Throw Out HR Terminology


August 10, 2013

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

The language we use when describing people, situations, and things is important.  I remember growing up and being told that sticks and stones could break my bones but names can never hurt me.  But, we all know that is not true.  Words hold meaning for people and sometimes that meaning is negative.  Other times it is ambiguous.  I’ve been thinking about this lately as I’m watching how the terminology we use in human resources can help or hinder the activities that we are responsible for.

Take the word engagement, for example.  Engagement from an employee standpoint is confusing.  It can have a vastly different meaning for each employee in an organization.  Some do not even know what it means.  But, when we pair that word with the word survey, we expect that employees will understand that leaders want to know how connected the employee is to the organization.  Since words do have an effect on perceptions though, I’ve started to think of other more clear words to describe what I’m looking for.  If you tell an employee that the employee engagement survey is designed to be a performance review they give the organization, they “get” it.

So, what do we do knowing that?  Throw it out when talking to employees.  We could also get rid of “total rewards” and probably several others.  Save those words for talking with other HR pros.

No matter what profession you work in, there will always be terms that flow from your lips easily that other people do not understand.  Be mindful of this.  If you really care about people understanding what you’re trying to tell them or what you’re trying to accomplish, be clear and use more general terms and phrases they can relate to.  After all, it’s about getting people to do what you need them to do or to understand what you need them to understand.  Don’t let your words be your barrier.


  • Trish – funny and so true. AND – HR like any other profession, avocation, sport or focus area has its a lingo, culture, poetry, mojo that is unique to the practioners – excellent advice to make what HR people do “real” and use people and business speak!

  • I’d like to nominate the word “Authentic” for the list.How can one be more or less authentic?

  • Trish, a very good article. Since you have broached the topic of internal communication, I’d like to extend the conversation out to another communication, of a more external nature: the job description. The thing that always jumps out at me is the dismal way I see job descriptions written. All too often they are lacking proper contact info, well-written job titles which are essential for a proper search (especially on job boards and Internet browsers), riddled with typos, and written in a “you must have these 10 qualifications” fashion rather than in a “let us explain why you want to work here” style. I have also seen companies use their internal job posting format for external job publication.
    I know of one Fortune 500 right in my own backyard that does at least one of these transgressions regularly. I didn’t realize that about this organization until a friend of mine attempted to apply for a job with this company and asked for my assistance in deciphering the job posting. It took two people with a combined 30 years of experience over 30 minutes to guesstimate at what the company was attempting to state in the posting. I’m not really sure I understand the modus operandi behind this, but am curious to know what other people’s thoughts are around this.

  • Lingo used amongst professionals can blur what you are trying to say to anyone who is not in the same world as you. After all, I will not speak of musical terminology to a layperson when it comes to speaking of one of my songs or my band’s latest gig (5 Sept 2010 @ Hurricane’s in Collinsville, IL 9 PM), nor is it productive to try and speak over a client’s head when I am talking hair. Just say what needs to be said in a clear, precise, and simple manner and everyone will get it and be happy.

    Sometimes, a person not in the loop when you speak in pro-only lingo will actually think you are speaking double-dutch and are really trying to talk down to them. Pro-only speak can (and has been) use(d) to try and blow off a person who has too many questions. Pro-only speak can be used when the professional in question really doesn’t know what they are speaking about. Most employees are savvy enough to figure this out.

    Simple and concise linguistics can be spoken in a non-condescending or patronising way. Save the pro-speak for fellow pros.

    Spot on, again, Trish!!!!

  • Good points but I would like to add look not only at the terminology but look at writing styles and levels. When I first got out of grad school and into the real world, the policies, notices etc I was writing was at the level I had been doing for class work..aimed at professors and other grad students. In most organizations, that will not be your audience. If you don’t adapt to your intended readers, they will be lost, confused and dare I say, disengaged.

    Thanks for the reminder Trish.

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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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