GM Speak

By Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor

gmrecallLoose lips sink ships and auto manufacturers, too, it seems. Lost amid much of the commotion on Friday surrounding GM’s agreement to pay the largest possible fine ($35 million) for failing to recall defective ignition switches in its Cobalt car line which are linked to 13 deaths already, was a 2008 presentation GM made to its employees.  Made during the public bailout of GM by American taxpayers, the presentation obviously was designed to thwart plaintiff’s discovery in similar product liability law suits. The mandatory video outlaws certain words from GM’s internal correspondence which are routinely used to demonstrate exactly what the auto giant knew and when it knew it in court. These internal memos are crucial to determining  the then prevailing sentiment about auto safety issues by the people who knew it best — the engineers and scientists who design and test the cars.

Burned already by damaging emails, GM directed its employees to refrain from words like, “Hindenburg,” “powder keg,” “Titanic,” “apocalyptic,” “You’re toast,” and “Kevorkianesque.” They weren’t too keen on certain phrases either, like “This is a lawsuit waiting to happen,” and “Unbelievable engineering screw-up.” The masters at GM found such language to be “examples of comments that do not help identify and solve problems.”

Worry not about your safety, of course, because GM also reminded its employees that  “… there really aren’t any secrets in this company”.  It’s just that words like this (conveying the truthful sentiments of the people who design, build, and engineer these cars) are really “vague and non-descriptive”  accounts. GM does have some recommendations for its workers though.  First, “(f)or anything you say or do, ask yourself how you would react if it was reported in a major newspaper or on television.”

Second, use words that convey no judgments at all. You know like automatons do. Don’t say the windshield wipers abruptly stop  in a rainstorm as you’re cruising 70 miles an hour on the interstate. Rather just give ’em the Joe Friday version, “Windshield wipers did not work properly. Would run for 3-4 seconds and then quit for the next 7-8 minutes… repeatedly.” That’s accurate, you know — and conveys not one iota of useful information for drivers.

Finally, dear employees (and users of our vehicles, too), do not mention inflammatory words like “safety,” or “defect.” Rather for “safety” use the more lawyerly … er, accurate, ” “Has potential safety implications.” For defect use the litigation-safe … er, more truthful “Does not perform to design.” As for the greatest taboo of all, that pesky word “Problem,” no,no, no the new paradigm is  “Issue, [or]condition, [or just simply] matter.”

From personal experience, I can attest that the rules for speech contained in this presentation are already S.O.P. in many American corporations seeking to sanitize its internal correspondence and thereby insulate it from discovery by lawyers representing consumers in product safety lawsuits. Policies like this obviously hide the truth, but they also have another invidious consequence — co-opting honest scientists, engineers, and other auto workers into lying or obfuscating  to defend the company. Words like those suggested by GM take the cutting edge off the truth and jeopardize the public’s safety and right to know. They also undermine the single most important factor in getting at the truth in product liability lawsuits — an insider with proof of knowledge of the defects.

There is certainly a valid concern that hyperbole and off-the-cuff remarks in an email might be misconstrued, but GM has legions of lawyers to present its version of the truth and thus to check that kind of misinterpretation. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Acting Administrator David Friedman criticized GM for  cowling its employees saying telling employees to avoid certain language when writing about safety issues was discouraging open and free discussion of potential problems.

Not so said GM. “We encourage employees to be factual in their statements and will continue to work with NHTSA to improve our safety processes,” GM said in a written statement responding to questions about the presentation. “Today’s GM encourages employees to discuss safety issues, which is re-enforced through GM’s recently announced Speak Up for Safety Program.”

“Speak Up for Safety”? Somewhere, that little bit of doublespeak surely made George Orwell smile.

Source: CNN

~Mark Esposito. Weekend Contributor


40 thoughts on “GM Speak”

  1. RCampbell, What should have happened was to allow them to reorganize under bankruptcy protection, like other companies do all the time. The bailout of Chrysler was even more wrong. I can’t believe we have people here who hate corporations abiding these bailouts. Lets see, they hate large corporations but love unions. Ahhh, that can’t be it, Nahh.

  2. Good response Rcampbell. The bankruptcy that Mitt wanted would have not only impacted the bond holders, it would have decimated entire towns. Same thing with the closing of dealerships. In a bankruptcy all of these issues would have been involved.
    I have no problem with going after the top corporate officers, but the President doesn’t make corporate decisions, but you know that. If one takes your comment to heart then George W. should be in chains for bailing out the banks.

    1. rafflaw – it is not the bailing out that is the problem, it is the problem of the recall which occurred under Government Motors. I don’t think Bush should have bailed out the banks. I remember when the S&Ls failed. The government didn’t jump in to save them.

  3. The UAW most certainly was not the only winner in the bailout. The bond holders were doomed regardless of what action was or was not taken. By the suggestion of some here, the government should have let GM fall. That wouldn’t have saved the bond holders and would have hurt everyone else as well. Everyone took a haircut, the unions, management, banks, etc.

    What was saved were tens of thousands of jobs in communities all over the country. What was saved were those workers’ (both blue and white collar) homes and the businesses in their communities that relied on their continued employment. What was also saved was the supply chain that services the auto industry not just for GM and not just in Detroit. Ford, Toyota and every other company that makes cars are intertwined into the supply chain for glass and wiring and engine parts, etc. Had GM, the largest buyer of car parts and supplies, disappeared, so would many of the companies that supplied them and everyone else. That would have closed more automakers, cost more jobs, more homes lost, more welfare, more food stamps, more pain, more misery and a longer recovery.

  4. Nice job Mark. It amazes me that since GM is a person now, that no one is being held criminally responsible. Much like the banksters.

    1. rafflaw – supposedly Holder has a hit list of people he is willing to charge after the mid-terms. Although I would think that if he goes after Government Motors, he would have to go all the way to the top, Barack Obama.

    1. Keebler – that’s what happens when the government runs something.

  5. Bruce – thanks for reminding me of the closed dealerships. Yes, Obama closed dealerships that were profitable. Of course, we all know know that Obama knows little or nothing about business and that he has no one on his immediate staff who knows anything about business, so we should not have been surprised.

  6. Those famous words keep ringing in my ears Bin Laden’s dead and GM’s alive. He failed to mention that GM bond holders lost everything and that dealerships were closed all over the country. The only thing saved was the U.A.W. The administration should have let them sink

  7. If you buy one of their products new, you are bailing them out. When bailing, one must pour the water over board. In America, when we bail out a company like GM we fail to pour the water over board. Therefore, the repeat analogy of the sinking ship. They need to name a new car line the Loosetania. GM=GotMoney.

  8. The free discussions and autonomy of scientists have been under attack for some time now. And, it’s about money. Corporations and govt. get the science they pay for, scientific method and integrity be damned. We bailed these b@stards out and lost millions doing it. That was about union jobs and politics.

  9. The absolute cooperation between the German and Japanese car manufacturers, their Unions and management, is the best model for building a reliable safe and quality product. In the US the main goal is Profit and that comes at the expense of Quality, Safety and Employees. GM tells their Employees to keep their mouth shut and still has to shell out 35 million in fines for building an unsafe product that has killed people. The Germans build a car that the employees can speak up about if they think something unsafe. They build a car the worker and the manager have agreed is safe. They go together hand in hand to defend the products they build. Either way it matters not to GM they will just take the mistake executives made out of the employees salaries and pensions not out of an Executive bonus.

  10. When making an auto purchase decision, there is a choice, I choose not to buy GM products for a number of reasons.

  11. And, like all good “bidnizz” leaders GM’s bosses made sure that there was a record of what the company was doing!! Fool proof … what a bunch of idiots. Remind me, why do we let them stay in business?

  12. Corporate America knows that it can avoid any responsibility for its bad acts as long as it can avoid discovery by plaintiffs’ lawyers. That is why it works hard to change discovery rules to narrow and narrow the field, make it more and more expensive to do discovery, limit the kinds of cases that can be brought and attack the entire idea that corporations can and should be sued when they damage humans. They destroy evidence and hide it and now we have proof that they avoid creating it by telling their employess what not to say. We already knew that they avoid doing research to see if their products are dangerous and that they shroud their dangerous designs and ingredients in claims of proprietary material. I would not be surprised to find evidence that tells employees that bad news should only be given verbally with no record kept and that assignments that might lead to discoverable evidence are given out on self destroying media like Mission Impossible.

    Corporations are out of control because the courts have allowed it and the agencies meant to regulate them have allowed it. Until CEOs start going to jail for this kind of behavior nothing will change. The Current CEO of GM from all reports knew about this problem whe she appeared before congress but she lied. GM knew about these problems when they got bailed out and went through bankruptcy but they lied. If CEOs were baseball players, they would be prosecuted for lying to congress but they are CEOs.

  13. “Unsafe at any speed” was the theme of my youth. Fifty years had seen change. Now it’s worse.

  14. Chomsky commenting on comments of conservative Adam Smith:

    One of the most important comments on deceit, I think, was made by Adam Smith. He pointed out that a major goal of business is to deceive and oppress the public.

    And one of the striking features of the modern period is the institutionalization of that process, so that we now have huge industries deceiving the public — and they’re very conscious about it, the public relations industry. Interestingly, this developed in the freest countries—in Britain and the US — roughly around time of WWI, when it was recognized that enough freedom had been won that people could no longer be controlled by force. So modes of deception and manipulation had to be developed in order to keep them under control”

    (link in my prior comment). When government and business lie to the people, the people eventually become liars too.

    Lying is not good leadership.

  15. Good article Mark

    I thought of the same concern the NHTSA official expressed with these cleansed statements not conveying the gravity of issues. The noun “product defect” can mean anything as inoculous as something not meeting a standard such as a weight or color match, but a safety defect is clear.

    It never seems to end with the corporate gobbledygook. It doesn’t seem to convey sincerety or truth, just spin and an opportunity to self congratulate the company

    “We encourage employees to be factual in their statements and will continue to work with NHTSA to improve our safety processes. Today’s GM encourages employees to discuss safety issues, which is re-enforced through GM’s recently announced Speak Up for Safety Program.”

    Seems like many of these PR folks interned at Radio Moscow.

  16. hmmmm, after continuing to ignore the ignition switch problems for years, the most accurate statements would include “Problem!”, “Titanic Problem!!”, “This is a lawsuit waiting to happen!!!”.

  17. Our culture is known for its dishonesty (It Takes A Culture To Raise A Compulsive Liar) at home and abroad.

    This was acknowledged by the Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in the case cited in that post.

    There are grave dangers, “13 deaths already” pointed out by Mark E in this post, with such a cultural characteristic.

    The most dangerous is that eventually no-one trusts anyone else and then there is no way to address and fix the problems.

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