DETROIT – What do the words “safety,” ”chaotic” and “problem” have in common?
They’re all on General Motors’ list of banned words for employees who were documenting potential safety issues.
The revelation of the 68-word list is one of the odder twists in GM’s ongoing recall of 2.6 million older-model small cars for defective ignition switches.
On Friday, the U.S. government slapped GM with a $35 million fine for failing to report the deadly defect for more than a decade. The government also released a 2008 GM training document that includes the list and warns employees to stick to the facts and not use language that could hurt the company down the road.
The word “defect,” for example, “can be regarded as a legal admission” and should be avoided, the company document says.
Adjectives like “bad,” ”terrifying,” ”dangerous,” ”horrific” and “evil” are on the list. So are unflattering terms like “deathtrap,” ”widow-maker” and “Hindenburg.” Even seemingly benign words like “always” and “never” made it on the list.
From there, it veers into the extraordinary. “Kevorkianesque” — as in the late assisted-suicide activist Jack Kevorkian — and “Corvair-like” — a reference to the GM car once called “unsafe at any speed” by Ralph Nader — are on it; so is “apocalyptic,” ”grisly” and “rolling sarcophagus.” Phrases like “unbelievable engineering screw-up” and “potentially disfiguring” were also discouraged.
GM said flowery language simply wasn’t helpful in getting to the root of a problem. Saying “This is a lawsuit waiting to happen,” for example, isn’t as useful as saying, “Windshield wipers did not work properly.” But it also warned that language could be misinterpreted later by someone outside the company. Employees were asked to think how they would feel if something they were writing was reported in a major newspaper.
David Friedman, the acting chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said Friday that the materials were part of a larger problem at GM, where engineers were reluctant to send documents with words like “defect” up the chain of command.
“The fact that GM took so long to report this defect says there was something very wrong with the company’s values,” he said.
GM said Friday that employees are now encouraged to discuss safety issues.
“We encourage employees to be factual in their statements and will continue to work with NHTSA to improve our safety processes,” the company said in a statement.
But Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the non-profit Center for Auto Safety, said what GM did isn’t unusual. Automakers are required by federal law to report safety defects to the government within five days of discovering them, so they’re careful not to use language that will trigger that law.
“The D-word — ‘defect’ — is banned in any auto company. GM just confirms it,” Ditlow said.