A Death Knell For “Knowledge Workers”?

A short time ago, The Wall Street Journal published a list of the 10 most deadly management euphemisms currently in [...]

March 1 1996 by Joe Queenan


A short time ago, The Wall Street Journal published a list of the 10 most deadly management euphemisms currently in use. These included the dreaded terms “paradigm shift,” “statement of mission,” “value-added,” and “knowledge worker,” but also included several less ubiquitous-yet banal-expressions such as “change agent,” “continuous learning,” and “helicoptering.” The article noted that these buzzwords would not go away, no matter how much people mocked them, because of the pressure on gurus to manufacture new catch phrases to sell their daft books. This suggests we are condemned to spending the rest of our lives being baffled and annoyed by such cretinous neologisms as “horizontal interfacing,” “vertical plateauing,” and “post-modern symbolic analyst.”

But every action ultimately engenders an equal counter reaction, and this already is the case in management science. In the past few months, a movement to de-jargonize the lingua franca of the business community has begun to spread across the nation. In Seattle, senior management officials at a software firm are being sent to de-sensitivity training sessions, where they are effectively deprogrammed to stop using terms such as “paradigm shift.” And in Dallas, a major petrochemical plant established a strict disciplinary system that publicly reprimands and severely fines anyone caught using expressions such as “user interface” and “prioritize” in official communications.

Clearly, something is afoot in management science, as more and more companies attempt to arrest neologistic banality in the corridors of power. How are they doing this? By seizing control of the English language from the hands of the gurus, prophets, and seers, and instructing employees to stop talking as if they were characters in a Tom Clancy novel.

The driving force behind the movement to purge numb skulled business euphemisms is Jack Armbrister, author of “If They Don’t Want to Work, Fire ‘Em.” Armbrister, who has spent most of his life in the dunning business, thinks management is most effective when it speaks a language stripped of all nuance, verbal felicity, and subtlety. For example, Armbrister suggests that companies stop calling employees who spend all their time fiddling around with computers “Knowledge workers.”

“Call ‘em typists, ’cause that’s what they are,” he says. “Pay ‘em 50 cents more an hour if it’ll make ‘em feel better, but let’s stop pretending that somebody who sits in front of a computer screen all day typing on a keyboard is a ‘knowledge worker.’ If he had any real knowledge, he wouldn’t have to do that kind of work.”

Similarly, Armbrister takes exception to corporate mission statements, in which trendy companies publicly commit themselves to a panoply of social, moral, and/or ecological objectives that often have little to do with their stated businesses.

“Here’s the only statement of mission any company ever needs,” says Armbrister, holding up a large placard. It reads: “We want your money, and we want all of it. We really hope things work out in the Rain Forest, but whether things work out or not, we still want your money.”

To facilitate the transition from the Dark Ages of Banality when managers are still hamstrung by concepts such as “post-heroic leadership,” Armbrister has enumerated his own list of buzzwords that can be used by senior managers to explain themselves. Here are a few examples:

  • Fire: Ask people to empty their desks and leave the premises at the earliest possible moment because they have been doing such a rotten job, everyone hates them, and their services are no longer required. Example: “Jim, you’re fired.”
  • Jerk: A rigorously technical term used to describe an employee who can’t or won’t do his or her job properly.

Example: “The next jerk to suggest that a precision-tools company needs a mission statement is getting the boot.”

  • Getting the boot: The ultimate expression of a subconscious desire to downsize a company. Example: “Elizabeth, in a paradigm shift that probably will surprise you, you’re getting the boot.”
  • Lazy bum: A knowledge worker who spends more time prioritizing his or her parameters than working. Example: “I used to think Bob was a value-added change agent committed to continuous learning, but now I realize he’s just a lazy bum.”
  • Shut up: A useful term for quelling mutinies at all levels of a corporation. Example: “I tried to tell Harry his company was in bad need of a fundamental paradigm shift, but he told me to shut up.”

And not a moment too soon.


Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.