. The easiest way to minimize risk is for nobody to say anything, ever, which is one of the reasons lawyers resisted email in its early days. In the case of GM’s bad words, the risk of emails containing the phrase “unbelievable engineering screw-up” was enough for the legal team to counsel against their use. If nobody uses the words in emails, they won’t surface during a lawsuit.

I can think of at least five reasons this was a bad idea:

  1. Forcing employees to employ euphemisms to talk about real problems minimizes the situation and sends a message that the company doesn’t want isn’t serious about addressing it. It’s the kind of requirement that shapes culture (defined as “the way things are done around here”). A culture that shushes employee conversations about safety is best described as “toxic.” If you’ve been wondering how a company could sit for so long on information that could have saved lives, look no further than this. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Acting Director David Friedman agrees. In a press conference last Friday, he said that the censorship discouraged open and free discussion of potential problems.

  2. If the lawyers were concerned about emails surfacing in discovery, shouldn’t they also have been concerned about the potential for a leak of the presentation itself? Clearly, the company has drawn more unwanted attention to itself over the presentation than their exposition during a trial would have.

  3. Employees will continue to use these words anyway; just not in email. Rather, in hushed, conspiratorial tones in hallways and cubicles, employees will willfully violate the rules in order to speak candidly with one another.

  4. If censorship leads to complacency because employees perceive that leadership is trying to minimize the issue, the opposite is also probably true: Open discussion would have led to faster, better solutions that might have saved lives and prevented so much tarnish on GM’s reputation.

  5. Being told how to talk is an engagement killer. Knowing that the reason is to sweep constructive conversation under the rug is worse. (The collective eye-rolling of GM’s workers upon learning of the censorship probably tilted the earth on its axis a degree or two.) I would be surprised if motivation and productivity didn’t take a hit in response to the rules. Compare the likely reaction among GM employees to that of Target employees who read their CMO’s public belief that employees “peaking openly and honestly, and challenging norms is exactly what we need to be doing today and every day going forward.” CMO Jeff Jones also quoted Emile Zola: “If you shut up truth and bury it under the ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way.” Employees responded like this:

GM, by the way, has responded by noting it has launched a Speak Up For Safety Program designed to encourage employees to discuss safety issues. As Bloomberg Businessweek pointed out in a story yesterday, though, “GM can’t seem to get its story straight. “The company is struggling to clarify whether it wants to apologize to consumers, mollify regulators, or shout down plaintiffs’ attorneys.” While repeatedly insisting that the engineering flaws occurred at the “old GM” and that this is the new GM, CEO Barra is exhibiting a schizophrenic approach to crisis communication that isn’t helping.

Several years ago, in a podcast interview, crisis expert Helio Fred Garcia pointed out that lawyers advise clients to say nothing in a crisis because if they say nothing, nothing can be used against them in court; it’s the best way to minimize risk. Their fear, he said, is that leaders will blather mindlessly words that could come back to haunt them. However, he said, between mindless blather and saying nothing, there’s an awful lot of room to say useful things that can help shorten the life of the crisis.

The life expectancy of GM’s crisis continues to expand, in large part because the company’s leaders did exactly what their lawyers told them to do. Whether they shrugged off PR and other advice or never sought it at all, I can’t say. Smart leaders, though, take advice from all their counselors—legal, PR, and others—and weigh them to make the best decision for the organization.



  • 1.Shel - Great writing and insights as usual. Your post echoes my Tweet earlier this week so thank you for keeping the light on this important issue too often overlooked by business executives.

    The best corporate lawyers today understand that the court of public opinion is often much more important to business reputation/revenues than winning or settling a legal battle down the road.

    Rich Klein | May 2014 | New York

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