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GM Memo Shows Insidious Nature of Corporate Choice – Profits Over Safety

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If ever there was a time to think about the power of words, it is precisely the moment at which one finds oneself potentially entering into a litigious situation. The 2008 GM memo instructing employees on language use (or what not to use), recently debuting on all major news channels, reveals the degree of GM’s deceit.

In 2008,  GM gave a PowerPoint presentation to employees on appropriate terms to be used when discussing safety issues in office communications. The presentation gave 69 examples of words not to use and offered advice on what was appropriate. Employees were told they should not use words like, “Hindenburg,” “powder keg,” “Titanic,” “apocalyptic,” “You’re toast,” and “Kevorkianesque.”  In the presentation these words were labeled as ‘vague and nondescriptive’.  Staff was also told to also avoid using the words, “safety”, “safety related”, “serious”, “failure”, and “defect”.  “Instead of “Safety,” an employee should write that something “Has potential safety implications.” Instead of “Defect,” an employee should say that something “Does not perform to design.” Instead of a “Problem,” there is an “Issue, condition, matter.” (CNN Money, 5/17/14)

[Here’s a thought:  How about spending time on improving the cars that have “potential safety implications” instead of time on avoiding responsibility and deceiving the public?]

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Acting Administrator David Friedman was critical of the GM document.  In a press conference on May 16, “Friedman said that, in telling employees to avoid certain language when writing about safety issues, GM was discouraging open and free discussion of potential problems.”  (CNN Money, 5/17/14) The presentation ended with the warning to consider the impact of internal documents if viewed by the general public.

To say that the GM revelations were poorly received is an understatement, coming as GM is facing massive government fines and numerous lawsuits for its failure to issue safety recalls that have been linked to at least 13 deaths.  This conduct was simply an attempt by GM to keep defective and dangerous vehicle information hidden by ensuring that intra-office communications were consistent with the corporation’s public message.  Forbes magazine (which is not known as a bastion of consumer advocacy), however,  suggested a rather noble objective by the company:  “GM wrote a completely sensible memo to its employees reminding them what happens when incautiously written statements end up in the hands of trial lawyers. They play sensationally with the jury.”

[Note to GM:   A good way to put trial lawyers out of business (this writer is a trial lawyer) is to design and manufacture safe products.  There is plenty of other work for good trial lawyers to do besides suing a major auto manufacturer who denies, obfuscates, stalls, outspends, and plays hide-the-ball during years of litigation, hoping that the plaintiff gives up or that some judge or appellate court will save the company (i.e., dismiss the case) before the case gets to a jury.]

Giving GM the benefit of the doubt, however,  it should be standard operating procedure to encourage employees to avoid negative comments about the products the company designs and manufactures. Common sense tells us not to bite the hand that feeds us. But the very use of words like “Hindenberg” and “apocalyptic” reveals the level of concern at GM during this time period.  Because it knew it had some problems; it knew it was making some low-quality and unsafe automobiles.  GM’s evasiveness, and hesitance to accept responsibility and be held accountable concerning the vehicles in question – which are/were obviously dangerously defective –  adds fuel to the fire.  Further, the following statement, reported in The Hill, implies that GM was at that time indeed engaging in subterfuge:  “GM spokesman Greg Martin said the company had changed its safety culture since the 2008 presentation, and is now encouraging employees to be more honest about defects.”

Any good business wants its employees to be factual and objective. Standard office communications should be professional and capable of bearing scrutiny when revealed to outside parties. That goes without saying. What we have seen here by GM, however, is nothing more than an attempt to halt potentially damaging information swirling through the offices of GM as employees became more concerned about the safety of the cars they were designing, manufacturing and marketing.  This goes well beyond the typical corporate presentation (or “spin”) on office communications protocol. And, presented against the backdrop of all we have learned about GM’s conduct thus far, this is just more evidence to support the concerns of NHTSA and the federal government about the culture at GM.  One big remaining question is this:  is GM the only company that has conducted itself in this manner?

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