By Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor
Loose 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.
~Mark Esposito. Weekend Contributor