- On May 27, 2015
A certain celebrity told a reporter from Fortune magazine that she was being mindful of her alignments. She wasn’t referring to her yoga poses. She was talking about her decision to get involved with a company that reflects her values and her lifestyle brand.
Corporate America loves the word align (the Fortune reporter even noted the celebrity had her business lingo down pat). Sometimes align is the right word, but more often it’s one of those terms that mask or mangle what you’re trying to say.
The first meaning of align is to arrange in a line—so, nothing to do with business. You might use it to describe the art on your walls, as in, “The pictures look best when their tops are aligned.” Align also means to support, ally with, or line up with, as in “The executives scrambled to draft a statement that he could read into the camera that would somehow align with his confusing explanations.” (That was a line from an article about beleaguered newsman Brian Williams.)
Align also can mean to adjust something—most typically, though, the parts of a mechanism—as in, “The mechanic aligned the wheels of my truck.”
Based on the following examples, businesspeople seem to use align to convey a fuzzy hybrid of adjusting, organizing, squaring, and supporting. There’s usually a clearer—and more accurate—way to express the thought.
- “I have every confidence she will help us maximize our opportunities as we align the portfolio around one Time Inc.”
Technically, you can’t align something around something. I think this executive meant organize, unify, or even bring together.
- “Every two weeks I share strategies and tools that will help you align with your unique skill.”
I asked this sentence’s author what she meant. She was combining two thoughts. First, she helps her clients identify their skill and then she makes sure what they’re saying about themselves aligns with (used correctly to mean support) that skill.
- “As we continue to align our business, we have a few updates to share with you about our new award travel levels.”
This came from American Airlines when it was merging with US Airways. It makes no sense because the airline needs to have something to align with. I would have started the sentence by saying, “As we continue to merge our two companies…”.
- “As we’ve aligned the product’s cost structure with business realities, staffing levels in certain areas have changed, leading to some job eliminations.”
I think this executive is saying the product was costing more than it was bringing in, and the company had to fire people.
It seems that align is often “corporate code” for layoffs. When he had to dismiss 18,000 people, Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, wrote in a companywide email, “The first step to building the right organization for our ambitions is to realign our work force.”
Last week I got an email from someone who mistakenly used align instead of good old agree. “We aligned at last week’s meeting that we would strive to use common language,” he wrote, which makes no sense.
You never can go wrong, however, when you apply align to the stars, as New York Times reporter Matthew Schneier did in “Celebrity Encounters at the Fashion Shows,” a humorous musing on the number of boldface names in front-row seats during New York Fashion Week.
“A spokeswoman for Rag & Bone,” Schneier wrote, “confirmed that no compensation was offered to those who braved the cold to sit front-row. Sometimes, the stars just align.”