All employers occasionally must deliver bad news to their employees, but few bad news situations can compete with the delicate task of announcing layoffs. In an electronic age, when layoff notices delivered via email are quickly leaked to outsiders, CEOs must take into account not only the employees who will be affected by the layoffs, but also the reporters, bloggers, and stock analysts who will undoubtedly see the emails. In an attempt to please these multiple audiences, employers—like the three CEOs who wrote the memos that are the focus of this column—often downplay the negative news or sandwich it between hopeful predictions about the future. While this strategy may mitigate the short-term effects of announcing bad news, it can also backfire, angering employees who feel they have been deceived.
A multi-pronged approach to studying these memos (and others like them) can reveal a multitude of rhetorical features that will be useful to academics and practitioners alike. In this article, I discuss and apply close textual analysis (CTA) to the three corporate layoff memos, focusing particularly on the use of euphemism to mask bad news messages.
Close textual analysis: A brief overview
Close textual analysis as a method of rhetorical criticism, advocated by scholars such as Michael Leff (1986, 1988) and Stephen E. Lucas (1988, 1990), asserts that a “close reading” of a text can “reveal and explicate the precise, often hidden, mechanisms that give a particular text ... rhetorical effect” (Burgchardt, 2005, p. 563). Employing this method can make explicit how a text can affect its audience in particular ways. Proponents of close textual analysis suggest that its power lies in its simplicity, which nonetheless leads to important insights. As Jacinski explains, “Close readers linger over words, verbal images, elements of style, sentences, argument patterns, and entire paragraphs and larger discursive units within the text to explore their significance on multiple levels” (2001, p. 93).
Close textual analysis is an ideal method for novice rhetoricians because it does not require a complex theoretical grounding; the analysis begins tabula rosa—with the textual artifact itself. CTA keeps the text at the center of the analysis and rewards critics who return to the text again and again, “slow[ing] down the action within the text” through multiple careful readings (Lucas, 1988, p. 249). Furthermore, CTA can be a particularly useful method for studying short texts—such as these layoff memos—because their length allows us to conduct a “microscopic” (Lucas, 1990; Slagell, 1991) reading of the text, enabling critics and writers alike to see rhetoric at work in business communication.
Possible avenues for analysis
When applied to the layoff memos in this column, close textual analysis suggests several potential avenues for rhetorical investigation. For example:
• A careful study of pronoun use by the three authors reveals striking differences...